Serious Heat: The Great Spicy Marinade Debate

Serious Heat

Andrea Lynn, senior editor of Chile Pepper magazine, shares thoughts and observations from the fiery food world.


[Photograph: Andrea Lynn]

While I haven't seen it but was alerted to a repeat of Heston Blumenthal's BBC cooking show, In Search of Perfection, during which the British chef was developing the perfect chicken tikka masala recipe. Blumenthal, chef/owner of the three-Michelin-starred Fat Duck restaurant, placed chicken breasts in an MRI machine to see the effects of marinade penetration to the meat. The chicken scan determined that the best way to infuse the meat with spices is by using a yogurt-based marinade.

This made sense to me, thinking back to yogurt marinades commonly used in other Indian dishes. Was it for a reason?

I was instantly excited to experiment with this concept. So I concocted two batches of spicy marinade. The spice blend contained 1 tablespoon chili powder, 2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper and 1 teaspoon salt, separately mixed into 1 cup of yogurt and 1 cup canola oil. I soaked chicken legs in the two marinades for 12 hours. I anxiously awaited the results as I sautéed them. However, upon tasting the results, I was instantly deflated.

Both sets of chicken tasted exactly the same.

I repeated the test, upping the chili powder from 1 tablespoon to 2 in the marinade and increasing the soaking time to 18 hours. Don't get me wrong. The cooked chicken was juicy, spicy and delicious. But both chicken pieces tasted exactly the same, whether they had been marinating in the yogurt or oil mixture.

While I may not have access to an MRI to scan the chicken legs to determine which marinade functions best, I do have taste buds. And my taste buds told me there was no difference. In fact, I realized one advantage to an oil-based marinade in that the chicken had a more golden and crisp skin. Has anyone else experimented with marinades to infuse meat with spices and what were the results?