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Mastering Marinade Science

Put common kitchen ingredients to the test to better understand how marinades work. With a bit of science, a family classic could get a flavor-enhancing makeover this summer! (Or, kids might come up with an awesome new family favorite!)

Marinade Science / Student STEM  Food Science Exploration

Kitchen Science

Summer holidays and family get-togethers often go hand in hand with recipes that involve a marinade. Does your family have a favorite BBQ recipe or a marinade used year after year for certain grilled meets or vegetables?
Foods cooked outdoors on a grill are often marinated first—soaked in a mixture before being cooked. During this soaking process, the marinade sticks to the food (or adsorbs). (Note: Adsorption is when something adheres to something else; absorption is when something soaks into something else.) The more the marinade adsorbs, the more flavor your food picks up. Marinades also can have the effect of helping to tenderize the food. You want a marinade that has sticking power. You want a marinade that adsorbs effectively. But what is the key to the process?

Vinegar, sugar, salt... many marinade recipes include similar ingredients. Which ingredients are key to making a good marinade? Are there certain ingredients in a marinade recipe that help the marinade stick to the food? Can science help you figure out which ingredients you need to create a marinade with super sticking power?

A Kitchen Test

The Flavor That Food! Exploring the Science of Marinades food science project guides students in a marinade test. Using tofu (less expensive than many meats), food coloring (so you can see and evaluate the amount of adsorption), and sugar, vinegar, and salt, kids put marinade ingredients to the test. Which ones will stick best to the foods and why?

This science experiment involves making a set of standards against which students will compare their marinated foods, so there is plenty of fun (and colorful) preparation and testing to do in exploring which ingredients will result in blocks of tofu with the most marinade. (Students will be able to tell because the tofu blocks that hold the most marinade will be the ones with the most intense color!) If your kids are curious about how much a marinade adsorbs versus being absorbed, try cutting open some of the tofu samples after they have soaked. What can you tell from looking at the inside?

With the basic setup in place, students can extend the kitchen science activity to test other ingredients (like lemon juice, lime juice, soy sauce, hot sauce, worcestershire sauce, oils, or sugar sweeteners) or store-bought marinades. Exploring the variable of "time" is also a good extension for this kitchen science activity. How long should a food marinate for the best adsorption? Is there a maximum time? Students can test with the tofu to see if length of time in the marinade makes a difference, but be aware that other food types have different recommendations for how long they should be soaked in a marinade.

By the end of this kitchen science exploration, students may be able to update a family marinade favorite to make it even tastier!

Fun (and Colorful!) Family Science

For a family-friendly version of the Flavor that Food! experiment, see Saucy Science: Exploring the Science of Marinades at Scientific American.

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