I recently discovered the joy of cooking and I have no idea what I'm doing but I've been experimenting.

Recently, I took two beef shoulder steaks, both just under 3/4" thick, both purchased at the same time from the same source. For the first one:

  • I made up a goofy marinade with 2 cups whole milk, 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 1/4 cup extra virgin light olive oil, and various seasonings (but no salt here).
  • Marinated the steak for 12 hours in the fridge (pyrex container, covered with plastic wrap).
  • Blotted dry then salted, both sides.
  • Let sit for 45 minutes.
  • Added some more seasoning to both sides.

For the second one:

  • Straight out of packaging, no marination.
  • Salted, both sides.
  • Let sit for 45 minutes.
  • Added same seasonings as first steak, plus the same seasoning combo that I put in the first steak's marinade.

Seasonings were a weird combination of chopped garlic, curry powder, freshly ground pepper, parsley flakes. Salting was done with himalayan sea salt and alderwood smoked salt. (Much to my surprise this all turned out OK).

I cooked both in the same way (although not at the same time):

  • Small amount of olive oil (extra virgin, light) in cast iron skillet, pre-heated at medium high until oil was watery.
  • Seared for 2 minutes on one side.
  • Flip every 30 seconds until internal temperature ~140F (about 5-6 flips).
  • Removed from heat, sit 5 minutes, enjoy.

However, I found virtually no difference between the two steaks. Both came out good, but had exactly the same texture. The only difference in appearance I noticed was that the unmarinated one leaked noticeably more juice onto the plate afterwards; the juice was brown compared to the smaller amount of redder juiced leaked by the marinated one. The only difference in texture I noticed was that the few thin fat strips in the marinated one were edible, while the strips in the unmarinated one were tougher.

In both steaks the meat itself was equally tender and had the same texture. Also the flavors were basically identical.

I had expected the marinated steak to have a deeper flavor, and to taste slightly more like the marinade ("creamy", acidic), and to have a more "melt in your mouth" texture than the unmarinated one.

My question is, why were both of these steaks virtually identical? What did I miss? Things I can think of are:

  1. My marinade wasn't effective due to the ingredients (or time, but 12 hours seems good from what I've read?)
  2. My preparation or cooking process destroyed any effects.
  3. The differences were just too subtle for me to detect.
  4. My expectations were too high.

What could the "problem" (if there even was one) have been? I expected two vastly different results.

  • What do you mean when you expected the marinated steak to be "Milky"? – Catija Feb 8 '15 at 21:57
  • @Catija I meant that I expected it to have a slightly creamier, dairy sort of taste to it, sort of the way milk tastes. The identical texture is what surprised me the most though. – Jason C Feb 8 '15 at 21:58
  • Ah... From what I've read, the milk is just a good tenderizer. It's not going to give it a creaminess... but I don't do many steaks. The idea of putting it in milk in the first place was super foreign to me and sounded kinda odd... when I Googled it, I was surprised that it's a common option. – Catija Feb 8 '15 at 22:01
up vote 6 down vote accepted

There seem to be two general expectations for the marinade here: (1) it would tenderize the steak, and (2) it would result in more flavor. The first of these is basically a culinary myth, and the second was probably undermined by what you did to the second (unmarinated) steak.

It's important to be clear about what marinades do and don't do. Marinades don't penetrate deeply into the meat. In fact, aside from salt, most of the other flavorings or ingredients won't get more than a millimeter or two below the surface of the meat.

If you want to see this clearly, have a look at this page, where you can see colored dye was added to the marinade for various meats and other foods. In the case of solid meats like beef, larger molecules like flavorings (and colored dye) won't get beyond a millimeter or two. Salt is a smaller molecule and has other properties that allow it to penetrate deeper, though that process is quite slow too. As the link says, if you really want to see the effect (or non-effect) of a marinade on the interior, try comparing marinated and non-marinated thick pieces of meat, but cut off the outer 1/4" or so before eating, being careful not to get any of the exterior spices or juices on the interior. Assuming both meats were salted, the interiors will generally be virtually identical -- no differences in texture or flavor.

Marinating is basically a surface phenomenon, and it should primarily be done for flavoring purposes, rather than tenderizing.

So why do so many people think that marinades tenderize meats? Well, marinades can make the surface of meat mushier and sometimes juicier. Since the well-done outermost layer in a seared steak is often the firmest part of the cooked steak, anything that makes that layer easier to chew can make it seem like the whole steak is more tender overall. Also, the outside layer usually contains the most interesting flavor components, both from seasoning and from browning reactions -- so anything that makes that part juicier or tender and ready to burst open when you bite into it will be much more noticeable from a flavor perspective than altering the interior.

But the tenderness aspect mostly goes for steaks that are already quite tender. In that case, searing will potentially make the outer layer tougher, but the interior is already tender. If we can use a marinade to keep the outer layer tender, then the exterior will continue to match the overall steak.

If your case, shoulder steaks are most likely somewhat tough to begin with, so that small alteration in the outer layer may not have made a huge difference in the final product.

Regarding the flavoring, if I read your instructions correctly, you used the same spice blends in the marinade and then on both steaks. You also salted both steaks in advance.

You don't mention any salt in the marinade (unless it was included in the "various seasonings"). In any case, heavy salting 45 minutes before cooking will likely cause moisture release. If you hadn't really salted either steak before that, they will both release their moisture in the outer layers, but the brine which forms will start to break down the outer layers of the steak a bit (rapid tenderization), and the brine will be largely absorbed back into the steak along with other flavor components present.

Effectively, your pre-salting step probably influenced the outer layers (again, only a millimeter or so) in 45 minutes almost as much as your marinade did in 12 hours. Thus the tenderization and flavor differences between the two steaks were probably lessened significantly.

In sum, marinades can break down the outer layer of the meat and add flavor to it, so when you bite into it, the outer skin gives you a burst of flavor. They can also cause the outer layers to retain a little more moisture (which is probably why you saw less juice from the marinated steak). However, 45 minutes of a dry rub, particularly with salt, will have similar effects. My guess is that whatever spice blend you used was strong enough to overpower the more subtle flavor notes from the milk, lemon, and oil, which only would have been on the surface anyway. Since you treated the surfaces of the steaks the same way for the final 45 minutes, including salting which could cause more rapid changes than your other marinade ingredients, the differences in the final product were not large.

(EDIT: By the way, if you really want to tenderize meat, enzyme action will be much more effective than a small amount of acidity in a marinade. There are natural meat tenderizers available with these enzymes, often derived from various fruits or vegetables. However, be aware that they too will mostly affect the exterior surface. They'll just do it much better than a marinade, so the effects will be more noticeable and could even make the meat excessively mushy.)

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