How to Marinate Safely

By Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN
marinating steak


Perhaps you're planning to prepare chicken breasts, vegetables skewers or tofu "steaks" and you're pondering this culinary dilemma: "To marinate or not to marinate?" A burst of extra flavor awaits your taste buds if your response is "to marinate." But flavor is not all that may be waiting on your plate.

A marinade is often based on oil, splashed with vinegar, lemon juice or wine and accented with spices, herbs or other tasty ingredients. Prior to grilling, roasting or sautéing, a food is soaked in this savory acidic sauce to enhance flavor and potentially tenderization or juiciness. Though a marinade can transform food from humdrum to yum, if not utilized with culinary care it can lead to food safety uncertainty.

It won't matter how mouthwatering your meat, poultry, fish, veggies or other food is if it becomes a source of food poisoning. Food poisoning is the reason why more than 128,000 Americans wind up in the hospital every year. So when you opt for scrumptiousness, always aim for marinating safely by following these five straightforward steps in (and out) of the kitchen.

  1. Contain it. Marinate food in a container preferably made from glass or food grade plastic. Don't use metal since the acid in the marinade can interact with it. If you prefer to marinate in sealable food-safe plastic bags, you'll need to discard them after use, so look for eco-friendlier options to minimize waste.
  2. Let the fridge be your friend. Make sure the container of marinating food is fully covered. Place it in the refrigerator (below 40°F), not on the kitchen counter. This will keep food out of the temperature "danger zone," which is when food is between 40 to 140°F for more than two hours (one hour if the temperature is above 90°F) and will keep harmful bacteria away.

  3. Pack properly for the park. Consider a picnic cooler like a transportable refrigerator. Make sure your marinating food is in a well-sealed container. Ideally, place it in a cooler designated just for perishable items, nicely pack with ice and keep out of direct sunlight.
  4. Be mindful with the marinade. "Cross-contamination" can lead to food poisoning. This can occur when a marinade is used with raw meat, poultry or fish, and then reused "as is" on cooked food. It's only okay to reuse it when boiled to destroy harmful bacteria. When possible, plan ahead by setting aside some fresh sauce strictly for this purpose.
  5. Cook for safety; make it tasty. Don't rely solely on your senses. Use a food thermometer to assure marinated meat, poultry or fish is prepared to a safe minimum internal temperature. And regardless of the type of food you're preparing, remember this: When food is cooked to the proper temperature, it won't be undercooked — or overcooked. That means safe food can become the tastiest cuisine.

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