The Science of Yogurt Marinades


[Photographs and Graphics: Nik Sharma]

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A number of years in the past, I went on a radio present and the host requested me about marinating meat in a single day. I admitted that I certainly left meat to marinate in a single day, with the caveat that it trusted the kind of marinade and the kind of protein. Tossing a bag of meat with a marinade into the fridge the night time earlier than is handy, however there’s a powerful chance that the floor of the meat will flip mushy as a result of acids within the marinade. That is why the final consensus is to keep away from marinating meat for prolonged durations of time. However I’ve by no means been satisfied that this rule applies to all acids in all marinades. In any case, we are likely to marinate fish, poultry, pork, lamb, and beef in several methods, so why shouldn’t we take into consideration acids in marinades with comparable nuance?

Generalizations make it simpler to recollect necessary guidelines within the kitchen, however they usually run the danger of letting important particulars slide. Take into account the best way we frequently consider acids within the kitchen. We’re taught to recollect just a few fundamental properties: they style bitter, they’ve a low pH, they react with baking soda, and so they denature proteins. However totally different cooking acids possess totally different properties and, consequently, behave fairly in another way from each other. After I was researching and writing my new cookbook, The Flavor Equation, I discovered how these variations in habits will be utilized to nice impact in our kitchens. For instance, citric acid is much more efficient at extracting pectin from potatoes when in comparison with different acids.

In some Indian cookbooks and recipes for yogurt-marinated meals, you would possibly discover this element within the directions: “marinate the meat for four to six hours, ideally in a single day.” After I marinate beef, hen, or lamb at house with yogurt-based marinades, I usually marinate them in a single day within the fridge and I’ve by no means observed any mushy textures or loss in high quality, working counter to traditional knowledge. The truth is, I discover that more durable cuts of meat, particularly beef and lamb, change into totally tender throughout cooking somewhat faster than if I marinated them for a shorter time in the identical marinade.

In addition to my experiences within the kitchen, I additionally knew from my previous work as a molecular biologist that the varied properties of acids are capitalized on in labs. When getting ready tissue samples for microscopes and marking with varied dyes, we frequently used differing kinds and mixtures of acids to arrange our samples, and this performed an necessary function within the high quality of staining. Based mostly on these observations, I assumed there was a fairly good likelihood that utilizing totally different acids in marinades would produce totally different outcomes, so I performed just a few simple experiments in my kitchen to see whether or not and simply how a lot altering the acid kind would possibly change the feel and taste of marinated meats.

The Position of Acids in Marinades

Marinated lamb in bottom of dutch oven

Within the kitchen most of us work with three widespread acids—vinegar, which comprises acetic acid produced by fermentation of sugars; citric acid, which comes from citrus fruit like lemons and limes; and lactic acid, which is produced by the fermentation of sugars (comparable to lactose in milk) by lactic acid–consuming micro organism. These three acids share properties widespread to all acids—the sourness, the low pH, and the flexibility to denature proteins—however their chemical buildings are drastically totally different. As well as, of the three, acetic acid is the one one which animal cells can’t synthesize on their very own: throughout anaerobic respiration, muscle tissues produce lactic acid, and citric acid is produced contained in the mitochondrion (the power home of the cell) throughout metabolism.

Since cells can produce sure acids, it’s not shocking that they’ve developed to develop mechanisms to take care of the harsher results of these acids. Cells are made up of many various molecules, together with proteins, and they need to be capable of defend themselves every day from acids of their surroundings as a result of, if left unchecked, these acids can unleash havoc on the cells’ construction and features. Particular proteins known as transporter proteins assist shuttle and transfer acids like citric and lactic acid inside cells to keep up the pH stability and equilibrium. (Whereas underneath regular circumstances, acetic acid isn’t produced or synthesized by animals, there are some transporter proteins that it could actually work together with.)

Based mostly on this information, it could make sense that lactic acid would have the mildest impact on proteins in meat, since muscle tissues should usually regulate the quantity of lactic acid they comprise; acetic acid would have the harshest impact on proteins in meat, as a result of muscle tissues haven’t developed strong mechanisms to take care of it; and citric acid’s impact on meat would fall someplace between these two extremes, since it’s current in cells in additional restricted portions. One other necessary level to say: contemporary meat would possibly come from lifeless animals, however the cells aren’t “lifeless”; they’re nonetheless biochemically lively, which implies the processes described above nonetheless happen.

The Fundamentals of Marinating Meat

Earlier than we get to the experiments, let’s go over a number of the fundamental science behind marinating meat and the way a marinade impacts texture and water content material.

A marinade is usually a water-based combination of assorted substances, every of which is supposed to enhance both the flavour or the feel (or each) of no matter is being marinated. However marinades additionally enhance the “juiciness” of cooked meat by encouraging the absorption of water, which is one other means of claiming a marinade can enhance meat’s water-holding capability, that’s, its capacity to bind water.

About 5% of the water in animal flesh is sure to proteins; the remaining 95% is held between the filaments that make up the muscle. The proteins and amino acids current in meat decide how a lot water it could actually take in throughout marination. For instance, the muscle protein myosin can bind a big amount of water as a result of it’s wealthy in aspartic and glutamic acids, amino acids which have molecules that may bind not less than 4 to seven molecules of water.

However a given piece of meat’s water-holding capability can be altered by elevating or decreasing it by way of chemical processes. The obvious instance of that is making use of warmth: Throughout cooking, a big amount of water is misplaced as proteins within the muscle—like collagen, myosin, and actin—shrink throughout denaturation and push water out, much like the best way water is launched from a squeezed sponge.

Listed here are two of the first methods marinades can alter a meat’s water-holding capability:

  • Desk salt (sodium chloride), along with seasoning the meat, can assist dissolve some meat proteins just like the muscle protein myosin, which may improve tenderness. Salts of phosphate can improve the quantity of water absorbed by hen breasts (that is true of desk salt as nicely, though to a lesser diploma).
  • Acids assist denature proteins by altering their form, which may, in helpful cases, tenderize the meat; as talked about above, this impact will be so pronounced as to make the meat mushy and unpalatable. When proteins change their form, amino acids that have been as soon as hidden is perhaps uncovered, and so they present new potentialities for water to work together and bind to the proteins in meat. How acids have an effect on protein additionally is determined by the kind of protein; for instance, acids additionally assist solubilize the collagen current in meat and in consequence collagen-rich meat will flip very tender.

Setting Up the Experiments

After I first began to design my experiments for this examine, I assumed I’d do a direct comparability of how meat fared when uncovered to marinades that incorporate three totally different sources of acid: yogurt, vinegar, and citrus juice. Nevertheless, the issue with all of these experimental setups was that together with yogurt made any comparability unreliable as a result of it’s too complicated: yogurts comprise so many various substances and substances in addition to acids, like fat, proteins, phosphates, and so on., all of which may have an effect on the meat. I wanted an easier experimental system, so I made a decision to check the consequences of pure cooking acids on meat.

For my later experiments, I ready options of the cooking acids (my concentrations have been based mostly on what they might be, on common, in several marinades) in distilled water. Since salt performs an important function in how a lot water is retained by proteins in meat and dissolves some muscle proteins, I additionally arrange a separate set of experiments the place the cooking acid options contained salt. The experiments have been primarily centered on measuring and evaluating the quantity of water absorbed and misplaced by meat that has been marinated and cooked. Some quantity of water loss is to be anticipated in every case since cooking (with warmth) inevitably causes water loss from proteins.

My total experimental arrange concerned taking items of skinless, boneless hen breast or boneless leg of lamb and marinating them in several marinades, with and with out salt. The burden of the meat was measured 3 times to find out the share improve or loss in weight: at the beginning, after marination (in a single day), and after cooking. The hen was cooked sous vide at 149°F (65°C) for 1 hour whereas the lamb was cooked at 165°F (74°C) for four hours. I used sous vide as a result of this technique supplies larger precision, the meat heats uniformly from all sides within the water tub, and it’s stored in an enclosed chamber, which successfully eliminates the consequences of evaporation.

Results of Completely different Acid-Based mostly Marinades on Meat

For the primary spherical of experiments utilizing yogurt marinades, I didn’t discover any statistically important variations between cooked hen marinated in simply yogurt in a single day and cooked hen that wasn’t. Including salt appeared to cut back the quantity of water misplaced after cooking in each yogurt-marinated and non-yogurt-marinated hen.

However, as I discussed earlier, it’s not that simple to make any sense of the outcomes when utilizing yogurt utilizing my simplistic experimental arrange, so within the subsequent spherical, I arrange two units of separate experiments, one utilizing boneless, skinless hen breasts and one other with the boneless leg of lamb. In every occasion, the meat was marinated in an answer of an acid (both lactic, citric, or acetic acids) with and with out salt in a single day within the fridge and cooked sous vide.

Results of Completely different Acid-Based mostly Marinades on Hen

In hen, I noticed some minor variations when it comes to the share improve in weight after marination and proportion loss in weight after cooking. However the one statistically important quantitative distinction I famous was between the teams marinated solely with lactic acid or acetic acid (in each circumstances, with no added salt)—the lactic acid therapy confirmed the bottom quantity of weight reduction after cooking.

Graph showing percentage increase in weight of chicken after marination

Nevertheless, I did observe a qualitative distinction, which needed to do with the cloudy precipitate of proteins that will accumulate within the trapped juices within the sous vide luggage because the hen cooked. That cloudy protein mass is much like one thing you’ve in all probability seen if you’ve (over)cooked meat or fish—an egg white-like substance caught on the floor. The mushy or pasty texture of some cooked, marinated meat is produced by the denaturation of floor proteins by the marinade, but in addition by that cloudy precipitate drying out and changing into caked to the floor. As a result of the meats cooked in these experiments have been contained in a sealed bag and stored at a decrease temperature, as an alternative of drying out, that precipitate seems like a cloudy gel within the bag.

Graph showing percentage loss in weight of marinated chicken after cooking

In my exams, the hen marinated with lactic acid didn’t produce a lot, if any, of this cloudy gel-like mass, however the hen that was marinated in both citric or acetic acid produced a big amount of that cloudy precipitate, and it was additionally very thick.

Side by side photos of chicken marinated with different acids then cooked, to show differences in texture

From left to proper: Cooked hen items that had been marinated in lactic, citric, and acetic acids.

The textures of the cooked hen breasts have been additionally fairly totally different: The hen marinated with lactic acid was way more tender and flaked like cooked fish when pressed with a fork or knife. The citric acid marinade produced a barely firmer texture within the hen, whereas the acetic acid marinade produced the hardest and crumbliest texture.

Results of Completely different Acid-Based mostly Marinades on Lamb

In the identical experimental setup, lamb gave the impression to be way more aware of being marinated in acid. Lactic acid-marinated lamb produced a statistically important improve in weight after marination, in contrast with lamb marinated in acetic acid. It additionally misplaced much less weight after cooking when in comparison with lamb marinated in citric or acetic acid (this discovering held up within the presence or absence of salt). Citric acid was additionally significantly better at bettering weight acquire in marinated items of lamb, and in addition confirmed a smaller loss in weight after cooking when in comparison with acetic acid.

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When it comes to protein texture, the teams handled with lactic and citric acid produced the least quantity of cloudy precipitate, whereas acetic acid produced the cloudiest specimens. In every case, the meat was tender, very gentle, and minimize simply.

Graph showing percentage loss in weight in marinated lamb after cooking

When growing my lamb biryani recipe, I examined one other query: Does marinating lamb in yogurt in a single day cut back cooking time? I first cooked lamb in yogurt with out marinating it and on common it took me about one and a half hours to get a young texture with meat that was nearly falling aside. After I repeated the identical recipe however marinated the lamb with yogurt in a single day, it took round 40 minutes to get the identical texture.


Based mostly on my leads to hen and lamb, I’ve come to some conclusions.

Of all of the cooking acids, lactic acid is the gentlest acid when utilized in meat marinades, adopted by citric acid, then acetic acid. Lactic acid’s impact on the feel of hen and lamb was not as drastic because the impact of citric acid or vinegar, and it improved the outcomes when it comes to weight gained throughout marination (extra weight was gained) and weight misplaced throughout cooking (much less weight was misplaced).

It’s not shocking that meat is healthier geared up at coping with lactic acid and citric acid than it’s acetic acid, since animal tissues have developed mechanisms to take care of natural acids they steadily encounter of their surroundings. However the truth that lactic acid will increase the quantity of water absorbed by meat, and helps the meat maintain onto it by way of the cooking course of, signifies that there are few downsides to longer marinades with yogurt and important advantages: extra juicy, properly textured meat, and, within the case of more durable meats like lamb leg, a major discount within the period of time it takes to cook dinner them till tender.

So, in spite of everything these experiments, am I going to proceed to marinate my hen and lamb in yogurt in a single day? The reply is most definitely, “Sure!”

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