A Chef Explains How To Pair A Marinade With The Right Cut Of Meat

From quick dinners to weekend grilling, marinating meat is one of the easiest ways to open up a world of flavor. Something as simple as store-bought marinade can turn a bland chicken breast into a satisfying meal, or make a cheap cut of steak something worth celebrating. But for as simple as the process may seem, there are some big mistakes that can happen: A mixture with very strong flavors can overpower already tasty cuts; marinating meat for too short a time can result in too little flavor; and soaking for too long can ruin the texture of your meat. On top of all that, not every marinade works well with every cut of meat. So Tasting Table reached out to cooking expert Jenn Segal from Once Upon a Chef to get her advice on how she pairs different cuts of meat with different types of marinades.

Segal told us that when selecting a marinade the two biggest factors to consider are fat content and how much flavor the cut has. "Those flavorful, fattier cuts — like rib-eye steaks or chicken thighs — stand up well to bolder, acidic marinades," she explained. "But for the leaner cuts — like beef tenderloin or boneless skinless chicken breasts — it's best to opt for milder, non-acidic (or lightly acidic) marinades to avoid making the meat mushy or leathery."

Lean meats need milder marinades, while fatty cuts require more acid

To understand why you need to be careful with lean meat, first know what's actually going on. Lots of people think the acid in their marinade is tenderizing the meat, which would be beneficial for lean cuts, but that's not accurate. While marinades can tenderize, that comes from the salt in the recipe penetrating into the meat. The acid is there for flavor; it balances the richness of the fat, but only affects the surface. Milder, less acidic marinades will still tenderize, as long as they contain salt, while more acidic marinades will end up eating away at the surface, leaving you with a mealy texture.

In regard to taste, with fattier cuts you have to compensate for the rich flavor they're going to add. It's good to have acid present to cut through the fat, but you'll want to pull back on ingredients that could distract from the meat's fatty flavor. On the other hand, leaner cuts don't do well with punchy acid, so more complex seasoning mixtures compensate for the lack of flavor from the meat itself. In a case where your marinade needs a hint of citrus flavor in it (which would be acidic), but it's going on a lean cut like tenderloin, chef Jenn Segal recommends simply going with zest instead of juice. Ultimately, a marinade should turn your meat into the best version of itself by filling in what's missing, not doubling down on what's already there.