3 surprising tips for marinating meat

Some cooks swear by marinades, claiming that they flavor any cut of meat inside and out. You might be surprised to know that science is not exactly on their side! It’s been proven over and over again that marinating meat doesadd flavor and tenderness, but only to a certain degree. Before you start working on Linda’s Best Marinated Chicken or that Grilled Asian Flank Steak, here’s what you need to know:

1. It’s not more than skin-deep

It’s a good idea to use marinades on meat, especially tough cuts like a flank steak, as they do add flavor and tenderness. But what many people don’t know is that this action only happens to the very outer edge of the meat. We’ve seen tests that show marinades only reach one to three millimeters beneath the meat’s surface. Don’t think about marinades as flavoring a chicken breast or pork chop all the way through; instead, keep in mind that a marinade should be the first thing that cooks when meat hits the heat.

2. Marinades don’t really need herbs

The best ingredients for your marinade are actually salt, sugar, oil and an acid like lemon or vinegar. Learn the secret to creating a great marinade using items in your pantry. The salt is important, as it can penetrate and season meat more deeply than other ingredients. Sugar is useful for helping achieve browning while cooking. You need oil to keep the meat from sticking to your grill or pan. And acid helps break down muscle fibers, leading to a perfectly tender meat. (This Teriyaki Beef Marinade is a perfect example of the right ingredients.)

3. You can marinate for too long

Your best bet for achieving marination magic is to soak your chicken, pork chops or loins and steak at least 30 minutes, but never longer than overnight. The risk of a lengthy bath in the marinade comes back to acid. It tenderizes by breaking down the proteins in the meat, but since a marinade only seeps in so far, the acid can turn the outside layer mealy and mushy without softening the interior part of the meat at all.

Because marinades never really get to the center of thick cuts of meat, it can be very effective to marinate them for just half an hour. Your best bet for getting the flavors in the marinade all over is to reserve some before adding the raw meat. Just add it to the cooked meat as a sauce or glaze shortly before or after you take it off the grill. Another method is to pound the meat to a thinner starting point–the marinade won’t have to travel as far to penetrate the whole cut.

The best case scenario is to have the outside of the meat properly flavored and tender without ever taking a not-so-appealing mushy bite.

This article originally appeared on Taste of Home.