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Most recipes call for onions when marinading steak, but...why?

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Good question. While I'm not sure, I'd be inclined to think onions contain an enzyme that help tenderise the meat. The cooking together may even help activate the enzyme. In a similar role, pineapple is used to tenderise gammon steak. – Noldorin Oct 10 '10 at 19:06
Onions do not contain such enzymes. – daniel Oct 10 '10 at 21:20
Marinade on a good steak does nothing but help you ruin it. Good quality steak, high heat and maybe, just maybe salt and pepper is the way to go. Maybe a flank or something but what kind of steak are we talking about ? – Chris Oct 11 '10 at 0:29

4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Because onions contain a lot of flavour compounds that we like, and which are synergistic with meats.

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In other words, there's no functional reason for this ingredient, it's purely for flavour. – Aaronut Oct 10 '10 at 21:57
Yup, it's just taste. Onions don't tenderize meat. – Satanicpuppy Oct 11 '10 at 13:40

Onions contain proteolytic enzymes, just like honey and certian fruits, which makes them ideal to help tenderize meat. They are a common veggies low in calories and are a common state in many cuisines around the world. One prime example is a dish from Japan known as Chaliapin Steak. Which is a dish where you score the meat(make grid lines), pound the beef, and cover both sides of the steak in chopped onions. Just letting the steak sit in the onions makes it so tender you can cut it with a fork or chopsticks. It was a dish made for a visiting opera singer named, Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin whom at the time was suffering a bad toothache but wanted a juicey steak.There's your bit of history for yeah.

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Reminds me of "Shokugeki No Soma: Food Wars." Everything you brought up was a part of the anime. :D – Jay Aug 7 at 17:41

Actually, yes the onions are there to add flavor, but they also contain enzymes that break down the meat fibers making it more tender, this can also be done with pineapple and other fruits like kiwi. But the fruits add a fruity flavor which doesn't taste good to most when eating a steak.

Onions however, add a much more savory flavor. @Chris - Marinading a good steak doesn't ruin it, all it does is add flavors that weren't there before. Now granted one can buy some A3-A5 beef and have an extremely tender steak, but you are paying a lot of money for that meat. Marinading is a flavorful way to make very tender steaks at half the cost (OR LESS!)

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What enzyme is in onions that has a tenderizing effect? i have never seen this claim before. – SAJ14SAJ Feb 19 '14 at 18:54 In this study they compare using onion with meat over (30?) day period in refrigeratation. At the 30 day mark they have a sensory panel compare the 30-day vs non-onioned 4-day meat. The sensory panel concluded there was no significant difference, but a small fraction preffered the onion meat (30-day). This can suggest onions also have enzymes that (inhibit) lipids to improve longevity.

See article and let me know if I misunderstood a portion, or my info is slightly off.

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