Marinades are a meat lover’s best friend. There are few ways to intensify the flavor of your dishes quite like letting the main ingredients rest in a delicious marinade. Not only does it add an extra element of seasoning and spice, it also tenderizes your meat and helps it come out juicy and perfect. Here are a few things you can do to up your marinade game
1. 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, so it appears in a fair number of recipes. However, 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 thrive. Always marinate meat in the refrigerator. If you’re using an older recipe that calls for room-temperature marinating, increase the marinating time when doing it in the fridge. Veggies can be marinated at room temperature, and doing so may allow you to get more flavor in less time.
2. Perfect your marinade to meat ratio. If you have too little marinade, your meat won’t absorb any of the flavor. Too much, and the marinade could overwhelm your dish. This can be a difficult balance for a newbie to achieve—fortunately, the right balance is fairly simple.
Generally speaking, you want about ½ cup of marinade for each pound of meat. You can adjust this to suit whatever recipe you’re making. When your dish calls for a more subtle touch, adjust down; if you think the meat could use a bigger kick, use more.
3. Create Your Marinade. You may have a specific marinade recipe you want to use, or you might want to give making your own a go. Marinades are fairly easy to create: The most important thing (other than using flavors you like) is to make sure you include all the ingredients you need for your desired results.
“Each ingredient in a marinade has a job.”
A typical marinade includes an acid, oil, seasonings, and salt. Each of these ingredients has a job. Acids like vinegar or lemon juice break down the meat and allow the marinade to soak in. Oil carries the seasonings into the spaces the acid created, and the seasonings bring that flavorful punch.
Salt is the trickiest marinade ingredient, as too much can dry your meat out. If you include just a touch, however, it will encourage osmosis and help the meat draw in moisture so it’s flavorful and juicy. How much salt you need will depend on how much marinade you’re making, but ½ tablespoon per cup is a good place to start.
4. 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 your foods if they’re left to sit for too long. Don’t use an acidic marinade for more than four hours. If your marindate uses a citric acid such as lime juice or lemon juice, cut it down to two.
Moreover, do not marinate your meat in a metal bowl, particularly if you’re using an acidic mixture. The acid can react with the metal and leave potentially harmful chemicals in your food.
5. Go shallow. No, we don’t mean you should judge your meat by how it looks—we’ve all made ugly, delicious meals. We’re just talking about the dish you use while marinating. A wide, shallow dish will ensure the entire cut is flavored evenly. It’s okay if it doesn’t cover it entirely; It’s better to have to flip it periodically than to have unevenly flavored meat.
6. Take your time. Marinades require time. How much will depend on a number of factors, including the type of marinade, the cut of meat, and what you’re trying to achieve. As we previously mentioned, certain acidic ingredients put a limit on how long you should marinate your meat.
“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 just a 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, provided the recipe has no or very little acid so you’re not over-tenderizing the meat. This works well for whole roasts, or for recipes which call for a particularly flavorful cut of meat.
7. Reuse wisely—or not at all. 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 overall. 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.
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). If you want to get a little more bang out of your boiled leftover marinade, you can pour it into a freezing tray, cover it, and freeze it. You can then drop it into soups, gravies, sauces, or any liquid you think could use an extra punch of flavor.
This post has been updated since its original publication in June, 2016.