Meat is often prepared by marinating it before cooking it. Sometimes alcoholic beverages are used as a marinade, and many people believe that while marinating in alcoholic beverages, it’s okay to leave it out on the counter while it marinates. Is this belief true? If it’s not, what should you do instead? This short guide can help you decide whether or not it is safe to keep meat out while it is marinating in alcoholic beverages.
Alcohol and Bacteria
It is a well known fact that alcohol kills bacteria. It does this by penetrating through the membrane walls of bacteria and destroying the vital proteins that bacteria need to exist and propagate. For this reason, it is commonly believed that meat marinating in alcohol can remain outside of the refrigerator because the alcohol will kill any harmful bacteria.
Leaving Meat out to Marinate in Alcohol
While it is true that alcohol kills bacteria, it is not safe to leave meat out to marinate in alcoholic beverages for any length of time. For one thing, there is so little alcohol content in most alcoholic beverages that it is not truly effective in killing off all of the harmful bacteria. In fact, the USDA recommends that meat never be kept between 40 degrees and 140 degrees for more than 2 hours. After that time, bacteria can grow and thrive in meat—faster than the little alcohol in an alcoholic beverage can kill them.
Secondly, as meat sits in marinade made from an alcoholic beverage, the natural juices of the meat soak into the marinade, diluting it. This makes it even less effective in killing harmful bacteria than it would normally be.
Thirdly, marinade doesn’t penetrate very deeply into a piece of meat. Therefore, even if the alcohol content of the beverage was strong enough to kill all of the harmful bacteria, it would only kill the bacteria near the surface. In the meantime, the bacteria in the heart of the meat are propagating while at room temperature.
What Should You Do Instead?
The only way to be sure to kill bacteria from meat is by cooking it to a temperature of around 170 degrees. Bacteria cannot reproduce in temperatures below 40 degrees and above 140 degrees, so you don’t want to leave meat out for any more than 2 hours in any other temperature. When you need to marinate meat for longer than 2 hours, let it marinate in the refrigerator. And, while you can marinate meat outside the fridge for less than 2 hours, you should still stay on the safe side and keep it in the refrigerator until it’s ready to be cooked.
Also, once your meat has been marinated, never reuse leftover marinade unless you cook it thoroughly at temperatures over 170 degrees. Wash any containers and utensils that had contact with raw meat with soap and water to remove any bacteria that may have spread. When it comes to harmful bacteria, it’s always better to act on the side of caution rather than risk a night in the emergency room.