Ingredient Intelligence

Marinade Is the Key to the Juiciest, Most Flavorful Food — But How Exactly Does It Work?

published Jun 9, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image

Does easily adding flavor to food sound good? What about making it more tender and juicier? Yup, that sounds awesome, too. To accomplish both and with very little effort and mostly just downtime, look no further than marinating. But what is marinating? Hold on — what is a marinade? You probably have at least a vague idea of what it means to marinate food — and you’ve almost certainly used a marinade to make dishes like grilled chicken breasts and grilled streak. But for the nitty gritty on what a marinade is, how to use one, and why you should, read on. 

What is a marinade?

A marinade is a simple mix of ingredients used to add flavor to meat, poultry, seafood, vegetables, and even tofu. Depending on what’s in the marinade, what it’s marinating, and for how long, a marinade can even tenderize and add moisture. 

Marinades can be made with a wide range of ingredients — more on that later — and while they often include solids like fresh rosemary or garlic cloves, they’re always mostly liquid. This is because marinating is about soaking, allowing that special mixture to work its flavor-boosting and tenderizing magic.  

How does a marinade work?

To understand how marinades work, it helps to consider what’s in a marinade. While the ingredient list can and should vary, most marinades combine an acid or enzyme with fat and seasonings, including salt. 

  • Acids — such as vinegar, citrus juice, pickle juice, and tomatoes — break down the bonds in protein, which changes the surface texture of food, while also allowing water to be trapped inside. However, too much time in acid can turn foods tough and dry, so it’s important not to over-marinate.
  • Enzymes — including mango, papaya, pineapple, and kiwi — are similar to acids, but they work by breaking down muscle fibers and connective tissues. 
  • Fat — usually oil but also yogurt, buttermilk, tahini, or mayonnaise — is used to spread the fat-soluble flavors in aromatics, herbs, spices, and other seasonings. Fats can also help lubricate and protect food against the heat of the oven, stove, or grill. 
  • Salt — whether in the form of miso, soy sauce, fish sauce, or actual grains of salt — is essential. Unlike most ingredients, salt penetrates below the surface of meat, where it loosens muscle fibers to tenderize tougher cuts of meat. It also creates gaps for moisture to make meat juicier. You do need to be careful with salt, as too much can also dry out food. 
  • Aromatics — including garlic, shallots, and ginger — will mostly stay on the surface of food, but the fat in a marinade will help spread their flavor. 
  • Herbs, spices, and other seasonings will also mostly affect the surface of food but are a wonderful way to add unique flavors to whatever you’re cooking. Experiment with fresh and dried herbs, whole or ground spices, and spice mixtures, as well as fresh and dried chiles, mustards, and various sauces and pastes, such as Worcestershire sauce, harissa, curry paste, and tamarind paste. 
  • Sugar and other sweeteners — such as honey, agave, molasses, soda, and even ketchup and barbecue sauce — add flavor and sweetness to marinades, which balance the salt and acid. Sugar also helps meat brown and caramelize while cooking, although you must be careful it doesn’t burn — especially when grilling. 

How do I make a marinade?

The supermarket is filled with bottled marinades, but making your own marinade allows you to control what goes in and what stays out, which means you can avoid mysterious ingredients, as well as tailor the flavor to suit your palate. Plus, you likely already have what you need in your kitchen, saving you time and money. 

You will find endless marinade recipes in cookbooks, magazines, and online, so that is one great place to start. But making marinades is also an opportunity to be creative. Think about what you’re cooking and the flavors you want to add, then consider if you need to tenderize or add moisture. And once you find a marinade you like, think about other ways to use it, as many marinades work well with different types of proteins (like this marinade for chicken, tofu, or pork, for example).

Boneless chicken breasts can be bland and dry, but a marinade of olive oil, apple cider vinegar, mustard, brown sugar, and salt will add tangy sweetness, while also bumping up the juiciness. Or marinate flank steak in a mixture of garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, and rice vinegar, which has you covered for your acid, fat, salt, and aromatics and will also make this lean cut of meat more tender.

Outside of over-doing the acid or salt or marinating for too long, it’s hard to really mess things up. But if you’re overwhelmed by the options — and there are a lot of options! — it may help to use this simple formula: one part acid (or enzyme) to three parts fat, plus aromatics and seasonings.

And if you’re short on time, consider using your favorite bottled salad dressing as a marinade — after all, most dressings rely on the same acid-fat-seasoning formula. 

How do I marinate?

Once you’ve settled on a marinade, it’s time to mix it up, which means, well, mix those ingredients together. Some cooks prefer to use a blender to make marinades, as it helps emulsify the ingredients, but it can easily be done in a bowl with a whisk or in the container you plan to marinate in — fewer dishes! The acids in marinades can react with metals and pottery glazes, so it’s best to marinate in a glass or plastic container or a resealable plastic bag. 

Make enough marinade to completely immerse what you’re marinating. About 1/2 cup of liquid for every 1 pound of meat or veggies is a good estimate. If you didn’t make enough, flip the food over occasionally to make sure all sides get covered. 

Once your meat or veggies are in the marinade, cover the container or seal the bag, and pop it in the fridge. Never marinate at room temperature — it’s a recipe for bacteria growth!

What should I marinate and for how long?

Most proteins and vegetables can be marinated, but some are better-suited than others. The process tends to work best with thinner, flatter ingredients or food that’s been cut into smaller pieces, so there’s more surface area exposed to the marinade. 

While you want to give food plenty of time to soak up all that great flavor, not to mention get juicy and tender, it’s important to not take it too far. A long marinating session might seem like the secret to incredible flavor, but it’s really a one-way ticket to soft and soggy texture. If your marinade is particularly salty or acidic, or if your food is on the delicate side (think: any kind of seafood), marinating should be brief. It’s also important to think about the size of what you’re marinating. For instance, a whole hanger steak can be marinated for longer than strips of sirloin. 

If you don’t have time for a full marinating session, know that even a quick soak can have benefits. Also note that food that’s been marinated for 12 hours or more will cook faster, so mind the grill!

  • Chicken, especially boneless, skinless breasts, can really benefit from marinating. Although it’s possible to marinate a whole bird, breaking chicken down into smaller pieces, as well as removing the skin, will be more effective. Aim to marinate chicken for 2 to 24 hours. 
  • Tougher cuts of beef — such as flank, skirt, sirloin, and hanger — can get a lot from marinating, but it’s best to avoid higher-price cuts like porterhouse or rib-eye. Try to marinate beef for at least 3 hours and up to 24 hours. 
  • Pork, particularly a milder cut like pork tenderloin, is ideal for marinating. For best results, cut the loin into smaller pieces, and marinate for 2 to 12 hours.  
  • Fish and shellfish can be marinated but not for long, because the acid in most marinades will start to “cook” the seafood, turning it mushy. Limit shellfish to 10 minutes and fish to 30 minutes. 
  • Tofu is a sponge for flavor and unlike meat, it really absorbs marinade. Tofu can be marinated for up to 24 hours. 
  • Various vegetables can be marinated but only briefly. Most softer veggies, such as zucchini or bell peppers, should only be marinated for about 10 minutes, while harder veggies like potatoes and carrots can be marinated for up to 30 minutes

What can I do with leftover marinade?

Marinade that comes in contact with raw protein is contaminated and the easiest option is to simply toss it. But if you hate waste or want to add even more flavor to dinner, you can return marinade to a useable state by boiling it for at least five minutes. Proper boiling will kill any bacteria and likely reduce the marinade to something more sauce-like that you will likely enjoy serving with whatever you originally used it to marinate.