Marinade 101: Basic building blocks


I got a gas grill last month, after years of refusing to buy one because charcoal just tastes better. Well, guess what? I love having a gas grill. We've been grilling almost every day, and it's given me a chance to practice and perfect marinating different meat.

A good marinade can take a tougher cut of meat, like London broil or pork shoulder cut into chunks, to another level. Acidity tenderizes meat, so a cut of meat after 24 hours of marinating is much more tender than if you just took it out of the package.

This is a good time to get local meat — farmers markets are opening up, and a new butcher shop just opened in North Adams, Mass. Read my tips and marinade suggestions, then try your own. If you know the basics, you can make a really good, strategic marinade without a recipe, and be a hero at your next cookout.

Building blocks of a good marinade

A successful marinade depends on the right ratio of acidity and sweetness: too much, and you'll dry out or burn the meat. Otherwise, it's pretty simple, but you should have a good idea of the flavor profile you want before mixing something up. The idea is to accentuate the meat's best qualities more than it is to transform them.

You can also go heavy on flavors — what you're making is essentially a concentrate. I am usually cooking for two, and I use about a cup of marinade, maximum, for two to four chicken breasts or one tuna steak (pictured!) or a beef steak.

One of my favorite things to do is marinate meat — usually lamb, chicken or beef — in milk or yogurt, usually with garlic, cumin and turmeric. The dairy tenderizes and breaks down muscle, resulting in a juicy, tender meat. Doing this also fights the heat of the grill, which can dry meat out.

Tips and advice

Beware of too much acidity, which can also dry meat out. Too much salt is also a bad thing — your meat will dry out if it soaks too long in a salty marinade.

Fish should generally be marinated for 30 minutes to two hours, max, especially if your marinade is on the acidic side. Other meats can really go for 24 hours or more. Again, watch that acidity. I've been successful with equal parts oil to acid; the oil keeps the meat juicy, too.

Sugar of any kind will help you get that nice caramelization. If you use too much, the food will burn. If you're working with a cup of liquid, a tablespoon of brown sugar or honey will do it.

You can use a LOT of ingredients like garlic or onion — a few cloves of garlic or half a red onion, diced up fine, will impart great and uncomplicated flavor alongside some lemon juice and olive oil.

Try rubbing meat in a spice mix, then marinating it in something simple like a half/half oil and soy or Worcestershire sauce. The spice will contribute to that beautiful grilled surface we all should strive for. A tablespoon of paprika, a teaspoon of finely ground coffee and a ½ tsp chili powder should do it.

Marinades to try

I used the soy-pomegranate marinade on the tuna steak and mushrooms in the picture.

Soy-pomegranate marinade: 2 tbsp. diced chives, 1 chopped clove of garlic, 2 tbsp. vegetable oil, 2 tbsp. soy sauce, 2 tbsp. pomegranate juice

Golden yogurt marinade: 1 cup plain Greek yogurt, 3 tsp. vegetable oil, 2 cloves chopped garlic, ½ tbsp. turmeric, 1 tsp. cumin

Herby marinade: 4 tbsp olive oil, ¼ to ½ cup chopped herbs like chives, basil, mint, or cilantro (or a combo!), ½ tbsp. honey, ¼ tsp. salt, ¼ tsp. pepper

Savory vinegar marinade: ¼ cup apple cider vinegar, ¼ cup canola oil, 2 tbsp. chopped rosemary and sage, 1 tsp. ground mustard, 1 cinnamon stick


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