Here's How and Why You Should Start Marinating Your Food

Here's How and Why You Should Start Marinating Your Food

Marinades are the key to the juiciest, most flavorful dishes

Want your food to be more tender, juicier, and flavorful? Use this trick! What sounds like a TV commercial is just my terrible attempt to sell you a *really* great kitchen technique: marinating. Be it chicken, shrimp, or tofu, there’s probably nothing more straightforward than using your pantry to make everyday food even tastier.

What is a marinade?

A marinade is a mixture of different ingredients used to season meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, and tofu. The goal of marinating is to achieve a juicier and tender texture, which varies depending on the ingredients and time taken. Marinating, simply put, is about soaking the meat (or your preferred alternative), so that the special mixture can work its flavor-enhancing and tenderizing magic.

Make your own marinade!

In addition to more liquid marinades (like this one), which are usually based on oil or even yogurt, there are also rubs, that consist mainly of chopped herbs and spices. They require more time to soak into the ingredients and make them extra tender. Ruby wrote a great article about this and shared some exciting ideas for liquid and dry marinades here.

Simple marinated chicken wings

Simple marinated chicken wings
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How marinades work

3 basic components: acidity, fat, spices

It’s helpful to know what’s in a marinade to understand how the principle works. While the ingredient list varies, most marinades combine an acid, with fat, and spices. For example, a basic marinade could consist of vinegar, olive oil, and salt.

Acid: e.g. lemon juice, vinegar. 

The acid will break the bonds in the protein, change the surface structure, and at the same time, trap the moisture inside. However, if marinated too long, the ingredient can become tough and dry. Enzymes, which are contained in fruits like pineapple or mango are similar to acids, but break down connective tissue and muscle fibers, which also leads to a more tender end result.

Fat: e.g. oil, yogurt, nut butter, mayonnaise.

Fats protect against heat and help evenly distribute the fat-soluble flavors onto the food.

Spices, herbs, and other aromatics: e.g. (fresh) herbs and onions, garlic, ginger, lemongrass.

These do not soak into the grilled food but remain on the surface. However, they are a wonderful way to add unique flavor to dishes. Experiment with whole and ground spices or spice blends, fresh and dried herbs, different chili or chili sauces, mustards, sauces, and pastes.

Additionally, most marinades also have some form of sugar in them. Agave syrup, cane sugar, honey, and even ketchup – not only do they add flavor, but provide an extra layer of richness through caramelization. Sugar balances salt and acid, and helps brown the meat.

What can I marinate, and for how long?

Chicken: You can also use a whole chicken, but blander cuts like chicken breasts without skin could benefit from marinating. Chicken legs and wings are great for marinating for up to 24 hours.

Beef and Pork: Dense, tough cuts like flank or sirloin steaks gain a lot from long marinating up to 24 hours. The more pricey pieces such as porterhouse or rib-eye steaks, are not so suitable for marinating. Pork tenderloins are ideal for marinating up to 12 hours.

Fish and Seafood: Do not marinate these for too long as the acid will begin to “cook” or  “simmer” the ingredients. Marinate fish for maximum 30 minutes, seafood for maximum 10 minutes.

Tofu can be marinated up to 24 hours, as it soaks up all the flavors like a sponge.

Soft Vegetables like zucchini or mushrooms should be marinated for only about 10 minutes, as they rapidly draw water and become slippery. Harder vegetables like carrot, potatoes or pumpkin can be marinated for up to 30 minutes, but they usually won’t need any longer.

Oyster mushroom satay with spicy peanut sauce

Oyster mushroom satay with spicy peanut sauce
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Cheese or hard-boiled eggs can also be marinated and draw more flavor the longer they are left to marinate. Here, for example, in soy sauce, rice vinegar, mirin, garlic and chilis.

How to make a marinade?

Simpler than you think! Mix all ingredients in a large bowl – or a large freezer bag that can be sealed – add beef, tofu, or whatever you want to marinate and mix well. Then, just let it sit and wait for the magic result!

If you want to make your own marinade, a rough rule of thumb is one part acid (or enzymes) to three parts fat, plus flavorings and spices.

How to marinate

How to marinate
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If you don't want to come up with your own marinade, here are some great ideas for you:

Italian lemon-herb marinade
Asian marinade with soy, ginger, and honey
Sesame-sriracha marinade
Quick herb and oil marinade
Miso marinade
BBQ dry rub
Honey-chili marinade
Adobo marinade

Published on July 8, 2022

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