Marinades are a quick and easy way to add a boost of flavor to your grilled foods. The bright, acidic flavors of a marinade balance the charred and smoky flavors from the grill. Using a grill mat when you marinade will keep the delicious flavor on the meat instead of falling through the grill grates.
1. Marinades are a surface treatment. You may have heard that marinating food for days on end will get all those flavors deep into the meat. But, that’s not the case. Studies have shown that no matter how long you marinate meat, it will only penetrate the meat a fraction of an inch. That’s because the “flavor compounds” are too big to nestle their way into the fibers of protein. Then why do it? Because marinating makes sure all those delicious flavors in your marinade stick to your food. Have you ever added seasonings to your meat only to see it fall through the grates of the grill? A marinade acts as a glue on all those amazing flavors.
2. Don’t marinate meat at room temperature. You may find a recipe that calls for marinating your meat at room temperature. Ignore that instruction. Marinating at room temperature used to be a common cooking practice and appears in a fair number of recipes. But, it’s not safe.
When meat sits at room temperature, it enters the danger zone—the temperature range between 40°F and 140°F in which bacteria thrives. Always marinate meat in the refrigerator. If you’re using an older recipe that calls for room-temperature marinating, increase the marinating time and do it in the fridge. Veggies can be marinated at room temperature and allow you to get more flavor in less time.
3. Perfect your marinade to meat ratio. If you don’t use enough marinade, your meat won’t be fully coated in all of that flavor. If you use too much, you’re just wasting money. This can be a difficult balance to achieve—fortunately, the right balance is fairly simple. Generally speaking, you want about a ½ cup of marinade for each pound of meat. You can adjust this to suit whatever cut of meat you’re cooking, and the vessel you’re marinating in.
“Each ingredient in a marinade has a job.”
A typical marinade includes an acid, oil, seasonings, and salt. Each of the ingredients has a job. Acids like vinegar or lemon juice add a bright and flavorful balance to the charred smoky flavors from the grill. Plus, they can help break down the surface of your meat, so it’s great for thin, tougher cuts of meat like skirt steak. Oil is a great carrier for flavor, so it helps all of the flavors in your marinade combine and really coats your meat.
Salt is the most important ingredient in your marinade. While every other ingredient is basically a surface treatment, salt can penetrate deep into the meat. It will also help the meat that you’re cooking retain its’ moisture, or even soak in a little extra so your chicken or pork stays nice and juicy while it cooks.
5. Consider the chemistry. Though acid is a common marinade ingredient, it also complicates the chemistry of the situation. It can do great things for your dish, but it also means you need to pay attention. Acidic marinades can denature the outer layer of your foods if they’re left to sit for too long, leaving you with mush especially on thin cuts of meat. Don’t use an acidic marinade for more than four hours. If your marinade uses a citric acid such as lime juice or lemon juice, cut it down to two hours.
Don’t marinate your meat in aluminum, particularly if you’re using an acidic mixture. The acid can react with the aluminum and leave potentially harmful chemicals in your food. Stick to stainless steel or glass.
6. Take your time. Marinades require time. They need time for the various herb spices to combine with the oil and acid. They need time for the salt to penetrate deep into the meat. And they need time for all of those flavors to adhere to the food.
“Your marinade time will depend on a number of different factors.”
You should also consider the size of your cut—a roast will need more time than a steak. Delicate meats such as fish will need significantly less time: A fish fillet can finish marinating in less than half an hour, and acidic ingredients can discolor or denature fish in just a few minutes. Follow your recipe guidelines or, if you’re making your own, shoot for 2–4 hours for red meat and poultry, and 15–30 minutes for fish. This range will sufficiently marinate most cuts.
You can also marinate overnight. It’s a great way to knock out a few hours of work the day ahead. Just remember, the acid in your marinade will make the outside of your meat a little mushy. So, wait to add your lemon juice until the day of. This works well for whole roasts, which might need the extra time for the salt in your marinade to really do its work.
7. Reuse wisely—or not at all. Never put used marinade on cooked food. A marinade can be reused, but only if you boil it first. It may be tempting to toss your marinade in with your meat while it’s cooking, but the marinade won’t hold heat the same way your dish will. As a result, it’s important to boil your marinade first. This will kill off any of the bad bacteria it picked up from the raw meat while it was soaking. Better yet, don’t use all of the marinade on marinating in the first place! Save a little and use it to finish your meat after its cooked or add a little extra oil and turn it into a salad dressing.
Once you’ve boiled the used marinade, it has the same expiration date as the least-fresh ingredient you used to make it (including the meat).
This post has been updated since its original publication in June 2016.