Reverse Marinade: The Grilling Trick You Never Knew About

A little bit of science goes a long way when it comes to grilling delicious meat.

It always seems like a good idea at the time. Leave meat to soak for a few hours — or even overnight — in a flavor-packed marinade, then toss it on the grill. The results should be a happy marriage of grilled goodness: seared meat that’s deeply imbued with sweet, salty or tangy flavors from the marinade. Should.

But the best-laid plans can fall apart once the brisket hits the flame. Marinades can do a little bit of good or a lot of harm — sometimes leaving meat rubbery, mushy or bitter.

Fortunately, there’s a disarmingly easy solution for avoiding marinating mishaps: Marinate the meat after you cook it. The reverse marinade, sometimes called the post-marinade, simply involves soaking meat in a sauce after it’s been grilled, then reheating it on the grill right before serving.

The science behind a bad marinade

The first fatal flaw of a classic pre-grill marinade is that it’s not going to actually do that much to enhance the flavor of the finished product. Even the most complicated, aromatic marinade simply won’t soak more than a few millimeters below the surface of the protein, said Jessica Gavin, a certified culinary scientist who delights in explaining the “why” behind flavors and cooking processes.

Chef Adam Perry Lang pours a post-marinade over seared meat.
Chef Adam Perry Lang pours a post-marinade over seared meat.

“Marinade is a mixture of flavor compounds,” she explained, “but only certain compounds can penetrate.” Chief among them is salt. So while your soy-ginger marinade may hum with flavor, the meat is only going to absorb the salt component — say, the sodium glutamate from the soy sauce — while most other flavors will stay on the surface.

Add lemon juice — or any other acid — to that marinade and it will weaken muscle tissue on the surface of the meat, for a minimal amount of tenderization. But leave a strongly acidic marinade too long (like overnight) and the surface of the meat will start to turn mushy. On top of that, Gavin explains that in reaction to the acid, the protein molecules will pack closer together and squeeze out excess moisture in the meat, making the inside dry and chewy. Mushy on the outside; tough on the inside. Not great.

A sweet marinade isn’t the answer, either. Marinating your meat in a sugar-based sauce is likely to result in some less-than-tasty blackening on the outside. “At 320 to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, the sugar caramelizes. But beyond this, it burns,” Gavin said. And most grills are well above that temperature when the meat gets tossed on. “Unless you are smoking or grilling with indirect heat, or cooking something that will be done very fast, like shrimp or fish” she explained, “cooking that sugary marinade on the grill will result in a disagreeable flavor.”

Reverse marinade to the rescue

Luckily for backyard grillers everywhere, the reverse marinade can deliver you from char-broiled chagrin. The method is popular with Adam Perry Lang, the grilling guru and megawatt chef at APL Restaurant and APL BBQ in Hollywood, California. He told HuffPost it’s “a great way to impart bright flavors.” He uses it to add brightness to beef filets and short rib steaks, and says it works particularly well if you accentuate the same flavors you’ve already used in the pre-grill spice rub. “For example,” Perry Lang said, “if you grill with a rub that contains onion powder, a quick microplane of onion to the post marinade gives another level of experience to it.”

For Laura Sorkin, recipe developer and co-owner of Runamok Maple, a premium maple syrup producer in northern Vermont, no challenge is more satisfying than finding new ways to incorporate maple syrup into savory recipes and cocktails. Her Grilled Cardamom Chicken was inspired by the legendary lemon chicken at Rao’s Restaurant in New York City — and reverse marinade is the lynchpin.

“You lose a lot of the marinade flavor when you put it on the grill,” Sorkin said. In Sorkin’s version, the cooked meat — which has been seasoned only with salt, pepper and oil — is pulled off the grill and placed into the room-temperature marinade.

“The residual heat cooks the marinade a little bit,” she said. And because the marinating meat is already cooked, the marinade can be served along with the meat rather than discarded, which you must do with marinade that’s had raw meat soaking in it.

Give her recipe below a try.

Grilled cardamom chicken.
Grilled cardamom chicken.

Grilled Cardamom Chicken with Reverse Marinade

  • 6-8 boneless chicken thighs

  • 2 medium zucchini, trimmed and sliced thickly

  • Salt and pepper

  • Vegetable oil

  • 1/4 cup olive oil

  • 2 tablespoons Runamok Cardamom Infused Maple Syrup (or other high-quality, unflavored maple syrup)

  • Juice from 1/2 fresh lemon

  • 1 small red onion, sliced thinly

  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1. Season the chicken thighs and zucchini with salt and pepper and toss with a little vegetable oil. Place on a grill heated to medium-high. Grill until browned on both sides and completely cooked through, about 10-15 minutes (maybe less for the zucchini).

2. While the chicken and zucchini are cooking, combine the olive oil, maple syrup, lemon juice, onion and red pepper in a large bowl. When the chicken and zucchini are done, put them in the bowl with the sauce immediately and toss them gently to make sure the sauce covers all of the ingredients. Let it sit for about 30-60 minutes, turning occasionally to re-coat the meat.

3. Five minutes before serving, restart the grill and return the chicken and vegetables to it. Sear the meat on high heat for a few minutes. Place the meat and vegetables on a serving platter, pour the sauce from the bowl over the top and serve.