Should I Marinate Steak Before Cooking?

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“Peppercorn Beef Shoulder Filet Steak” by TheBusyBrain is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Some steak recipes call for marinating a steak before cooking it. This method does take more time than pulling steak from the refrigerator and cooking it, so you might naturally wonder if it’s worth the extra time and if it’s even necessary at all.

We love a good steak marinade to add flavor to steak, but we can also admit when it’s not a necessary step in the process of getting your steak to the dinner table. Read this guide to determine when steak marinade is needed and when you can skip it in favor of a quicker meal.

What Is a Steak Marinade?

Steak marinade is a liquid that steak soaks in for some time. While marinades can help out the flavor of steak in about 30 minutes or so, they work their best magic when steaks soak in them for several hours, or even a full day, before cooking.

Steak marinades have two primary purposes: flavoring steak and tenderizing steak. Some cuts of steak simply don’t have a strong beef flavor profile like others, so a little extra zest from a marinade adds just the right amount of flavor. And, some cuts simply aren’t as tender as others, but a marinade breaks down tough fibers to make them easier to chew.

How does the magic happen?

Well, people typically make steak marinades with specific types of ingredients that do the trick. A good steak marinade uses salt, oil, acid, and flavoring. The salt helps tenderize the steak and allows the other flavors to penetrate. Oil is a necessary fat for a marinade that helps keep everything moist while preventing acidic flavors from overwhelming the steak.

Acid ingredients, like lemon juice or balsamic vinegar, break down the meat to keep it tender while adding some extra flavor. Finally, chefs add herbs and spices, like steak seasoning or fresh garlic, to round out the marinade’s flavor profile.

To Marinade or Not to Marinade: That Is the Question

Sometimes, a steak marinade works. Other times, it isn’t the best option. Here’s what you need to know about marinating a steak.

When Steak Marinade is a Good Idea

The most common reason people use steak marinades is to tenderize tougher pieces of beef. Generally, cheaper cuts are the ones that can benefit from a good steak marinade. Skirt steak, hanger steak, flank steak, and chuck are a few options that work well with a marinade. 

As these steaks soak in the marinade, the acids in the marinade go to work breaking down fibers and tenderizing the meat. The longer the steaks stay in the marinade, the more time they have to tenderize and get more flavor. 

Another reason to use marinades is to add extra flavor to steaks that aren’t as full of beef flavor as others. Again, these are usually the cheaper cuts.

Grilled steak is another excellent option for marinades. The grill tends to leave a char on steak, and some people don’t find the char very appetizing. But the flavor of a marinade can create a more pleasant taste that some will find more palatable.

When to Skip the Steak Marinade

Are there times when skipping the use of a steak marinade is a good idea? Absolutely. 

In most cases, you’ll want to skip the steak marinade unless you buy budget-friendly cuts. More expensive steaks, like ribeye, strip steak, and filet mignon, end up juicy and tender without the help of a marinade. Plus, many of the high-priced steaks are also full of flavor, so they don’t need any help in that area, either.

Filet mignon is one exception to the full-of-flavor rule. It’s not as beefy as other cuts, but it’s one of the most tender cuts there is. Therefore, a marinade isn’t the best option. However, it can benefit from an au jus or an herb butter placed on top after cooking for just the right amount of flavor.

Another downfall to steak marinade is that it creates a lot of moisture on the outside of the steak. Although you should always pat your steak dry before cooking it, marinade soaks into the meat, and some of that escapes during the cooking process. Therefore, if you’re looking for a perfect sear on the outside of your steak, you might end up disappointed when using a marinade. 

Another Option: Dry Rub

A dry rub is sometimes the better option for steaks that need some extra oomph in terms of flavor. A dry rub is a mix of herbs and spices that you rub into the outer part of the meat. Dry rubs add a lot of flavor to a steak.

More importantly, they create a crust on the outer part of the steak that a marinade simply can’t do. A marinade can leave steaks watery and unseared, but a dry rub’s protective crust crisps up during cooking to create a nice sear. Plus, the browned crust helps hold the steak’s natural juices in, allowing the steak to stay as tender as possible during the cooking process.

While rubs are usually saved for large pieces of meat going on the grill or in a smoker, they absolutely can work with steaks. Mix the ingredients together and, after patting the steaks dry, press the rub into the steak on all sides with your fingers. 

Elevating Steak with Marinades and Dry Rubs

Steak marinades and dry rubs each have their ideal moments to shine. We have a few recipes for both to get you started in your kitchen:

Ready to experiment? Order delicious steaks from Chicago Steak Company today!