what effect does yoghurt have on marinades?

It’s BBQ season in the UK, so it’s time for burned or dry meat all round as we scurry to avoid undercooking everything. But it doesn’t have to be this way! A marinade can help. But which method: vinegar, yoghurt, salt… I remembered a clip from Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection where he conducted such an experiment by putting a chicken breast under an MRI scanner (of course!). Have a look:

So this proved that yoghurt helped ginger and garlic permeate the meat.

Why use yoghurt in a marinade?

Yoghurt can have a positive effect on marinating chicken in several ways:

  1. Tenderizing: The natural enzymes and acids present in yogurt, such as lactic acid, can help break down proteins in the chicken, resulting in a more tender texture. The calcium content in yoghurt also aids in tenderizing the meat.
  2. Moisture retention: Yoghurt can help retain moisture in the chicken during the marinating process. The thick consistency of yoghurt coats the chicken, creating a barrier that prevents moisture loss and helps keep the meat juicy.
  3. Flavour enhancement: Yoghurt can add a subtle tangy flavour to the chicken, enhancing its taste. The acidity in yoghurt can also help balance the flavours and complement the other ingredients in the marinade.
  4. Flavour infusion: Yoghurt acts as a carrier for other spices and seasonings in the marinade, allowing the flavours to penetrate the chicken and impart a more pronounced taste. The acidic nature of yogurt helps in the absorption of flavours into the meat.

It’s worth noting that marinating chicken in yogurt for an extended period (typically several hours or overnight) can have a more significant impact on tenderizing and flavour infusion. However, excessive marinating time with yoghurt can potentially make the chicken mushy or overly tangy, so it’s important to not overdo it.

That said I’m a big fan of brining meat, so how does that measure up?

Why brine meats?

Brining chicken involves soaking it in a solution of salt and water (sometimes with other flavourings) before cooking. Brining can have several effects on marinating chicken:

  1. Moisture retention: Brining helps the chicken retain moisture during the cooking process. When you brine chicken, the salt in the solution causes the meat to absorb water, resulting in juicier and more succulent chicken. This is particularly beneficial for lean cuts of chicken that tend to dry out easily.
  2. Flavour enhancement: While salt is the primary ingredient in the brine, you can also add other flavourings like herbs, spices, sugar, or aromatics to the brine solution. These additional ingredients infuse the chicken with subtle flavours, enhancing its taste.
  3. Tenderising: Brining can contribute to the tenderisation of chicken. The salt in the brine helps to break down proteins in the meat, resulting in a more tender texture. This can be particularly beneficial for tougher cuts of chicken.

But how does that come out in the final chicken? I decided to find out. Taking 3 chicken breasts and pounding them to about 2cm thick, I then steeped them in 3 marinades for about 6 hours.

Sample 1: just ginger and garlic (a sort of control)

Sample 2: ginger and garlic in 5% salt brine

Sample 3: ginger and garlic in yoghurt

I then used my trusty Grill and Press to sear them for about 2 minutes. Pounding them thin and using a marinade gets cooking going much quicker. Plus the grill heats from both sides. I checked that the chicken was done to at least 70°C.

What were the results?

The three were similar, but it was possible to see, taste and feel differences between the methods.

Ginger and garlic only allowed the natural chicken flavour to shine through. The marinade effects were less pronounced, and it had a slightly more chalky, overcooked texture.

Brined chicken had a noticeable well seasoned flavour, though the ginger and garlic itself wasn’t as strong. It was the moistest of the three.

Yoghurt chicken developed a well-browned surface, and allowed the ginger and garlic paste to come through. It wasn’t as moist as the brine sample.

I made a short video recapping the results:

So what does this mean? Personally I recommend brining. The chicken is tasty and moist and the risk of undercooking is so negligible. Some people don’t like the ‘deli’ salted flavour that brining gives though, in which case yoghurt marinades are the way to go. Add seasonings afterwards to develop the flavour of your recipe.

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