What is a marinade?
marinade (n.) a sauce, typically made of oil, vinegar, spices, and herbs, in which meat, fish, or other food is soaked before cooking in order to flavor or soften it.
With grilling season upon us, it’s time to brush up on the basics. Let’s start with marinades. As you’ve just read, marinating involves meat, seafood, veggies, or tofu soaking in a sauce for anywhere from 5 minutes to overnight. The amount of time a given cut of meat needs to marinate is a subject of tradition and debate. Conventional wisdom suggests the longer you marinate, the better (more flavor, more tender texture). Unfortunately, food science doesn’t back this up. The experts have found that marinating meat in a highly acidic marinade for too long can result in poor texture. While food scientists have shown marinating meat for longer than one hour isn’t necessary, marinating meat ahead of time can make dinner prep easy peasy! Just follow the steps below to ensure non-mushy meat.
As for flavor, aromatics like herbs or sauces like miso don’t soak into the interior of your meat. Salts and sugars in your marinade do work to pull juices out so other liquids can seep in (think brining). There is a huge upside to your marinade staying on the outside of your meat though: it’s the first thing to hit the heat, which means it’s the first thing that cooks. Cooking will develop flavors more deeply and create a layer of caramelization on the outside of your meat which will taste delicious.
Okay, but what goes in a marinade?
There are many avenues to go down here, but every marinade is made up of 5 basic components. You can follow this formula: 3 parts oil + 1 part acid + aromatics + sugar + salt
You need an acid to tenderize what you’re marinating. Vinegar, lemon juice (or other citrus), and wine are all good options. Be careful not to use too much or marinate too long or you’ll chemically cook your meat resulting in a mushy or stringy texture. Stick with the formula above and limit citrus marinades to a 2 hour soak.
You’ll need an oil to bind your marinade together. Canola, avocado, olive, toasted sesame, and peanut are solid options. Go with a flavorless oil (like canola) if you want your flavorings to do more of the work.
Aromatics & Spices
Fresh herbs, spices, hot chilies, miso, tangerine zest, mustard, garlic, ginger etc. are all flavoring options! The possibilities are endless so we’ve shared a few go to combinations below.
Adding a touch (or a ton) of sweetness will round out your marinade and ensure caramelization. Honey, brown sugar, white sugar, maple syrup, and agave will do the trick.
While the acid in your marinade is working to tenderize the outermost layer of your meat, salt is actually pulling out liquid so your meat can absorb all the other good stuff. Therefore, salt is a must. Soy sauce/tamari, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, and fine sea salt are good options.
How long should I marinate?
If you’re using citrus juice as the acid in your marinade, a quick soak will do it. This may sound very different from what you’ve heard, but 15 – 30 minutes for beef, lamb, pork, poultry, tofu, and veggies will do the trick. You can marinate up to 2 hours before you seriously start compromising texture. If you’re trying to marinate as a part of meal prep, stick with a less acidic vinegar (apple cider or rice) as your acid and marinate up to overnight, but anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours is best.
For shrimp, and fish steaks and filets, marinate for just 15 minutes. Scallops only need to be marinated for 5. Marinating longer than these times will result in chemical cooking and potential mushiness.
A few more tips!
- Always marinate in glass or plastic (try reusable, resealable Stasher bags instead of single use plastic zip top bags) since the acid can react with metal containers.
- Be sure to keep your marinations in the fridge white marinating. Bacteria can spread quickly outside of refrigeration.
- Avoid using the marinade that came in contact with raw meat as sauce. If you plan on using your marinade as sauce, make a double batch and separate out what will be used for sauce.
Go To Marinades
This is all too much work.
No worries! You can find DFC-marinated meats in our Meat Department ready for the grill or oven.