Marinating meat in acid has always been a little bit of a mystery. Leave your meat in for too short an amount of time and you might not reap the full benefits. But leave your meat in for too long and you risk gray, mushy protein. So why is it that many Indian recipes call for marinating meat in yogurt—which is acidic—for multiple hours, if not overnight?
In his most recent column for Serious Eats, this is exactly the question that author, photographer, and scientist Nik Sharma attempts to answer. Sharma, who was a molecular biologist before he became a blogger and cookbook writer, is perhaps the perfect person to delve into this type of cooking question, and his story approaches the dilemma with the rigor of someone who was trained to precisely quantify their work.
While Sharma’s article is dense, his chain of logic is easy to follow and deserves a full read if you’d like to have the full context of his findings. He writes that marinades can help meat retain liquid (making it juicier) and work to break down proteins, making meat more tender. The thing is, different acids have different effects, and we don’t often consider that when we select recipes.
“In the kitchen,” Sharma writes, “most of us work with three common acids—vinegar, which contains 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 (such as lactose in milk) by lactic acid–eating bacteria.” Because cells can produce some types of acid, they also have built-in strategies for mitigating their effects. This is particularly true of lactic acid, which can build up organically in tissue (as anybody who has ever run anywhere can attest).
While Sharma’s miniature study only examined the impact of marinades on lamb and chicken, his results showed that marinating meat in yogurt is gentler, and makes meat juicier, and it would make sense that his findings could be extrapolated to other types of meat as well. And this is good news, as it means you can throw your meat into a yogurt marinade, leave it in the fridge overnight, and not have to worry about finding a bag of gray mush in the morning.