What's the point of marinating meats before cooking them? Anyone who has tasted a marinated steak from the grill knows the answer ― it has more flavor. A marinade can pack chicken breasts, beef steak, and pork chops with lively seasonings.
Here's how it works: An effective marinade is a blend of ingredients that includes acid (such as wine, citrus juices, or vinegar), salt (or salty liquids such as soy sauce or fish sauce), and sugar (or other sweetener such as honey or jams and jellies), plus a variety of other flavorings. Each element helps draw the seasoned liquid into the spaces between meat fibers.
In simple terms, acid softens the tissues so the meat fibers can separate and the marinade can enter more easily; in doing so, it slightly tenderizes the meat. Salt transports the liquid into the tissues. Sugar holds the liquid there. The result is meat that is juicier and a little more tender than nature made it.
Marinades penetrate 1/8 to 1/4 inch in two to three hours; thin slices of meat get the maximum benefit of a marinade in as little as 5 to 10 minutes. After the tissues fill with liquid, they can't take in any more. Thicker cuts require more marinating time, but there is a limit, as they can absorb only so much flavor.
One of the most effective marinades is teriyaki. Intensely flavored, it blends the crucial elements ― acid (in wine), salt (both acid and salt are in soy sauce), and sugar. Our basic teriyaki formula penetrates boldly; use it, and the flavor variations that follow, on many meats.