Processors can adjust the firmness of meat through the ingredients in the marinade 

Dried meat snacks might be all the rage, but when it comes to center-of-plate proteins, consumers expect juicy, moist meat. Processors and butchers will often turn to marinades to “magically” make meat juicier and more flavorful…and at times more profitable and even more (eye and nose) appealing.

Processors can enhance uncooked proteins with an industrial marinade – often nothing more than water, salt and some water-binding ingredients – to add moisture and seal it in. The marinade ensures that during cooking, the meat remains moist, even if slightly overcooked or held before serving. In other words, industrial marinades provide the food preparer some cushion for cooking times and temperatures.

Marinades provide financial benefits as well. Because they are water-based systems and cost significantly less than the protein, addition boosts the weight of the protein. This increases yield and contributes positively to the seller’s bottom line. But never forget, the US Dept. of Agriculture regulates the amount of water that can be added to certain species and even mandates labeling of added water.

Industrial marinades can also mask inconsistencies in raw product. Inherent biological differences in meat, as related to breed, diet, age and physiological growth or maturity considerations make marinades an equalizer that provides greater consistency. Also, lower-quality cuts can be marinated to improve eating quality and flavor.

Leaner cuts of meat benefit from marinades, too. Less fat means less lubricity, which contributes to juiciness. Marinades can be designed to provide a lubricity that mimics fat.

Processors can adjust the firmness of meat through the ingredients in the marinade. This is important in terms of sliceability in foodservice, where proteins might sit under heat lamps and be carved to order.

With fully cooked proteins sold frozen or in the refrigerator, and intended for either microwave or oven warming, the protein must not only be moist and juicy when cut into, but its edges should not burn nor should it develop dried out hot spots.

Finally, industrial marinades present an opportunity for marketers to add value to protein through the addition of on-trend flavors. With today’s consumers craving flavor adventure, processors can easily make the same boneless, skinless chicken breast taste like an authentic recipe from anywhere in the world.

Industrial marinade selection

Processors either inject or vacuum tumble industrial marinade into meat, with its composition dependent on the application system. In the case of injection, the marinade needs to be water soluble, without particulates that might clog the injection needles. Such marinades go deep into the protein to fully saturate the muscle.

Particulates are not usually an issue with vacuum-tumbled marinades. In this process, vacuum pulls the air out of meat, opening it up to better absorb the topically applied marinade. Particulates provide visual appeal and are suggestive of flavor intensity.

Industrial marinades should work their magic before the protein is cooked. That magic is discreet, as the person who finally enjoys the marinated protein sees minimum (just some particulates) or no remains of the flavorful liquid that was pumped or tumbled into it. That magic varies by marinade composition.

Industrial marinades are composed of numerous functional ingredients that interact with protein molecules. The typical marinade base consists of water, salt and alkaline phosphates. The water dissolves the salt, phosphates and any other ingredients. The moisture that remains in the marinated meat increases its tenderness and juiciness.

Salt denatures protein molecules, causing them to unwind and form a matrix to trap water, as well as break down and tenderize the flesh. Salt also contributes to flavor development.

Phosphates are typically added to an industrial marinade to increase the water-holding capacity of the protein by increasing the protein pH away from its isoelectric point. The rise in pH increases the net negative charge, which results in electrostatic repulsion between muscle fibers. This increases the ability of the protein to absorb and retain moisture. Other ingredients, namely hydrocolloids, or those ingredients that bind water, can also be used. This includes fibers, gums, proteins and starches. Many of these ingredients are often considered more consumer friendly than phosphates.

But, the added benefit of using some phosphates is that they can also improve product shelf life by inhibiting lipid oxidation that results in the development of off-flavors and unattractive discoloration. Lipid oxidation in meat is catalyzed by iron and copper metal ions, which occur naturally in muscle tissues. Some phosphates will bind these metal ions so they won’t produce a rancid reaction.

Natural antioxidants, such as rosemary and green tea extract, are also often incorporated into marinades to retard oxidation. At the molecular level, the two have similar functionality. Their active components exhibit chain-breaking antioxidant activity; however, rosemary and green tea extract have different sensory contribution applications. Thus, using rosemary extract in combination with green tea extract allows the manufacturer to increase the usage rate, often resulting in an extract blend that performs better than using each alone.

From a taste and label standpoint, it is desirable to formulate salt and phosphate levels to as low as possible to adequately bind water in the meat. A common industrial beef marinade formulated for a 10 percent injection level will often have 2 to 3 percent salt, and 1 to 3 percent phosphate, resulting in 0.2 percent salt and 0.1 percent phosphate in the beef. Less phosphate will result in more purge, but using the USDA limit (0.5 percent) can cause off-flavors.