I’m not sure when grilling season officially starts (maybe because there is not actually an official grilling season), but I'm ready to get started.
Everyone has the fundamentals of grilling covered: fire, meat, veggies, go! But the under-appreciated old standby that doesn’t get the attention it deserves is the marinade.
Marinades do a little flavoring, a little tenderizing, a little glazing. They take the boring and make it bold. The bland and make it spicy. The tough and make it tender. They determine the whole direction of a meal. Asian-style marinade? Let’s grill some bok choy! Italian? Let’s make a Panzanella Salad!
The beauty of a marinade is that you don’t need a recipe to make one. In fact, that’s sort of the fun of it—a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and we’ll see how we did at the dinner table!
If you’re not feeling overly confident about freestyling your marinade, think of it like those sand art projects we used to do at county fairs. You can put some pink, some green, some blue. It doesn’t matter which shade you choose—light pink or neon—or how much of each you use. It’s still going to fill the jar.
The major components of a marinade are fat, acid, salt, and “flavor.” We combine these to make something that tastes balanced and good-to-us. Sometimes we add something a little sweet, but it’s good to keep that portion of the marinade light when you’re grilling, because sugar burns pretty quickly over high heat.
Here’s a list of possible ingredients from each of those categories that you can mix and match to make any marinade. This is not comprehensive, so don't feel constrained by it!
If you need somewhere to start, a good general guideline is about 3 parts oil to 1 part acid, and then the rest depends on what you add!
Oils, like olive, vegetable, peanut, and canola (you can add other oils for flavor, like sesame oil, but they should be added in small quantities, not as the main fat in the marinade); mayonnaise
Citrus juice; vinegar; yogurt; buttermilk; wine; tomato sauce; ketchup; hot sauce
Plain old salt; soy sauce; fish sauce; coconut aminos; Worcestershire sauce; olive brine; pickle brine
Garlic; onion/shallot; scallions; ginger; herbs; fresh chiles; chile-garlic sauce; mustard; sesame oil; spices; curry paste; tahini; fruit juice; honey; brown sugar; red pepper flakes; citrus zest
Now that you have some options, here are just a few things to avoid when making a marinade:
- Too much acid can break down the proteins in your meat (this is a good thing until it’s not!), so make sure your marinade is not predominantly acid.
- Some tropical fruits, like pineapple, can make meats mushy rather than tender. If you want this flavor in your dish, add it later in the cooking process.
- Remember not to serve leftover meat marinade as a sauce, unless you’ve brought it to a full boil first. Brushing it on meat without boiling is ok, as long as the meat is still being cooked on the hot grill.
- Tender ingredients, like dry herbs and minced garlic, can burn pretty easily, so don’t go too heavy on either. For garlic, you can smash a few cloves and toss them in the marinade so they don’t coat the item you are grilling. For herbs, add whole sprigs that you can pull out later.
Posted by Laura, DISH editor