The Science of Yogurt Marinades


[Photographs and Graphics: Nik Sharma]

Editors’ Be aware: Nik Sharma’s new guide, The The Taste Equation: The Science of Nice Cooking Defined in Extra Than 100 Important Recipes, comes out in October 2020. You possibly can pre-order it wherever books are bought.

Just a few 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 relied on the kind of marinade and the kind of protein. Tossing a bag of meat with a marinade into the fridge the evening earlier than is handy, however there’s a powerful chance that the floor of the meat will flip mushy on account of acids within the marinade. That is why the overall consensus is to keep away from marinating meat for prolonged intervals of time. However I’ve by no means been satisfied that this rule applies to all acids in all marinades. In spite of everything, we are inclined to marinate fish, poultry, pork, lamb, and beef in numerous methods, so why shouldn’t we take into consideration acids in marinades with comparable nuance?

Generalizations make it simpler to recollect vital guidelines within the kitchen, however they usually run the danger of letting vital particulars slide. Take into account the best way we regularly consider acids within the kitchen. We’re taught to recollect a couple of primary 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 a different way from each other. Once I was researching and writing my new cookbook, The Taste Equation, I realized how these variations in habits could be utilized to nice impact in our kitchens. For instance, citric acid is way more environment friendly 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.” Once I marinate beef, rooster, 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 seen any mushy textures or loss in high quality, operating counter to standard knowledge. In actual fact, I discover that harder cuts of meat, particularly beef and lamb, grow to be absolutely tender throughout cooking somewhat faster than if I marinated them for a shorter time in the identical marinade.

Apart from my experiences within the kitchen, I additionally knew from my previous work as a molecular biologist that the assorted properties of acids are capitalized on in labs. When getting ready tissue samples for microscopes and marking with varied dyes, we regularly used differing types and combos of acids to organize our samples, and this performed an vital function within the high quality of staining. Primarily based on these observations, I assumed there was a reasonably good probability that utilizing totally different acids in marinades would produce totally different outcomes, so I performed a couple of simple experiments in my kitchen to see whether or not and simply how a lot altering the acid sort 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 (akin 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 vitality home of the cell) throughout metabolism.

Since cells can produce sure acids, it’s not stunning 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 shield themselves each day from acids of their setting 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 take care of the pH stability and equilibrium. (Whereas beneath regular situations, acetic acid isn’t produced or synthesized by animals, there are some transporter proteins that it will possibly work together with.)

Primarily based on this information, it could make sense that lactic acid would have the mildest impact on proteins in meat, since muscle tissues should recurrently regulate the quantity of lactic acid they include; acetic acid would have the harshest impact on proteins in meat, as a result of muscle tissues haven’t developed sturdy 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 vital level to say: contemporary meat would possibly come from useless animals, however the cells aren’t “useless”; they’re nonetheless biochemically energetic, which suggests 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 primary science behind marinating meat and the way a marinade impacts texture and water content material.

A marinade is often a water-based combination of varied components, 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 manner 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 certain 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 will possibly take up 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 a minimum of 4 to seven molecules of water.

However a given piece of meat’s water-holding capability will also be altered by elevating or decreasing it by means 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 below are two of the first methods marinades can alter a meat’s water-holding capability:

  • Desk salt (sodium chloride), along with seasoning the meat, may help dissolve some meat proteins just like the muscle protein myosin, which might enhance tenderness. Salts of phosphate can enhance the quantity of water absorbed by rooster breasts (that is true of desk salt as properly, though to a lesser diploma).
  • Acids assist denature proteins by altering their form, which might, in helpful cases, tenderize the meat; as talked about above, this impact could 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 may be 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 will depend on the kind of protein; for instance, acids additionally assist solubilize the collagen current in meat and because of this collagen-rich meat will flip very tender.

Setting Up the Experiments

Once 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. Nonetheless, the issue with all of these experimental setups was that together with yogurt made any comparability unreliable as a result of it’s too advanced: yogurts include so many various components and substances in addition to acids, like fat, proteins, phosphates, and many others., all of which might have an effect on the meat. I wanted a less complicated experimental system, so I made a decision to match the results of pure cooking acids on meat.

For my later experiments, I ready options of the cooking acids (my concentrations have been primarily based on what they might be, on common, in numerous marinades) in distilled water. Since salt performs a vital 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 targeted 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 general experimental arrange concerned taking items of skinless, boneless rooster breast or boneless leg of lamb and marinating them in numerous marinades, with and with out salt. The load of the meat was measured thrice to find out the proportion enhance or loss in weight: in the beginning, after marination (in a single day), and after cooking. The rooster 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 offers increased precision, the meat heats uniformly from all sides within the water tub, and it’s stored in an enclosed chamber, which successfully eliminates the results of evaporation.

Results of Totally different Acid-Primarily based Marinades on Meat

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

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 rooster 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 Totally different Acid-Primarily based Marinades on Hen

In rooster, I noticed some minor variations by way of the proportion enhance in weight after marination and proportion loss in weight after cooking. However the one statistically vital quantitative distinction I famous was between the teams marinated solely with lactic acid or acetic acid (in each instances, 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

Nonetheless, I did observe a qualitative distinction, which needed to do with the cloudy precipitate of proteins that might accumulate within the trapped juices within the sous vide luggage because the rooster cooked. That cloudy protein mass is much like one thing you’ve most likely 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 additionally by that cloudy precipitate drying out and turning 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 rooster marinated with lactic acid didn’t produce a lot, if any, of this cloudy gel-like mass, however the rooster 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 rooster items that had been marinated in lactic, citric, and acetic acids.

The textures of the cooked rooster breasts have been additionally fairly totally different: The rooster 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 rooster, whereas the acetic acid marinade produced the hardest and crumbliest texture.

Results of Totally different Acid-Primarily based Marinades on Lamb

In the identical experimental setup, lamb gave the impression to be way more attentive to being marinated in acid. Lactic acid-marinated lamb produced a statistically vital enhance 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 enhancing weight achieve in marinated items of lamb, and likewise 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 lower simply.

Graph showing percentage loss in weight in marinated lamb after cooking

When creating my lamb biryani recipe, I examined one other query: Does marinating lamb in yogurt in a single day scale 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. Once 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.


Primarily based on my ends in rooster and lamb, I’ve come to a couple 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 rooster and lamb was not as drastic because the impact of citric acid or vinegar, and it improved the outcomes by way of weight gained throughout marination (extra weight was gained) and weight misplaced throughout cooking (much less weight was misplaced).

It’s not stunning 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 setting. However the truth that lactic acid will increase the quantity of water absorbed by meat, and helps the meat maintain onto it by means of the cooking course of, signifies that there are few downsides to longer marinades with yogurt and vital advantages: extra juicy, properly textured meat, and, within the case of harder meats like lamb leg, a big 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 rooster and lamb in yogurt in a single day? The reply is most definitely, “Sure!”

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