When marinating meat, the popular idea is that the longer you leave it, the more flavorsome and tender it will be. Some recipes are adamant that you need to leave it for hours and hours, but is that actually true? In this article I look into the shortest time you can marinate meat and still get great results.
Even though many recipes recommend marinating meat for at least several hours, a shorter time can work just as well. As it’s mainly the outer edge of the flesh that benefits from the mixture, leaving meat in a marinade for just 15 to 20 minutes will be very beneficial.
The answer also depends if you are marinating for flavor or to tenderize the meat. Acids and enzymes in the marinade help tenderize the proteins which can take more time than it takes for meat to take on some flavor.
I decided to do a bit of research to find some of the best ideas from cooks and food writers. Read on to find out more about how long to leave your meat marinating and what’s best for different types of meat and poultry.
Is 20 Minutes Enough To Marinate?
When it comes to marinating meat, no matter how short the time is, something is better than nothing.
If you can marinate most cuts of meat for a couple of hours you will get the best results. But 20 minutes will get you a considerable way there because the marinade doesn’t actually penetrate the meat that deep no matter how long you leave it.
If you only have time to leave it for 20 minutes then you can still add a lot more juiciness and flavor to your meat.
Food Lab writer Kenji Lopez-Alt did some extensive experiments with meat marinated for different times. He found that ‘The difference between meat marinated for one hour and meat marinated for three hours was far greater than the difference between a three-hour-marinated batch and a 12-hour-marinated batch.’
He also recommended adding more salt to your marinade to help the flavors penetrate the meat further.
Obviously how much you can improve the meat in a short time will depend on many things like the type of meat, the cut, how thick it is, and also the ingredients of the marinade.
The best types of meat to marinate if you’re really short on time, are chicken (with skin removed), pork tenderloin, and seafood. These more tender meats often work better anyway when marinated for a shorter period.
Why Do We Marinate For A Long Time?
So if we can get away with marinating something for a short time like 20 to 30 minutes, why bother soaking your meat for hours and hours?
Marinating for a longer time will give the mixture a greater chance of being absorbed by the meat and allow ingredients like acids and salt to change the protein structure, making it tender and flavorsome.
As I mentioned, different types and cuts of meat will work better than others when left longer.
First of all, it’s a good idea to understand why we marinate things in the first place.
Marinades were created to do three things:
- Add more flavor – with just a few basic ingredients from your pantry you can create a massive flavor boost to an otherwise bland slab of meat.
- Adds moisture – marinating is a very effective way to add extra moisture to the meat, especially anything that tends to dry out when cooked like leaner meats.
- Tenderizes – helps make meat more tender so you get that melt-in-mouth experience.
Remember that, fish and shellfish should never be left to marinate for more than an 30-60 minutes. Any longer and the acidic content of the marinade will start to “cook” the flesh by breaking down the proteins.
Short Marinades: Different Types Of Meat Or Poultry
The two main things that affect how a piece of meat will react to a short marinade are the type of meat and the ingredients of the marinade. Here’s an easy reference for a basic marinade mix consisting of oil, salt, and something acidic (like lemon juice):
- Chicken – with the skin removed it doesn’t take long for poultry to benefit from marinating. Smaller cuts like breasts and legs can be marinated for 20 minutes to 3 hours. Whole chickens will need an overnight soak.
- Pork – marinating lean pork cuts like tenderloin help them to hold moisture longer when cooking over high heat. Thinner cuts only need 20 mins up to 3 hours. Larger pieces can benefit from longer.
- Beef – marinating can add big flavors and tenderness to tougher cuts like skirt, flank, and brisket. Soak for at least 30 minutes and up to 12 hours for these inexpensive cuts. Note – avoid marinating better quality steaks like ribeye and porterhouse as they are best kept simple and classic.
- Fish – fish has delicate muscle fibers that make it very sensitive to the acidic content of a marinade. I recommend marinating fish filets for 20 minutes to an hour. Even a quick 10-minute soak is good.
- Shellfish – as with fish, produce like shrimp only needs 20 minutes to an hour or a quick 10 minutes for a burst of flavor if short on time.
Is There A Way To Speed Up Marinating?
When you’re short on time you may be wondering if there is anything you can do to help speed up the marinating process.
Here are some hacks that help to both speed things up and make the best of the time you have to leave meat marinating:
- Use flat cuts of meat that are easier to completely cover with the marinade so it has a chance to absorb the liquid on all sides.
- Make shallow cuts across the surface of the meat or poke holes in it with a fork or skewer so that the liquid can penetrate deeper into the flesh and more quickly.
- Cut the meat up into smaller pieces so that there is more surface area to absorb the marinade.
- Use more salt as this can help change the protein structure and allow more flavor into the meat.
- Tenderize the meat with a meat mallet or rolling pin before putting it in the marinade. This ‘pre-tenderizing’ allows the meat to more readily absorb the flavors and moisture.
- Use a zip-top plastic bag to marinate in and squeeze out as much air as possible once the meat is covered. The vacuum you create helps the flavors to penetrate the flesh.
- Use enough marinade to cover the meat
Does Meat Marinate Faster In The Fridge?
Meat does not marinate faster in the fridge and is usually advised this way because of food hygiene. Bacteria multiply much faster at room temperature and can lead to food poisoning in as little as an hour.
In fact, meat may marinate faster at room temperature because the muscle fibers are more relaxed when warmer. A short 30 minute marinade should be fine at room temperature if your meat has been kept cold otherwise. The USDA recommends no longer than 2 hours for meat to be stored at room temperature, and only 1 hour if above 90F (32C).
To impart more flavor and tenderizing you need more time for the marinade to do its work, so the fridge is a safer place to leave your meat.
All in all, it seems to me that there isn’t much of a difference between the speed of marinating between the fridge and the kitchen worktop.
If you’re leaving the meat to marinate for several hours there’s really no choice but to put it in the fridge anyway.
Even for shorter marinating sessions, I’ve usually erred on the side of caution and refrigerated it to avoid any problems with nasty bacteria that could lead to food poisoning.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the shortest time you can marinate meat and reading about the different ideas I’ve found around how you can do it quickly.
As you can see, even if you’ve only got 10 minutes it’s still very much worth giving it a go as the meat will pick up at least some flavor. If you can leave it for 30 minutes or so in most cases you will get almost as good a result as if you left it for several hours.
Make sure you try out my speed hacks to get the best out of a short marinade and you will soon become a marinating wizard no matter how long you’ve got.
Above all, enjoy experimenting with different recipes and find something that works best for you so you can whip up your favorite marinade super quick.