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Dumb question about marinades for meat

Why do most marinades contain some type of oil?

If I understand correctly, marinades are intended to either tenderize or enhance flavor, or both, right?

That's why marinades are usually acid based, or use alcohol, in addition to herbs, spices and other seasonings.

But why do most marinadess contain oil? What does oil, usu. EVOO, add to the equation?

I've heard that oil (or things like milk) add moisture. Is that really true? How does soaking in oil add moisture? Wouldn't brining be a better way of making a tough piece of meat more juicy?

I'm not slamming the idea of using oil in marinades -- as I sometimes do it myself almost reflexively without giving it a second thought -- but I want to know why.

Am I doing it out of foolish habit, or out of necessity?

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  1. Just my opinion with food science backing...

    My belief is marinades are used for flavor. I think the tenderizing angle is more of a cooking myth. Seems like the oil is another hold over of the myth. However, oil in the marinade seems to help when grilling.

    1 Reply
    1. re: dave_c

      Yes, I agree oil helps when grilling.

      But why soak the meat in the oil? It would be easier, and probably more efficient, to either just oil the grill grate or the meat before grilling, right?

    2. Great question! I've just looked at Raichlen's Sauces Rubs and Marinades and his rationale for the oil (or other fat) is that a.) it keeps the grilled meat from drying out and b.) it seals in flavor. Granted, this is referring to grilled foods (and not all marinades are for grilled foods). Additionally, a cursory glance at the recipes show that many of them do NOT have oil or some other fat as an ingredient.

      15 Replies
      1. re: nofunlatte

        Seals in flavor?

        Do you really believe that nofunlatte?

        And, yes, no doubt many marinades have no oil, but just as many (or more) do.

        1. re: ipsedixit

          Didn't say anything about my own beliefs, ipse--just paraphrasing Raichlen (who isn't a food scientist, at least as far as I know!) I don't really think it "seals in" flavor, as much as adds flavor (fat being a flavor carrier).

          Checked Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking (1997 printing) and there's nothing about oil in marinades, just the tenderizing effects of acids such as wine or vinegar. Maybe the newer edition has something.

          1. re: nofunlatte

            And my understanding is that dairy products tenderize too. Hence, the yogurt in Indian marinades.

            Certain fruits tenderize but not because of acid, but based on enzymes. Papaya, for example. I once made the mistake of subbing fresh pineapple puree for canned pineapple juice when making a Korean marinade. 5 hours later, the meat (short ribs) was dissolved into a paste.

            1. re: sbp

              Beef surimi! Yum! You should patent that method. :-)

              1. re: dave_c

                Yeah, I invented molecular gastronomy before Ferran Adria, except my Korean Beef Paste sucked.

          2. re: ipsedixit

            In ref to grilling and more armchair food sciencing, I wonder if oils cling to the surface of foods, like Gulf oil on a pelican (J/K), better than juices or water-based ingredients. This may lead to all the flavorful bits to remain on the meat while juice (mostly water) would evaporate off.

            Also, boiling point of water is around 212F while oils can take much higher heats which may lead to better browning which gives the impression of sealing in the flavors.

            I've never tried a side-by-side of marinades with and without, but it would be interesting to try.

            1. re: dave_c

              I also bet that a lot of the flavors from spices, garlic, etc. are oil-soluble and get spread about the meat more freely.

              1. re: TongoRad

                TongoRad,

                What does "oil-soluble" mean?

                I don't see how the addition of oil will allow the spices to spreak more freely in/around the meat.

                If I have a marinade of salt, pepper, garlic, etc. and some vinegar, and mix it thoroughly and then immerse the meat in that solution (with a ziplock bag), I would imagine that the "spices" would easily get incorporated around the meat without the presence of oil.

                      1. re: monku

                        Nah- if I was just salting meat I wouldn't use oil, at least not for that purpose. Etc. meant 'herbs' in my mind when I was typing that.

                        Some spices have water soluble elements, some have oil soluble, and I'd guess that some have both- meaning that whatever liquid medium you are using gets well-infused with that quality. It's definitely a principle you use when cooking (especially in Indian cooking); I am just speculating that this could play a part in a marinade as well, if not as a primary purpose, then as a secondary one.

                      2. re: dave_c

                        I consider salt a "spice".

                        Yes, I know minerologically speaking, salt is a mineral and not a "spice" per Harold McGee.

                        But then I also consider tomato a vegetable, even though botanically it's a fruit.

                      3. re: monku

                        Which means it's added to the oil in a skillet before you throw the (fill in the blank) in.

                    1. re: dave_c

                      Browning might actually be an interesting point.

                      Although when I grill I usually like to have carmelization (not "browning" per se), which is why I make sure to have some sugar in my marinade or glaze.

                      Interesting nonetheless.

                1. Personally I think oil in a marinade is like pouring oil into the water for cooking pasta. *wink*

                  1. I've pondered this too many many times...I come up with the possibility that the oil softens the effects of the whatever acid you are using, be it vinegar, citrus, etc. Otherwise, I suspect the marinade would be too harsh. I mean, consider salad dressings...why do we add oil...? Doesn't really add THAT much flavor...right? Mouthfeel or umami, yeah, the oil adds that in a salad dressing. But it serves to soften the acid, whichever one you are using, perhaps??? Just throwing out my thoughts here...glad the question has been posed, ipsedixit....we'll get to the bottom of this!!!
                    Also, would Alton Brown have an answer? Bet he's done a few shows on marinades.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Val

                      I add oil in salad dressings for the mouthfeel (the fat contrasts well with the crispness and crunch of the veggies -- some would say it is almost necessary).

                      I don't need oil in salad dressing to soften the acids. I'm more often than not content to just have pickled veggies (e.g. pickles, pickled ginger, kimchi, pickled radishes) -- in fact, I love veggies with just an acid base.

                    2. I can see using some oil in the marinade to keep the meat moist and prevent sticking when cooking. Maybe high fat content meat like chicken thighs or pork butt wouldn't require an oil base marinade.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: monku

                        I agree, monku. I think an acid only based marinade on lean meats like chicken breasts and pork tenderloin & seafood would tend to make the meats break down faster. Oil helps to deter that to some degree. And does provide moisture while cooking over high heat.