Marinating and Marinades

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MARINATING AND MARINADES. Marinades are used to enhance the flavors of grilled meats, seafood, and fruits and vegetables. Seemingly simple concoctions of acids, fats, and aromatics, marinades are used around the world; for example, Jamaican jerk, Indian tandoor, and Texas barbecue are marinades that form the basis of particular cuisines.

Simply put, tradition or a creative chef dictates the combination of flavors that compose the marinade, in which selected meats, seafood, or fruits are macerated for a period of time. This technique allows the marinade to transfer some of its flavors to the outer layers of the food. When the food is grilled, the marinade blend imparts a new flavor to the food being cooked.

For delicate seafood, such as a teriyaki-glazed grilled salmon, marinades baste the outer surfaces with a soy-sweet flavor. The taste of briefly marinated fruits and vegetables (i.e., pineapple briefly soaked in light vegetable oil, rum, and brown sugar) improves greatly.

More practically, marinades tenderize the tougher fibers of inexpensive cuts of meat. Acid causes the denaturation of the long proteins in meat, rendering the meat tender as well.

Cooking and Safety Precautions

Any excess marinade must be first boiled or reduced before being used as a side sauce, to completely kill any bacteria associated with the raw meat or seafood. Never reuse marinades unless they are cooked first.

Marinades should be mixed in a nonreactive container, such as stainless steel, porcelain, clay, or plasticcast iron and aluminum are not acceptable choices. Plastic containers may pick up residual flavors of the marinade, and should be reserved only for the making of marinade in the future. Although food does not need to be completely submerged in the marinade, it needs to be turned often so its surface area comes into contact with the marinade. Food may be marinated far in advance, but after three to six hours there is no perceivable difference in penetration of the marinade into the food. Generally, marinades coat only the outer few layers of the meat. Immersion of foods for an overly long period results in an overly broken down piece of meat, cooked seafood, or macerated fermenting fruit.

Components of Marinades

Marinades have three main components, acids, aromatics, and fats. The combination of the three can show a distinct ethnic profile.

Acids. Acids include all types of vinegar, fruit juices, and cultured milk products, such as yogurt. Flavored vinegars such as balsamic from Italy are used sparingly, adding top notes of flavor, while a hearty apple cider vinegar will add a robust flavor to a pork roast marinade. Wine and wine vinegar are common for European marinades, while rice vinegar is common in Asia for simple fish marinades. Citrus juices shine in marinades; the souring agents of lemon juice or pomegranate juice are common in the Middle East. Lime juice in Latin America is the base for seviche. In this case, the marinade actually "cooks" the fish or scallops, transforming the proteins in the fish to a cooked state while still retaining the texture of uncooked fish. Orange or grapefruit juice may be used for variation. Dairy-based marinades include well-known yogurt and spice mixtures for lamb in the Middle East, yogurt and cayenne for India's tandoor, and buttermilk for catfish in the American South. Even Coca-Cola is a common marinade base for some barbeque sauces.

Aromatics. Aromatics add a distinctive character, with spicy, hot, sour, or sweet flavors. Chopped ginger will dominate in an Asian-influenced teriyaki marinade, along with lemongrass and soy sauce. Chinese-style marinades use ginger, green onion, and garlic. A mirepoix (finely minced onions, carrots, celery, and leeks in red wine vinegar) flavors French-style marinades. Herbs may be fresh or dried, such as parsley, bay leaf, oregano, allspice, and peppercorns; juniper berries are typical ingredients for game marinades. Strongly flavored condiments such as Tabasco, Dijon mustard, fish sauces, or Worcestershire sauces add intense bursts of flavor to the marinade. Chilies are the foundation for many Latin marinades, including ground chili powder, or the smoky ancho adobo chile. Latin marinades also feature large proportions of garlic, cumin, and lime juice.

Fats. The fats in a marinade seal in flavor and help to keep foods moist during grilling. Olive oil or oils with mono-and diglycerides penetrate deeper and faster. As with other recipes, the oils provide a clue to the regional and ethnic profile for the recipe. Olive oil is preferred in the Mediterranean and in the western United States. Heavy fruity olive oils are best. Flavored nut oils such as hazelnut or sesame oil provide a balance to the acids and aromatics.

Yogurt, which has an acid component, also provides fat; it is one of the simplest marinades to create and use. More complex marinades will consider the balance between the right acid, aromatic, and fat. A heavy fruity olive oil will not balance light rice vinegar. Nor should the cook use strongly flavored oil such as sesame oil in large quantities. Sesame oil, like balsamic vinegar, is used lightly.

Since marinated foods are grilled over heat, the combination of fat and acid is needed when grilling to prevent the food from burning off the marinade combination before the food is properly cooked. During grilling, a chef will often use a basting brush to continue to coat the grilled food with reserved marinade as it cooks. Even the brush can be part of the art of marinade; rosemary sprigs can become a basting brush while adding additional flavor. As the marinades cook on the surface of the meats, carmelization and a slight glazing of flavors is produced on the surface as well.

Consistency of Marinade

Marinades may be quite liquid, as in the classic red wine, olive oil, and rosemary-garlic marinade. They may also be thick and viscous, as in spiced cumin yogurt. Drier pastes are also marinades, and somewhat easier to spread over large pieces of meat. Jamaican jerk seasoning is thick, textured, and often features the intense heat of a scotch bonnet pepper. Blended with allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar, and vinegar, jerk is a memorable marinade now used by gourmets. Chimichurri is a famous thick sauce-paste from Argentina, using cayenne, parsley, sherry vinegar, and lemon. Indonesian sambals grill strips of meat covered in a thick peanut and chili marinade. North Africans are familiar with Berber spice paste, with top notes of cumin, cinnamon, lemon, and olive oil.

Dry rubs are another marinade version. Rubs are a combination of spices, sugars, and salts spread onto the meat. The meat then basted with oil before grilling.

As long as the three components of marinades are kept in mind, many marinades are possible. A simple marinated chicken breast can transport the diner's palate to desert India with the use of tandoor marinade; to sultry Jamaica with Caribbean jerk; to sunny and sophisticated Provence, with garlic and rosemary; or to a down-home Texas barbecue, with chilies. Marinades can enhance the simplest ingredients, elevating them to a novel dining experience.

See also Barbecue; Caramelization; Caribbean; France; Fruit: Citrus Fruit; Grilling; Herbs and Spices; India; Italy; Meat; Mexico; Middle East; Oil; Proteins and Amino Acids; Sauces; South America.


Barnard, Melanie. Marinades: The Secret of Great Grilling. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.

Corriher, Shirley O. Cookwise: The Hows and Whys of Successful Cooking. New York: Morrow, 1997.

France, Christine, ed. The Complete Book of Sauces: Salsas, Dips, Relishes, Marinades, and Dressings. New York: Lorenz Books, 2000.

Raichlen, Steven. "The Magic of Marinades." Los Angeles Times, 12 July 2000.

Terrie Wright Chrones