Glorious as they are, ribeye and filet steaks aren’t everyday foods for most of us. If you’re looking to get your fill of beef without spending a fortune, it’s worth getting behind some of the less popular, but still-delicious steaks out there. We took a look at a few different marinating techniques so you can make the most of your cut.
Marinating — that is, immersing meat in flavoured liquids for a time before cooking — is a tricky thing. Marinade adds flavour to meat, as well as moisture and tenderness (the acid in marinades weakens muscle tissue and increases its ability to retain moisture). But quick-marinade proponents point out that marinades penetrate very slowly, and can give the meat an overly sour or salty flavour if you keep them in solution for a prolonged period of time. For this reason, some grillmasters swear by marinating meat overnight for maximum impact, while others insist that meat can’t be marinated for too long.
Yet a third dissenting opinion, which comes from the folks at Cook’s Country (paywall warning!), is that to achieve the greatest success, you should wait to marinate a steak until after it’s already been cooked. So which method turns out to be the best?
Putting Marinating Times And Techniques To The Test
I decided to search for the answer by testing all of these marinating techniques. I opted for a relatively affordable, tender cut steak with a loose grain structure — by a stroke of luck, my butcher was out of both skirt steak and flank steak, so I used flap steak. The marinade was a basic version made using what I had on hand at home:
- 1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 3 tablespoons chopped white onions
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 4 cloves minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon creamy Dijon
- 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
Each of the four 240gm steaks received different treatments:
- Steak #1: A quarter of the marinade above, 12 hours prior to grilling
- Steak #2: A quarter of the marinade above, 3 hours prior to grilling
- Steak #3: A quarter of the marinade above, 45 minutes prior to grilling
- Steak #4: A seasoning of salt, pepper, and sugar prior to grilling; immediately after grilling, I poked holes in the steak, poured the marinade on top, tented it in foil, and left it to soak up the liquid for 5 minutes per this technique (as photographed below).
The outcome surprised me: the most extreme methods won out, while everything in between failed to impress. Here’s a breakdown of my notes:
- Steak #1 was chock-full of robust, saturated marinade flavour, with a prominent soy sauce undertone. Despite all the commentary about meat structure falling apart overnight, this wasn’t an issue — it still had a chew that was succulent yet adequately tender. If it were any saltier, though, it would have been too salty.
- Steak #2 managed to pick up some of the nice qualities of the marinade, but next to the first steak, it paled in flavour comparison, tasting generally watered down. The meat was also significantly less tender.
- Steak #3 — the steak marinated for only 45 minutes — boasted the most char and an attractive crust, but next to the first two, the meat tasted just barely affected by the flavour, like a tease that just wasn’t enough.
- Steak #4 threw me for a loop. Because the fresh aromatics, like garlic and onion, weren’t cured or grilled at all, they were very prominent both in taste and texture, and not necessarily in a good way. The steak also didn’t have the deep, caramelised undertones of the steaks that had been long-marinated before grilling. But instead, you could taste a pleasant amount of sweetness and saltiness (thanks to the rub applied before cooking), followed by a light, fresh flavour quality imbued by the marinade drizzled on after grilling.
If you want the TL;DR version, here’s what I found based on the results of this test: While the steak with the 12-hour marinade possessed the most intense and saturated flavour, the steak with the post-grilling marinade treatment possessed a light and fresh quality that none of the others had. So if you’re going to marinate ahead for flavour, you may as well marinate overnight, though if you tend to be sensitive to salt levels, it’d be worth giving the post-grilling marinade method a try.
Also, if you’re worried that marinated meat will steam on the grill, you shouldn’t — the steaks marinated ahead of time had as much colour, if not more colour, than the one that was marinated dry. And if you’re concerned that an overnight marinade is going to break down too much of your meat’s muscle tissue, leading to a mushy steak, you shouldn’t — if anything, overnight marinating left my steak juicier and more tender. The one time I would caution against this is if you’re using a solution with very high levels of acid from lemon juice, wine, or vinegar, like a mojo marinade. In this case, I would recommend marinating around 3 or 4 hours max, or acid could actually start to cook the meat enzymatically, giving it a spongy texture.