Forget about marinades, at least on the grill.
That may sound like backyard apostasy, since common knowledge holds that grilling and marinating go together like … well, fill in your favorite eternal twosome here. You can’t open a cookbook or look at a restaurant menu without seeing them paired.
It may be due at least partly to the fact that a “tequila marinated grilled flank steak” sounds more enticing that just a plain old steak. But there’s also a well-rehearsed rationale for the partnership.
Marinating, it’s said, not only adds flavor and moisture that will stay with the food through the rigors of the grilling process, but also tenderizes whatever you’re about to put over the coals.
There’s only one problem with this comforting culinary scenario: as we’ve learned over 20-plus years of grilling, it’s mostly just not true.
Let’s take the supposed advantages of marinades one by one.
First, the idea that it tenderizes your food. While it’s true that acids in marinades have somewhat of a tenderizing effect on proteins, it is limited to the proteins with which they come into contact. As you will see if you cut open a piece of chicken or steak that’s been sitting for a couple of hours or even overnight in a marinade, the liquid penetrates hardly at all. This means that only the outer surface of the food is affected. And even this isn’t that helpful, because in our experience what actually happens is that the surface just gets slightly mushy — not a desirable effect.
Second, marinades deliver relatively subdued flavors, which is not what you’re going for in grilling.
Even when marinades include powerful flavor-carriers such as spices, they are diluted by the liquid in which they swim. Think how this differs from simply coating whatever you’re about to grill with a spice rub. Since rubs consist of pretty much nothing but spices and are applied directly to the food, you get the full effect of their deep flavors, further intensified by their interaction with the heat of the fire.
As long as you hold back on the salt, you can slather on these rubs as thickly as you like. And because they are solid rather than liquid, they stick to the food better. Liquid on a damp piece of meat just doesn’t compete.
But there’s more to it than that. In addition to being diluted, the flavors in a marinade are melded, blended together. For other kinds of cooking, more subtle cooking, that may be considered a virtue. What starts out as a collection of simple individual flavors ends up as a more rounded, fuller and complex single flavor.
But we’re talking about grilling, a cooking technique that creates bold flavors and calls for other, similarly forceful flavors. We prefer dishes in which the strong, clear, individual tastes of each ingredient come at you simultaneously.
This coordinated cacophony of tastes is a singular characteristic of a big flavor approach to cooking, and the one which gives it much of its appeal. Sweet without hot, sour without aromatic, or earthy without bitter is not that interesting. When you meld all the ingredients, as you do in a marinade, then they lose their punch and their singularity.
If it is hard to imagine giving up altogether the flavor that comes from liquids like wine or vinegar, take heart. Recently, we’ve found a new way to take the marinade-free flavor dynamic to a new level, simply by keeping all the ingredients separate until the last minute. In this approach, we might use liquid, but after the cooking.
To get an idea of what we’re talking about, think about Italian dressing, which was, of course, a favorite quick marinade in the old days. After you soak, say, some lamb skewers in this dressing for a while and then grill them, what you get is grilled lamb with a kind of vague mix of vinegar, oil and faded herb taste. Contrast this with grilling the lamb, then putting it in a bowl and adding the vinegar, the oil and whatever herbs you chose. You’ll get the smoothness of the oil, the sharp hit of the vinegar, the aroma of the herbs and the sweet meatiness of the lamb, each distinct flavor complementing and reinforcing the others.
You get the ease of last-minute preparation and brighter, clearer, more direct flavors. Plus there’s the fun of showing off a bit for your guests as you mix and toss at the last minute. Welcome to the post-marinade era of grilling.