If you finally broke out the grill last weekend, then you’re probably eager to start putting it to regular use for as long as the weather permits. We’re with you on that! After all, what’s not to love about cooking outdoors, enjoying late evenings, and sitting down to a dinner that’s typically fuss-free? Grilling is all about letting the meat—or veggies—shine, and usually, you don’t need much more than a simple sprinkling of salt and pepper. But sometimes, you want to add a bit more flavor without necessarily serving it with a sauce. And that’s where a good marinade can help.
Marinades are, at their most basic, built like a basic salad dressing. (In fact, in a pinch, a bottle of vinaigrette-style salad dressing can double as a great impromptu marinade.) There’s oil, which helps distribute the flavors evenly. There’s an acid component, like vinegar, citrus juice, or wine. Then you need a bit of salt, and any other herbs, spices, or flavors you want to incorporate into your dish. And that’s pretty much it. I always taste the marinade first before using it—if it tastes good right off the bat, then I know I’ll enjoy the flavor it imparts to whatever we’re grilling. If I particularly like the taste of the marinade, I’ll set aside a portion of it so I have a “clean” batch (untainted by raw meat) to brush on the grilled meat or to reduce and serve on the side for dipping. I might even use some of it to dress some simple veggies or flavor rice, to help tie the whole meal together.
The tricky part is usually deciding how much acid to add, and how long to marinate. Typically, the more delicate the meat, the less time you want to marinate, and the less acid you use. Fish, for example, shouldn’t sit in an acidic marinade for too long, lest you wind up with ceviche. (In fact, I usually skip the acid when working with fish.) The same goes for really tender cuts of meat, which will turn mushy on you. That said, in most other cases, I do like adding something acidic to my marinades because I enjoy the brightness it adds, and it also means I can use less salt without sacrificing flavor.
I quite enjoy building my own marinades, and I like changing up the flavors based on the theme of the meal, like the Thai-style satay marinade used in the photo above. If I’m whipping up a Greek-inspired meal, I’ll use olive oil, lemon juice or lemon zest, salt, pepper, and oregano. When I want to add a smoky, spicy kick, I throw in some pureed chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. If I’m going for something herbaceous yet meaty, adding pesto to the marinade is usually a good move. For an Asian-style grilled beef, I like using sesame oil, tamarind (or lime juice) as the acid, fish sauce (or soy sauce), and flavor it with ginger, garlic, lemongrass, and a touch of sugar. I do enjoy using sugar in marinades, and I find it helps with browning. But I use it sparingly, just enough to flavor the marinade but not too much that it burns on the grill.
If you use your grill or roaster regularly, you probably already have your go-to marinade formula or even store-bought brand. We’d like to hear all about it! Tell us:
Do you have any favorite marinating tips and tricks? Favorite marinade flavors?
Or maybe you have a marinating mishap to relate, like that time someone I know dumped in half a bottle’s worth of cayenne powder, mistaking it for chili powder. (Yes. That happened.) Share with us below!