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What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of oil vs vinegar marinades for meat?

Normally I have used vinegar marinades assuming they would soak into the meat better. I mean can oil really soak into meat effectively?

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You want both an acid and an oil in your marinade. This is 'basic marinade 101'.

The acid tenderises by denaturing proteins, the oil helps oil-soluble flavours penetrate fatty tissues.
The acid doesn't have to be vinegar; it could be citrus fruit, yoghurt or even alcohol. Alcohol, however, denatures faster than acid, so watch your timings.

As mentioned elsewhere, you don't get a great deal of penetration, you get a surface effect. The tougher your meat, the smaller you need to cut it, otherwise all you get is a couple of mm of tenderised surface & a lot of long-cook still required for the rest. Leaving large chunks of meat for hour on hour will give you a very weird result, mushy on the outside, tough on the inside.

Salt will loosen muscle fibres, but too much will pull water out of your meat. If you don't overdo the salt, eventually the water & salt will be drawn back into the meat as the relative concentrations change. Substitutes such as soy sauce, fish sauce, worcestershire sauce will all add salt too.

From Spruce Eats, on timings

Fish and seafood should only be marinated briefly, for only 15 minutes to 30 minutes. Two hours is probably long enough for chicken pieces without risking it toughening. Beef and pork can be marinated for longer periods, one to 12 hours.

The myth of 'the longer, the better' isn't true.

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Marinades don't actually penetrate deeply into meat.

For something that "soaks into the meat" you're looking for a brine. A brine is water, seasoned, with a neutral Ph but a hypertonic salinity and dextrose. Brines steeped in spices and aromatics will carry those flavors deeply into the meat.

Marinades create a deeply flavored crust, but do not penetrate. If you've ever used red food coloring as an imitation of Indian tandoori, you will see it barely passes a millimeter into the flesh. An oil-based marinade just turns into an oil infused with the other aromatics, and so is good for basting the meat while it cooks, but same problem.

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  • Would a vinegar-based “marinade” be more correctly be referred to as a “brine”, then? Dec 16, 2023 at 0:10
  • @fyrepenguin no, I'm not sure of the physics but vinegar is not neutral pH. Acid constricts the meat tissue. That's why ceviches are basically cooked by the acid.
    – AdamO
    Dec 16, 2023 at 0:30

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