Marinades are the all-purpose cure for bland, dry meat. They infuse moisture and the flavors can be adapted to suit any menu. A few hours in that perfect combination of oil, acid and seasonings can elevate your dinner to a gourmet affair. If you find yourself too busy to cook the meat you marinated earlier that day, don't fret. Your meat can safely withstand a marinade for longer than you might think.
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Beef, Pork and Lamb
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, you can safely marinate denser meat like beef, pork and lamb up to five days. But to ensure the quality of your food, it should not remain in the marinade for more than 24 hours. Of course, it's best to determine marinating times on a case-by-case basis. For example, tougher cuts of meat like flank steak or skirt steak can withstand longer marinating times than tender steaks or chops, which require only two to four hours in a marinade. Avoid ruining a high-quality cut of meat, like a porterhouse steak, by marinating it for just a few minutes or by skipping the marinade all together.
According to the USDA, you can safely marinate chicken for up to two days. However, chicken is rather delicate and generally only needs about two hours for the marinade to take effect. If you intend to marinate your chicken for more than a few hours, make sure the marinade isn't too acidic; chicken can actually become tough if it's exposed to acidic marinades for prolonged periods.
Fish and Seafood
Most fish and seafood is so delicate that it needs only a few minutes in a marinade to absorb the flavor. In general, never marinate any seafood for more than 30 minutes; any longer than that and the fish may become mushy. Particularly delicate seafood, like scallops, should only be marinated for about five minutes prior to cooking.
Zip-top plastic bags work great for storing meat during the marinating process. Discard them after use for easy cleanup and to prevent contaminating other foods. You may also safely use any food-grade plastic, stainless steel or glass containers to store your marinating meat. Always marinate meat in the refrigerator and never at room temperature. Make sure your food is completely covered while it is marinating. If you wish to use the marinade as a sauce after you remove the meat, boil it for several minutes to kill any harmful bacteria. Better yet, simply reserve a portion of the marinade to use as a sauce before you add the meat.