The carnivores among us are sure to agree that marinated meat tastes better than its unmarinated (or, god forbid, unseasoned) counterpart. Why is that? Several factors come into play, but there are two primary factors we’re going to focus on today: Meat-tenderizing enzymes and umami (oo-MAH-mee).
Some, but not all, marinades contain chemicals that break down the meat as it soaks, leaving you with a tender, juicy, delicious piece of protein by the time it’s done. These chemicals are called enzymes, and they’re not just for grilling night! Enzymes are found everywhere in nature, from the grocery store shelves (really natural, I know) to inside your body’s own cells. Their job, on the whole, is to make chemical reactions take place faster and easier than they would on their own. Where your cuts of beef are concerned, protease (PRO-tee-ace) enzymes cause a process called hydrolysis. The enzymes get all up in the meat’s business and break down large chains of protein and collagen into smaller pieces, leaving behind a softer, less dense cut of meat. These meat-tenderizing enzymes are no artificial wonder, either. Two of the most common products you can find at the grocery store are papain and bromelain, which are found in papayas and pineapples, respectively. You can make a marinade out of pineapple juice and other goodies to try it out yourself if you want to.
The other element that makes marinated meat so damn delicious is umami.
Most of us are familiar with at least four of the five categories of flavor: Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (also called savory). Contrary to what most of us were taught in school, different regions of the tongue don’t correspond to each of the different flavors. It is true that the edges and tip of your tongue are particularly sensitive to different tastes, but that’s only because there are more taste buds crammed around the edges of your tongue than anywhere else in your mouth. The truth is that your whole mouth is a matrix of taste buds, from the roof of your mouth to the top of your throat, dispersed to maximize every second spent in Flavortown, no matter what you’re eating. Umami, however, is more than just a savory flavor. On the microscopic level, a chemical called glutamate binds to the cells responsible for detecting umami flavors. The sensation of umami amplifies other flavors, making whatever it is you’re eating go from tasting pretty good to tasting amazing. Glutamate is found naturally in soy sauce, which is a common ingredient in marinades. Other common ingredients include acids like vinegar, citrus juice, or buttermilk. Acids play a similar role to that of enzymes, breaking down the collagen to make the meat softer.