My mom used to cook a lot of steaks. Monster steaks, big thick sirloins she had to ask for straight from the butcher himself, with even bigger flavor. I was so dazzled by that grilled, buttery-tender meat, it was hard to pay attention to much else—but Mama made sure she taught me that behind every one of her great steaks was a marinade.
A marinade is basically a flavor treatment; a solution or spice mixture that is exposed to the outside of an ingredient (or sometimes injected into it) for a stretch of time to infuse it with tasty goodness and often tenderize it in the process. My mom usually made her own marinade out of olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, some herbs, and sometimes a little bit of balsamic vinegar.
The word “marinade” is mostly associated with liquids like teriyaki, Italian dressing, my mom’s mixture, or one of the many bottled marinades available in stores. Brine (a salt solution often used to soak meats before cooking) could also be considered a marinade, and so pickling is like a form of elongated marinating that works long enough to preserve. Marinades don’t have to be wet, though—get the low down on dry rubs, a form of dry marinade, here.
Most recipes that call for marinating do so as a prep step, before the cooking begins. They’ll instruct you to mix the ingredients for the marinade, submerge your meat or veggies in it, and allow it to sit in the refrigerator. This is what gives the beef in our Brussels Sprout Stir Fry enough flavor to stand on its own—a nice, long bath in a garlic/ginger/soy solution before it hits the wok.
But marinating doesn’t always precede cooking; in fact in some dishes, the marinade itself could be considered the cooking agent. Lime juice, vinegar, and other acids work on raw foods as they sit with them, softening them and changing their flavors as heat would. This is the backbone of the coastal Mexican dish ceviche, in which pieces of raw fish, shrimp, conch and/or octopus are soaked in lime juice with pico de gallo until cooked. Just like grilling or pan cooking, the lime juice turns the seafood an opaque color and fills it with flavor.
The same could be said for many Italian antipasto dishes. This was part of the inspiration for today’s Marinated Veggie Salad, in which raw squash sits in a simple dressing with roasted red peppers, olives, and marinated artichoke hearts until that thick, rigid, starchy, texture is gone and the squash becomes smooth and soft, easy to chew, and still chock full of nutrients.
You can buy a plethora of pre-made marinades at the store, but it’s really easy to make one at home, out of ingredients you’re likely to already have. At its most basic all you really need is a mixture like my mom made, a lot like a salad dressing—oil, acid, spices, and herbs.
A general rule of thumb is to use about one cup of marinade per pound of food. You want to have enough to completely cover your ingredients, which is easiest to do in a shallow dish or Ziplock bag (don’t use anything reactive, especially if you’ve got a high-acid marinade). You can marinate for up to a couple of days, or for as little as 20 minutes. A good friend of mine used to freeze his steaks and chicken breasts in marinade, so that when he defrosted them they were ready to go. They were noticeably more tender that way, and the flavor was incredible.
An important food safety note: Do not use marinade that has touched raw meat to baste, coat, or serve with. Once it’s mingled with the meat, it must either be discarded or brought to a full, rolling boil for one minute before being considered safe to eat.