Basic chemistry

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Easy-to-make marinades tenderize, boost flavor

By Greg Summers

Marinades have an unspoken mystique about them.

These contrived secret blends miraculously change poultry, seafood, meats and vegetables from bland to bursting with taste.

Using marinades has been around for hundreds of years, says food writer and cookbook author Peggy Trowbridge Filippone. 

Marinades date back to pre-Columbian Mexico when cooks wrapped meats in papaya leaves to make them more tender, she writes in her blog on about.com.

These days, there are many simple flavor-infusing liquids to choose from.

While they contain herbs, spices, condiments and oils, most marinades include an acid in the form of citrus juice, wine, vinegar or dairy (yogurt). Adding sugar-based ingredients to marinades can caramelize meats, adding a crisp, eye-appealing sheen. 

But just how does it work?

It’s a basic scientific chemical reaction. Filippone says certain plant and fungi enzymes and acids have the ability to break down the muscle and proteins in meats.

That means that any connective tissue that comes in direct contact with these protein-digesting enzymes get broken down.

While marinades serve as tenderizers for tougher cuts of meat, they reduce the capability of meats to hold their juices, which results in fluid loss and drier meat. Marinades, Filippone writes, are heat activated at temperatures between 140 and 175 degrees and deactivated at temperatures higher than boiling point.

It’s important to remember that marinades will only penetrate the outer portion of meats, which is fine for grilling, which calls for smaller pieces.

Rather than buying a marinade, why not try to make your own? Think of it as a salad dressing for meat.

The key is balancing the flavors with an almost equal amount of oil and acid, based on your own tastes. You can start with a combination of balsamic vinegar and olive oil with a touch of dry mustard for flavor. Then add  herbs and aromatics for a little punch.

The Grilled Chicken Breasts recipe, below,  does just that. What the name lacks is made up in flavor.

When my mother-in-law, Barbara Harrington, requested grilled chicken for lunch on Mother’s Day, I jumped at the chance to try out this recipe. 

She also gave it the coveted “Bobo (that’s what her grandchildren call her) Seal of Approval,” which means she expects to see it again. The marinade for  Lemon Sherry Chicken is also easy to prepare.

Marinating tips

– Make sure to refrigerate meats that you are marinating to avoid the growth of harmful bacterias. However, let the meat come to room temperature before cooking.

– Marinating only works through direct contact that allows the chemical reaction to occur. Regardless of thickness or size, never puncture meat that you are marinating. It will result in uneven cooking and makes it dry out even more when cooking.

– Place the meat and marinade in a heavy-duty, zip-top bag with all the air squeezed out. Turn the bag often so that all sides of the meat benefit from  the marinade. Using a bag makes the clean-up, easy too.   

– Marinades for chicken need a generous amount of oil to keep the chicken moist.

– Marinating meats six to eight hours gives the greatest amount of flavoring and moistening benefits.

– When preparing acid-based marinades, only use glass, ceramic or stainless steel containers, never aluminum. The chemical reaction can give the food an unattractive color, a metallic taste and stain the aluminum container.  

– If basting with a liquid in which raw meat was marinated, don’t apply it during the last three minutes of grilling.

Grilled Chicken Breasts


6 boneless skinless chicken breasts

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup balsamic vinegar

5 teaspoons sugar

5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) ketchup

11/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 green onion, minced

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 drops hot pepper sauce


– Wash chicken breasts and pat dry with a paper towel. Place chicken in a plastic zipper bag. Combine remaining ingredients and pour over chicken. Refrigerate for 4 to 24 hours, turning bag occasionally.

– Preheat grill to medium heat. If using a charcoal grill, shift coals to one side.

– Remove chicken from bag and discard marinade. Place chicken on rack directly over coals; grill 1 to 2 minutes on each side to sear. Move chicken to cooler area of the grill (not over coals). Cover grill and cook 8 to 10 minutes, until chicken is cooked through, but still moist.

– Recipe from BetterRecipes.com

Lemon Sherry Chicken


4 boneless skinless chicken breasts

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/3 cup cooking sherry

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon lemon zest

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/3 cup fresh chopped onion

1 teaspoon dried rosemary

1/4 teaspoon black pepper


– Wash chicken breasts and pat dry with paper towel. Place chicken in a large, plastic zipper bag.

– Pour the marinade into the bag, remove air and zip shut. Refrigerate for 4 to 24 hours, turning bag occasionally.

– Broil or grill chicken until done (5 to 7 minutes on each side), basting with marinade and serve.

– Recipe by Gregory A. Summers, inspired by www.dlife.com