The practice of soaking food in liquid goes back to the day some long-forgotten cook noticed that storing meat in seawater postponed spoilage. Through the centuries, epicures repurposed the practice to improve flavor, and knowing some basic principles can take dishes from so-so to spectacular.

The best reasons for using marinades are flavor and succulence. Acidic elements, like juice or vinegar, weaken muscle tissue, helping meat retain moisture during cooking. Herbs and spices contribute flavor. Adding oil helps prevent lean meats from becoming unpleasantly dry, and since most flavors are fat-soluble, oil also helps transmit the taste of companion ingredients.

Experts disagree about a marinade's ability to tenderize and warn that if you marinate too long, acids can actually toughen meats. Pineapple, papaya and ginger contain protein-digesting enzymes, so a bath in pineapple juice does tenderize, as will lightly acidic dairy products like buttermilk and yogurt. A milk bath also tames the wild taste of game.

Marinades work mostly at the surface, hence flat cuts (or large ones cut into pieces) benefit most. Resealable plastic bags are perfect containers because the air can be squeezed out so that the marinade coats every surface. Marinades work fastest at room temperature, but always refrigerate if marinating more than 30 minutes. Boil used marinated for at least five minutes to eliminate bacteria, then turn them into sauces. Marinating can cut cooking time, so check frequently for doneness. On the grill, sugary marinades promote char, and oily marinades can cause flare-ups.

Here are some general guidelines:

* Steak: 6-24 hours, depending on thickness and tenderness

* Large roasts: 24-48 hours

* Whole Chicken: 24 hours

* Chicken Pieces: 4-6 hours

* Pork Chops: 4 hours

* Thin fish fillets: 30 minutes

* Thick, fatty fish filets: 1 hour

This recipe is based on one from The Healthy Beef Cookbook, by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the American Dietetic Association (John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2006).

>Tabouleh and Beef Salad


1 cup fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper


1 beef flank steak (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1 (5-ounce) package tabouleh mix (such as Near East Taboule Wheat Salad mix)

2 cups chopped seeded tomatoes

1/2 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint

Combine marinade ingredients in medium bowl. Place steak in plastic bag. Pour in half the marinade; turn to coat. Close bag and marinate in refrigerator 6 hours to overnight. Reserve remaining marinade in refrigerator for dressing.

Prepare tabouleh according to package directions. Prepare grill to medium heat. Remove steak from marinade; discard marinade. Place steak on grill. Grill, uncovered, 15 to 20 or until desired degree of doneness, turning occasionally.

Slice steak grain into thick slices. Toss tabouleh with tomatoes, parsley, mint and reserved marinade. Serve with steak slices. Serves 6.

Per serving: 310 calories, 12g fat, 45mg chol., 27g prot., 23g carbs., 2g fiber, 420mg sodium.


Look for Relish magazine, celebrating America's love of food, the first Thursday of each month in The Buffalo News.