How to Make Marinades

Find the secret to marinating success with these tips for how to make marinades, plus favorite grilling recipes for chicken, pork and steak marinade.

Although marinades sometimes require advance planning, they're easy to mix together with on-hand ingredients, they increase the flavor of food and can tenderize it, too.

Many folks depend on these simple blends to boost the taste of meats and poultry before grilling. But marinades are so versatile, you can use them on fish, seafood and vegetables—as well as foods that are broiled in the oven or cooked on the stovetop.

Mix'em Up

Marinades usually consist of oil, an acidic ingredient and various herbs, spices and seasonings. Oil adds moisture and helps distribute flavors while the acid tenderizes meats by breaking down the fibers. Common acidic ingredients are vinegar, wine, yogurt and pineapple, lime, orange and lemon juices.

It's best to marinate foods in heavy-duty plastic bags or glass dishes. The acid in the marinade can react with aluminum pans, altering the flavor of the food and discoloring the pan.

A general guide is 1 cup of marinade per pound of meat when marinated in a heavy-duty plastic bag and 2 cups per pound of meat marinated in a flat dish.

The marinade should completely cover the food. If there isn't enough marinade to cover it, turn the food occasionally to ensure even distribution of flavors.

The advantages of marinating in a plastic bag are that less marinade is needed, the bag can be turned over easily to distribute the marinade and the bag is thrown away when you're done.

Time to Tenderize

Marinating times depend on the type of food and the amount of flavor you want. Delicate seafood and tender cuts of meat pick up great flavor when marinated from 15 minutes to 2 hours.

Less tender cuts of meat can be marinated for 6 hours to overnight. (Marinating longer than 24 hours is not recommended because it can cause the surface of the meat to become mushy.)

To help tenderize meat and to increase flavor, cut meat into serving-size pieces before marinating it so it will absorb more of the marinade.

Although a marinade can help tenderize meat, it will not turn a tough cut of meat into a tender one. (A better way to tenderize a tough cut of meat is by cooking it with moist heat, such as braising or slow cooking, then slicing it across the grain.)

And don't forget that foods should be covered and refrigerated while they're marinating.

Get Grilling

To get the most flavor out of your marinade, consider reserving a portion of it before adding it to the meat to serve as a sauce with the food. Or double the marinade recipe and reserve half of it for basting, then discard what was used to marinate the food.

If you'd rather not discard the marinade after draining it from uncooked meat, put it in a saucepan and bring it to a full rolling boil for 1 minute before using it to baste the food. This will ensure that it's food-safe.

Before basting meats, first cook the food on one side for 5 minutes. Then turn and baste on the cooked side of the meat to prevent cross-contamination from raw meat to the marinade.

If the food can't be turned on the grill (because it's too delicate or too large, for example), simply spoon the marinade or basting sauce over it.

Once you're done basting, discard any remaining marinade.

When cooking foods that have been marinated in a sugary mixture, keep a close eye on them. The high sugar concentration will cause them to brown (and burn) faster, especially when grilling.

Have Your Say in the Seasonings

Feel free to experiment when preparing marinades. If you're in a hurry, prepared salad dressing like zesty Italian makes a great marinade for a variety of meats, poultry and vegetables.

If you have a few minutes, create your own marinade with your favorite seasonings. Different herbs and spices round out the flavor of some foods better than others. Here are some suggestions to try in your marinades:

  • Beef and pork: basil, crushed red pepper flakes, cumin, garlic, ginger, ground mustard, oregano, pepper, sage, tarragon, thyme.
  • Chicken: basil, cumin, oregano, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme.
  • Fish: curry powder, dill weed, garlic, ginger, oregano, pepper, rosemary, thyme.
  • Vegetables: chili powder, cloves, curry powder, dill weed, ginger, ground mustard, nutmeg, oregano, pepper, rosemary.

While these are general guidelines, remember that marinades are very versatile. Your favorite beef marinade will likely taste just as good on chicken, pork or even vegetables. So give one a try.