The Science of Yogurt Marinades


Mint-yogurt marinade being poured over boneless skinless chicken thighs

[Photographs and Graphics: Nik Sharma]

Editors’ Note: Nik Sharma’s new guide, The The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking Explained in More Than 100 Essential Recipes, comes out in October 2020. You can pre-order it anywhere books are sold.

A couple of years in the past, I went on a radio display 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 depended at the kind of marinade and the kind of protein. Tossing a bag of meat with a marinade into the fridge the evening ahead of is handy, however there’s a robust probability that the outside of the beef will flip tender because of acids within the marinade. That’s why the overall consensus is to steer clear of marinating meat for long classes of time. But I’ve by no means been satisfied that this rule applies to all acids in all marinades. After all, we generally tend to marinate fish, poultry, beef, lamb, and red meat in numerous techniques, so why shouldn’t we take into consideration acids in marinades with an identical nuance?

Generalizations make it more uncomplicated to keep in mind essential regulations within the kitchen, however they frequently run the chance of letting vital main points slide. Consider the way in which we frequently assume of acids within the kitchen. We’re taught to keep in mind a couple of fundamental homes: they style bitter, they have got a low pH, they react with baking soda, and so they denature proteins. But other cooking acids possess other homes and, as a result, behave moderately otherwise from one every other. When I used to be researching and writing my new cookbook, The Flavor Equation, I discovered how those variations in habits may also be implemented to nice impact in our kitchens. For instance, citric acid is much more efficient at extracting pectin from potatoes when in comparison to different acids.

In some Indian cookbooks and recipes for yogurt-marinated meals, you may understand this element within the directions: “marinate the beef for four to six hours, ideally in a single day.” When I marinate red meat, rooster, or lamb at house with yogurt-based marinades, I frequently marinate them in a single day within the fridge and I’ve by no means spotted any tender textures or loss in high quality, working counter to traditional knowledge. In truth, I in finding that more difficult cuts of meat, particularly red meat and lamb, turn out to be totally soft all through cooking just a little faster than if I marinated them for a shorter time in the similar marinade.

Besides my reports within the kitchen, I additionally knew from my previous paintings as a molecular biologist that the more than a few homes of acids are capitalized on in labs. When getting ready tissue samples for microscopes and marking with more than a few dyes, we frequently used differing types and combos of acids to arrange our samples, and this performed crucial function within the high quality of staining. Based on those observations, I believed there was once a gorgeous excellent probability that the usage of other acids in marinades would produce other effects, so I carried out a couple of simple experiments in my kitchen to look whether or not and simply how a lot converting the acid kind would possibly alternate the feel and taste of marinated meats.

The Role of Acids in Marinades

Marinated lamb in bottom of dutch oven

In the kitchen maximum of us paintings with 3 commonplace acids—vinegar, which comprises acetic acid produced through fermentation of sugars; citric acid, which comes from citrus fruit like lemons and limes; and lactic acid, which is produced through the fermentation of sugars (comparable to lactose in milk) through lactic acid–consuming micro organism. These 3 acids proportion homes commonplace to all acids—the sourness, the low pH, and the facility to denature proteins—however their chemical constructions are greatly other. In addition, of the 3, acetic acid is the one person who animal cells can not synthesize on their very own: all through anaerobic breathing, muscle groups produce lactic acid, and citric acid is produced throughout the mitochondrion (the power area of the cellular) all through metabolism.

Since cells can produce positive acids, it’s now not unexpected that they have got advanced to broaden mechanisms to care for the harsher results of the ones acids. Cells are made up of many alternative molecules, together with proteins, and so they will have to be in a position to offer protection to themselves every day from acids of their setting as a result of, if left unchecked, those acids can unharness havoc at the cells’ construction and purposes. Special proteins referred to as transporter proteins assist travel and transfer acids like citric and lactic acid inside of cells to handle the pH steadiness and equilibrium. (While beneath customary stipulations, acetic acid isn’t produced or synthesized through animals, there are some transporter proteins that it may possibly engage with.)

Based in this wisdom, it could make sense that lactic acid would have the mildest impact on proteins in meat, since muscle groups will have to incessantly keep watch over the quantity of lactic acid they comprise; acetic acid would have the cruelest impact on proteins in meat, as a result of muscle groups haven’t advanced powerful mechanisms to care for it; and citric acid’s impact on meat would fall someplace between the ones two extremes, since it’s found in cells in additional restricted amounts. Another essential level to say: recent meat would possibly come from lifeless animals, however the cells aren’t “lifeless”; they’re nonetheless biochemically lively, which means that the processes described above nonetheless happen.

The Basics of Marinating Meat

Before we get to the experiments, let’s move over some of the fundamental science in the back of marinating meat and the way a marinade impacts texture and water content material.

A marinade is generally a water-based aggregate of more than a few substances, every of which is supposed to enhance both the flavour or the feel (or each) of no matter is being marinated. But marinades additionally enhance the “juiciness” of cooked meat through encouraging the absorption of water, which is differently of pronouncing a marinade can enhance meat’s water-holding capability, this is, its skill to bind water.

About 5% of the water in animal flesh is certain to proteins; the remainder 95% is held between the filaments that make up the muscle. The proteins and amino acids found in meat resolve how a lot water it may possibly take in all through marination. For instance, the muscle protein myosin can bind a big amount of water as it’s wealthy in aspartic and glutamic acids, amino acids that experience molecules that may bind no less than 4 to seven molecules of water.

But a given piece of meat’s water-holding capability can be altered through elevating or decreasing it via chemical processes. The most blatant instance of that is making use of warmth: During cooking, a big amount of water is misplaced as proteins within the muscle—like collagen, myosin, and actin—shrink all through denaturation and push water out, very similar to the way in which water is launched from a squeezed sponge.

Here are two of the principle techniques marinades can regulate a meat’s water-holding capability:

  • Table salt (sodium chloride), along with seasoning the beef, can assist dissolve some meat proteins just like the muscle protein myosin, which will build up tenderness. Salts of phosphate can build up the quantity of water absorbed through rooster breasts (that is true of desk salt as neatly, even supposing to a lesser stage).
  • Acids assist denature proteins through converting their form, which will, in really helpful circumstances, tenderize the beef; as discussed above, this impact may also be so pronounced as to make the beef tender and unpalatable. When proteins alternate their form, amino acids that had been as soon as hidden may well be uncovered, and so they supply new probabilities for water to engage and bind to the proteins in meat. How acids impact protein additionally depends upon the kind of protein; for instance, acids additionally assist solubilize the collagen found in meat and in consequence collagen-rich meat will flip very soft.

Setting Up the Experiments

When I first began to design my experiments for this find out about, I believed I’d do an instantaneous comparability of how meat fared when uncovered to marinades that incorporate 3 other resources of acid: yogurt, vinegar, and citrus juice. However, the issue with all of the ones experimental setups was once that together with yogurt made any comparability unreliable as it’s too advanced: yogurts comprise such a lot of other substances and components but even so acids, like fat, proteins, phosphates, and so on., all of which will impact the beef. I wished a more practical experimental machine, so I made up our minds to match the consequences of natural cooking acids on meat.

For my later experiments, I ready answers of the cooking acids (my concentrations had been in accordance with what they’d be, on reasonable, in numerous marinades) in distilled water. Since salt performs an important function in how a lot water is retained through proteins in meat and dissolves some muscle proteins, I additionally arrange a separate set of experiments the place the cooking acid answers contained salt. The experiments had been basically concerned with measuring and evaluating the quantity of water absorbed and misplaced through meat that has been marinated and cooked. Some quantity of water loss is to be anticipated in every case since cooking (with warmth) inevitably reasons 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 weight of the beef was once measured thrice to resolve the share build up or loss in weight: originally, after marination (in a single day), and after cooking. The rooster was once cooked sous vide at 149°F (65°C) for 1 hour whilst the lamb was once cooked at 165°F (74°C) for four hours. I used sous vide as a result of this system supplies upper precision, the beef heats uniformly from either side within the water tub, and it’s saved in an enclosed chamber, which successfully removes the consequences of evaporation.

Effects of Different Acid-Based Marinades on Meat

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

But, as I discussed previous, it’s now not that simple to make any sense of the effects when the usage of yogurt the usage of my simplistic experimental arrange, so within the subsequent spherical, I arrange two units of separate experiments, one the usage of boneless, skinless rooster breasts and every other with the boneless leg of lamb. In every example, the beef was once 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.

Effects of Different Acid-Based Marinades on Chicken

In rooster, I seen some minor variations in phrases of the share build up in weight after marination and share loss in weight after cooking. But the one statistically vital quantitative distinction I famous was once between the teams marinated best with lactic acid or acetic acid (in each instances, with out a added salt)—the lactic acid remedy confirmed the bottom quantity of weight reduction after cooking.

Graph showing percentage increase in weight of chicken after marination

However, I did apply a qualitative distinction, which needed to do with the cloudy precipitate of proteins that will collect within the trapped juices within the sous vide luggage because the rooster cooked. That cloudy protein mass is very similar to one thing you’ve more than likely noticed whilst you’ve (over)cooked meat or fish—an egg white-like substance caught at the floor. The tender or pasty texture of some cooked, marinated meat is produced through the denaturation of floor proteins through the marinade, but additionally through that cloudy precipitate drying out and turning into caked to the outside. Because the meats cooked in those experiments had been contained in a sealed bag and saved 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 checks, the rooster marinated with lactic acid didn’t produce a lot, if any, of this cloudy gel-like mass, however the rooster that was once marinated in both citric or acetic acid produced a big amount of that cloudy precipitate, and it was once 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 have been marinated in lactic, citric, and acetic acids.

The textures of the cooked rooster breasts had been additionally moderately other: The rooster marinated with lactic acid was once a lot more soft and flaked like cooked fish when pressed with a fork or knife. The citric acid marinade produced a moderately less attackable texture within the rooster, whilst the acetic acid marinade produced the hardest and crumbliest texture.

Effects of Different Acid-Based Marinades on Lamb

In the similar experimental setup, lamb gave the look to be a lot more aware of being marinated in acid. Lactic acid-marinated lamb produced a statistically vital build up in weight after marination, in comparison with lamb marinated in acetic acid. It additionally misplaced much less weight after cooking when in comparison to lamb marinated in citric or acetic acid (this discovering held up within the presence or absence of salt). Citric acid was once additionally significantly better at making improvements to weight achieve in marinated items of lamb, and likewise confirmed a smaller loss in weight after cooking when in comparison to acetic acid.

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In phrases of protein texture, the teams handled with lactic and citric acid produced the least quantity of cloudy precipitate, whilst acetic acid produced the cloudiest specimens. In every case, the beef was once soft, very cushy, and lower simply.

Graph showing percentage loss in weight in marinated lamb after cooking

When creating my lamb biryani recipe, I examined every 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 reasonable it took me about one and a part hours to get a young texture with meat that was once virtually falling aside. When I repeated the similar recipe however marinated the lamb with yogurt in a single day, it took round 40 mins to get the similar texture.


Based on my leads to rooster and lamb, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions.

Of the entire cooking acids, lactic acid is the gentlest acid when utilized in meat marinades, adopted through citric acid, then acetic acid. Lactic acid’s impact at the texture of rooster and lamb was once now not as drastic because the impact of citric acid or vinegar, and it progressed the results in phrases of weight received all through marination (extra weight was once received) and weight misplaced all through cooking (much less weight was once misplaced).

It’s now not unexpected that meat is healthier supplied at coping with lactic acid and citric acid than it’s acetic acid, since animal tissues have advanced mechanisms to care for natural acids they often come upon of their setting. But the truth that lactic acid will increase the quantity of water absorbed through meat, and is helping the beef cling onto it throughout the cooking procedure, implies that there are few downsides to longer marinades with yogurt and critical advantages: extra juicy, properly textured meat, and, within the case of more difficult meats like lamb leg, an important aid within the quantity of time it takes to cook dinner them till soft.

So, in any case those experiments, am I going to proceed to marinate my rooster and lamb in yogurt in a single day? The solution is maximum undoubtedly, “Yes!”

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