Make a Perfect Marinade

Like a good homemade pasta sauce or a delicious vinaigrette for salad, there are as many ways to whip up a marinade as there are creative cooks who like to grill.

However, the basic formula for making your own marinade is super simple.

Make a marinade by combining:

  • one part acid (vinegar, lemon juice, alcohol)
    OR one part enzyme (pineapple or papaya, or, curiously enough, dairy products like milk or yogurt)
  • + three parts oil (we recommend a good olive oil)
  • + your herbs, spices, and other seasonings.

The acidity in the marinade tenderizes the food and contributes tanginess, while the oil provides moisture and richness. And (duh) the seasonings provide flavor.

This article tells all about the basics and science of marinades.

What ingredients should I use?

Acidic ingredients break down the tough bonds holding proteins together. These ingredients include wine (or rum or tequila, yum), citrus juices (lemon or lime or orange), and vinegar. As you might expect, we love making marinades and sauces with different flavors of balsamic vinegar. (Check out our recipe for Tangerine Balsamic Glazed Ribs.)
Enzymatic marinades work by breaking down the connective tissue in meat. Enzymes include papaya and pineapple (many prefab “meat tenderizers” are derived from these fruits, though they don’t taste particularly fruity), and figs, melon, kiwis, or also honey and ginger.
Dairy is the funky-mystery-hybrid ingredient in marinades. It is mild, slow-acting, and, eventually, the most tenderizing. Greek yogurt or buttermilk are typical dairy marinade ingredients. (Picture buttermilk-battered fried chicken, or yogurt-marinated Indian Chicken Tikka Masala, or tandoori chicken.) Why does dairy tenderize? It could be its mild acidity that tenderizes the meat, or if it’s the calcium activating tenderizing enzymes in the meat itself.

Fats play an important role in the chemistry of your marinade. They seal in flavor, and help to keep foods moist during grilling. Oils provide a clue to the regional and ethnic profile for the recipe. Olive oil is preferred in Mediterranean cooking, and unflavored olive oils lend themselves well to all manner of cooking.
(Yogurt, which works as an acid and an enzyme (see above), also works as a fat. It’s kind of a magical marinade do-it-all ingredient.)

The combination of fat and acid (or enzymatic) prevents the food from burning off the marinade combination before the food is properly cooked.

Seasonings and aromatics. As we noted at the beginning of this post, there are as many ways to craft a marinade as there are ingredients in your pantry (and your kitchen garden).
Choose from ingredients that reflect the region of your dish. You can search our recipe library or get creative and make your own “multicultural spice blend.”

Adding sweet ingredients (molasses, brown sugar, honey or even maple sugar) to the marinade can help form appealing caramelized, crispy coatings on grilled meats. (Yum.)

The consistency of marinades runs the gamut, from quite liquid (classic red wine, olive oil, and rosemary-garlic marinade, aka “Italian Salad Dressing”) to a thick paste, or can even be dry, as in our many Rubs and Spice Blends.

A marinade may also be thicker and more “goopy,” as my teen chef calls it (eg. Tandoori Spice and yogurt mixture).

A marinade could also have a drier paste consistency, which is easier to spread over the surface of the meat, fish, or poultry.  Some examples include: a paste made of Jamaican jerk seasoning with brown sugar, and vinegar, Chimichurri from Argentina, or a North African Berbere spice paste with lemon, and olive oil.

Photo credit: “marinade to-be” by surekat on Flickr