In many American kitchens, marinades are somewhat of an afterthought. We might use one if we’re trying out a new recipe, and some folks have a few trusty marinades that they keep in their back pocket, but in general only the most creative home cooks are able to come up with delicious and unique marinades on the fly. Once you know the fundamentals, though, it’s super easy, fun, and delicious to experiment with them.
Marinades generally revolve around a central, acidic ingredient and a neutral oil. From there, you can add herbs, aromatics and spices and branch off into directions such as herbaceous, sweet and umami. The acid element doesn’t need to just be lemon juice or vinegar; mustard, Worcestershire sauce, fruit juices and even more off-the-wall options like buttermilk can serve as a base. And once you start playing around with seasonings, the possibilities feel endless — especially if you’re armed with a few important marinade tips.
First: Unless it’s a whole roast, meat doesn’t need to marinade overnight; just a couple of hours (or a half hour for fish) will usually suffice. The second tip is to make sure that the meat is totally submerged in the marinade (an airtight zip-top bag stashed into a storage container works well). Third, don’t use an overwhelming amount of salt or vinegar because the goal is to marinate the meat, not pickle it. And fourth, remove as much of the marinade as possible before cooking so it doesn’t scorch.
A final important tip to remember is to never reuse a marinade. If you’re going to turn leftover marinade into a sauce, be sure to bring it to a full rolling boil to minimize the risk of foodborne illness.
Once you begin experimenting with marinades, you’ll discover that the world is your oyster. You can open the fridge, pull out a few ingredients, and turn boring old chicken breasts or pork chops into works of culinary art. There are plenty of traditional marinade recipes out there, but if you’re really looking to get your creative juices flowing, use these 21 slightly offbeat marinade bases to begin building your repertoire.
Yogurt is a common marinade in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine, and the enzymes in it can help tenderize meat. When mixed with citrus, herbs and spices and allowed to marinate for 12 hours, plain yogurt can elevate grilled chicken to new heights.
Dr. Pepper is sweet, slightly acidic and has a surprisingly complex flavor, which makes it great for marinades, especially long-cooking beef roasts. Home cooks can boost the saltiness of a recipe with a little soy sauce.
Tequila and lime are a well-known match made in heaven. When mixed with some garlic and minced jalapeno, the blanco tequila and lime becomes a great foundation for a chicken marinade. Tacos, anyone?
The sweetness and acidity of cola makes it an ideal marinade for steak, chicken or barbecue dishes. Just mix it with some steak seasoning for steaks; soy sauce and lime juice for chicken; and ketchup, Worcestershire and cider vinegar for ribs and pulled pork.
Maple syrup isn’t just for your breakfast — it is also actually an incredibly versatile marinade ingredient. Mix it with dijon mustard for pork tenderloin; rosemary, olive oil and lemon juice for chicken; and soy sauce for salmon.
If you like wings and you’ve never marinated chicken in a mild hot sauce like Frank’s Red Hot or Texas Pete, it could be time to start. The longer the meat is marinated, though, the spicier it will become, so beware.
When combined with balsamic vinegar, pomegranate juice makes for an easy sweet and tangy marinade for chicken, pork, steak or lamb.
Gin is full of flavorings like juniper and coriander, and it can add a lot of complexity to a wide variety of meats. Mix it with lime juice, honey and garlic for a zesty gimlet-inspired fish marinade, or with orange juice, soy sauce, garlic and cayenne for Asian-inspired chicken or beef.
Miso (salty fermented soybean paste) is an absolute umami bomb, and all you need to do to turn it into a delicious and complex marinade is combine it with some sugar and a little alcohol. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different alcohols, such as mirin or sake for firm fish, and you’ll discover that the trio works for just about any protein.
Lemon-lime soda, when mixed with a little oil, garlic and soy sauce, is a far better chicken marinade than one might think something from the soda aisle could be.
Kiwi contains a powerful enzyme called actinidain that breaks down protein, so it is helpful in tenderizing meat, but cooks need to be wary about marinating for too long. It is recommended to marinate for 15 to 20 minutes with chicken and an hour for steak. Try blending the fruit up with Worcestershire sauce and garlic before coating your meat of choice. An added bonus to making the meat more tender is that it also lends a subtly sweet and tropical flavor.
Ranch dressing fans rejoice: Not only can you dress your salad and dip wings in it, but it also works as a marinade too. It’s creamy and tangy and doesn’t need much augmentation besides a little oil to turn it into a great marinade for chicken.
Like Dr. Pepper and cola, root beer also forms the foundation of a great marinade. All it needs is a dash of soy sauce to transform pork chops into something truly special.
Many salad dressings are already formulated to double as marinades, but none are quite as well-suited as a simple bottle of Italian dressing. Just let thin cutlets soak in the dressing for a couple hours before grilling, and you’ll be impressed with both the end result and how easy it was. Italian dressing-marinated chicken also forms the foundation of spiedies, an Upstate New York regional specialty.
You know those packets of hot mustard, soy sauce and duck sauce you usually toss in the trash after you finish you Chinese take-out? Instead of giving them the boot, home chefs can utilize them by emptying them all into a zip-top bag with a little oil, and marinating chicken in it.
Beer can serve as a great marinade, but you need to choose the right one. Light beers don’t accomplish much and dark beers can lend a bitter flavor, but flavorful and balanced beers like amber and brown ales can really do something special. Add herbs, salt and pepper, and perhaps some soy sauce and vinegar, and your steak or chicken will thank you. Beer contains alpha acids and tannins that tenderize meat as well.
Coffee might not seem like an ideal marinade because of its sharp flavor, but those chocolatey, bitter notes partner really nicely with steak. Mix a cup of strong coffee with garlic, mustard, balsamic vinegar and some light brown sugar, soak a skirt steak in the mixture for an hour or so before grilling, and wow your guests.
Wine, with its high acidity and complex flavors, makes for an ideal marinade for beef (red wine) and pork and chicken (white wine). For steaks, combine a full-bodied red wine with some garlic and rosemary. For chicken and pork, use an acidic white with garlic, rosemary and lemon zest.
Cranberry juice works as a bright and sweet marinade for both chicken and pork, especially when mixed with orange zest, Worcestershire and a dash of hot sauce.
With its sweet and autumnal flavor, apple cider can be pork’s best friend, especially when combined with some cider vinegar, garlic, thyme, rosemary and a little white wine in a marinade.
The sweet and woody characteristics of whiskey can serve as a foundation for a surprisingly great steak marinade. Mix it with some soy sauce, brown sugar and garlic, marinate for a few hours, and get grilling. And if you’re looking to really bring your steak marinating game to new heights, these 19 recipes are definitely for you.
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