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Can steak marinate on the counter? (Explained)

Can Steak Marinate On The Counter

Marinading is a process of food chemistry where a flavorful, acid-based liquid is applied to a cut of meat, such as steak to impart added flavor, as well as tenderize the surface meat fibers. In general, the longer a steak marinates the more flavor and moisture it will develop. 

Though marinating for too long in an overly acidic marinade can also start to break down meat fibers and connective tissues in the steak. This can change the texture mushy or even grainy with some cuts of steak

A lot of backyard chefs don’t always have the time to give a steak several long hours of marination. Sometimes a solid half hour or two of marinade on the counter is all the steak gets. 

This shorter marinate on the counter can still impart a little added flavor to specialty cuts like skirt and flank steaks for fajitas, or to perhaps add some southwestern flair to a ribeye. 

The most common alternative to marinating is to apply a dry rub. A lot of dry rubs use the same seasonings as marinades, though they don’t have the acidic liquid component. 

This means that a dry rub won’t really do anything to tenderize the steak or add moisture. Though given enough time it can add a lot of bold flavors that permeate the meat much more than a quick marinate on the counter. 

If you need to enhance the flavor of a piece of meat and you also want to imbue the steak with more moisture, you can try submerging it in a salty, flavorful wet brine. Though this is a somewhat tricky process when done wrong can affect the color and texture of the steak in an unappealing way

How Steak Marination Works

A marinade specifically uses some type of acidic liquid such as vinegar or some type of fresh-squeezed citrus juice or a liquid that has protein-soluble enzymes such as mango, or papaya, to both enhance flavors as well as alter the surface texture of the meat. 

Given enough time the acid or enzyme of a marinade can gradually start to weaken the meat’s connective tissues and protein structures to modestly tenderize the meat.  Though this tenderizing process generally takes longer to achieve results than you will get with a short half-hour marinade on the counter. 

However, too much acid in the marinade can significantly affect the texture of the steak making it grainy or overly soft. Certain fruit enzymes like pineapple can also negatively affect the surface texture of meat. 

So, don’t be too heavy-handed with the acid or enzyme of your choice. The best bet is to have 3 parts of oil and seasonings to one part acid. 

Why You Would Want to Let Steak Sit on the Counter to Marinate

Marinating a steak on the counter is usually more about quickly adding some bold flavors and seasonings more than it is tenderizing or altering the surface texture of the steak. 

Just how much of that marinade you leave on the exterior of the steak might also factor in the flavor. A lot of seasonings tend to burn. Some in a pleasant way that creates blackened flavors. Though most in the presence of acid tend to become bitter. 

Another thing to consider when marinating a steak on the counter is that acid on the surface of a steak can reduce the Maillard process which creates complex flavor compounds for searing. So, if you want a deep, rich sear, consider patting off as much of the acidic liquid as you can right before you take the steak from the counter to the grill

Alternatives to Marinating Steak on the Counter

The most common alternative to marinating steak on the counter is to apply a dry seasoning rub. While this does little to affect the surface texture of the steak, the seasonings do a good job of enhancing the flavor. 

Popular ingredients for a steak dry rub often consist of:

Kosher or sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

Garlic powder

Onion powder

Paprika

A small amount of light brown sugar

Ground cumin (Optional for southwestern flavors)

Another alternative to marinating steak on the counter is to use a quick wet brine. This is a salty water-based solution that doesn’t have the acidic component of a traditional marinade. 

The salt of the brine uses osmosis to help transport moisture and other flavors into the steak. This can help add to the juiciness of a dry cut like a round steak or a lean flank steak.

The ratio for a steak wet brine is to use one cup of salt for every gallon of cold water. Then you can add extra seasonings like black pepper, garlic, salt, onion powder, or cumin. 

A wet brine needs about 30 minutes to start working, which is similar to the amount of time a steak would marinate on a counter. Though two to four hours would be better. 

Final Thoughts

In my experience marinating steak on the counter is a handy way to add some flavors. Though it really isn’t long enough to have a significant effect on texture or the tenderness of the steak. 

Marinating uses an acidic liquid to impart flavors, which can also affect how the steak sears on the grill. So, it’s a good idea to lightly pat off any excess liquid to keep it from interfering with the Maillard reaction, which develops a flavorful crust. 

If you are looking for an alternative to marinating steak on the counter, I suggest going with a dry rub. You can use a lot of the same seasonings that you’d put in a marinade, just leave the acidic liquid out. 

A wet brine with 1 cup of salt per gallon of cold water is another alternative to marinating steak on the counter. You can add your preferred seasonings like garlic and black pepper. 

It takes about half an hour for a wet brine to work, which is on par with the amount of time I usually let a steak marinate on the counter. 

Though if possible, I find the best results if I set up a wet brine before going to work in the morning, and the steak is then richly flavored and moist by the time I’m ready to grill it for supper.