Food, Recipes

Cooking Basics Lesson II: Marinating with an Acidic Touch

The first spoon of guacamole or ceviche is always so memorable due to the taste of jalapeños, avocado, fish, cilantro, red onions, and the very special kick provided acidic touch in the lemon/lime. Every marinate needs an acid to help the seasoning penetrate better. The importance of its use ranges from  denaturing proteins in the meat/fish to  enhancing the flavor of a dish.

Acid is a molecule that is prone to losing/releasing any hydrogen ions when in contact with water, and has a pH of less than 7. For reference, water has a pH of 7, and lemon is less than 3.  Some acids contribute to many of our bodily functions such as digestion, fuel for the mitochondria, building proteins, DNA, RNA and many others. Their benefits go beyond our body, it also transcends to the cleaning, and  lastly the cooking world. The most common acids used in the kitchen are the citrus (lemon, limes, oranges, etc), vinegar, and wine.

In many cultures, the need for an acidic touch in food is a must. In many countries around the world lime is an ingredient of several dishes and variety of pickles. For several Latin American countries, lime and lemon qualities are used to make unforgettable dishes such as guacamole and ceviche. In Angola, citrus are used for marinating fish/seafood/chicken, and vinegar for beef/lamb.

Marinating is nothing more than adsorption, which is defined as attachment of fluids to a surface. What does that mean? Well, imagine you are marinating meat. You have salt, herbs, spices and vinegar mixed in a bowl, and you add it to the meat. The surface of the meat will be the landing site for the small particles. Some will even penetrate a little the surface until it reaches a saturated state. Slightly mentioned on the Seasoning with Salt, an addition of an acidic touch is very important to be used when marinating in order for the seasoning to penetrate (only 1/8″ around) the meat/fish. When an acid is in contact with a piece of organic material, a few things happen:

  • Proteins get denatured on the surface: Meat has tissue (proteins) which get broken down by the presence of acids. When those proteins are broken, the marinate penetrates the meat and makes it a little more juicer, and flavorful.
  • Increase awareness for other flavors: Imagine you have a contrast of magenta and baby blue. Magenta is such a vibrant color, and, for that same reason, it will help in the awareness of the baby blue. The same works with the acid. Its sharp/sour/tangy taste allows for a better appreciation of the other components in the dish.
  • The acid cooks the proteins: The acid will eventually start cooking off the proteins if left for too long. A perfect example is the beautiful and yummy ceviche. Time is the secret when it comes to marinating with acid. Take it into consideration when doing it.

As mentioned above, it is important that the lime/lemon cooks off the fish in the ceviche. However, this is not desired for most dishes as the acid will end up cooking. The meat will be tougher with too much vinegar / citrus. For better guidance on the marinating time, go to the below table based on personal experience and the Culinary Connection post.

Acidic Touch Marinating Time

Type of Organic Component

Time for Marinating


15 min – 1 hour


4 – 12 hours

Boneless breasts

30 min – 2 hours


1 – 6 hours

Lean Meats

30 min – 4 hours

Marbled Meats

1 – 12 hours

From personal experience, marinating the vegetables does not make a big difference to me as I usually sprinkle some spices and herbs. This alone ends up tasting very well, while keeping the integrity of the vegetables intact. However, for any additional information on it, click on the Culinary Connection.

Marinating is always better when there is a acidic touch to the seasoning. It brings up the beautiful flavor of the meat/fish dish by also the structure of the protein.  Take the time to find the right components of a marinate, and please consider the usage of acid. You will not regret, and you will not want to let the acidic touch aside anymore.

Before you go, I would like to ask the following questions:

  • Which type of acid do you use for your marinate?
  • What determines the usage of vinegar over citrus for you?

Until next time, Hungry People.


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