The other night, when we were eating those grilled pork chops with cherry salsa, my husband Mike commented that I’m the cook in the house who marinates food, whereas he’s more of a rub kinda guy. This is a good distinction to make, and it weirdly matches our personalities. It makes sense that I would choose the method that is messy, likely to stain your clothes, and hard to store. Mike’s method is easy to keep on hand and brushes off clothes and countertop when you’re finished—zip, zop. Yes, there is room in the world (and in BBQs) for both marinades and rubs. Yes, I love Mike’s efficient and practical mind and the herb rubs that exemplify this. However, I am sticking to marinades and their powerful magic. Tough meats turn tender, dull meals develop some glamour, and potentially dry tidbits burst with juiciness.
I did not used to marinate as much as I do now. It seemed like it would require good planning and organization, not to mention a recipe to look up. At some point, though, I learned that you can marinate for half an hour or less without refrigeration, with great results. Then I read about fundamental categories needed for a superb and effective marinade. Perhaps you already know these, but for me, it created great freedom as I stepped away from cookbooks and aimed to build my own flavor worlds for meats and vegetables. So. In case you don’t know about these five categories, I’m going to spill: Salt, acid, oil, aromatics, and sugar. Below I’ll include a good rule of thumb with the ratios, along with examples of ingredients I have used in marinades past. While I’m at it, here are a few tips I’ve learned about marinades from people, books, and experimenting:
Using a Marinade
Try combining ingredients in a blender and pureeing them before applying it to the meat (or vegetable). Pureed, the flavors are more available to penetrate the food as the acid tenderizes it.
Massage the marinade into the flesh of the meat if you are using chicken, pork, beef, etc., but do not rub marinade into the delicate flesh of fish.
Using a ziplock baggie creates the ability to need less marinade per piece of meat.
If you have the time, marinate in refrigerator for several hours or overnight. If you are in a hurry, you can speed-marinate meat on the countertop for 15 to 30 minutes before cooking.
If you are in a REALLY big hurry and not using a grill, cut your meat into small pieces, rub marinade into the meat, and let it sit in a sealed ziplock on the counter for 15 minutes or less. The increased surface area of the meat will absorb more flavor. You can then sauté your meat over a higher heat and have it ready within minutes. You can use the brief marinating time to quickly make your meal accompaniments. I do this often during the week or when I’m tired--speed cooking that tastes leisurely.
There is a meat tenderizer that has tiny blades that look like flat pins. These pins create small holes in meat that are perfect for soaking up a marinade quickly. Mike used to use one of these in a restaurant where he worked, and he bought one for us. It’s very handy, especially when marinating a tough piece of meat.
I’ve often seen marinade recipes use one part acid to two parts oil, though sometimes the acid is higher than that.
Include plenty of salt. I’m not a historian, but from what I’ve heard, marinade was probably originally a brine (think “marina,” as in sea water?) to preserve foods.
Add just a touch of sweet, which tempers the flavor of the acid somewhat and accentuates the flavor of the food.
Apply aromatics, herbs, and/or spices as liberally or conservatively as your dish and palate require. I am rather heavy-handed with them, myself. Sometimes my marinade has bordered on the consistency of a paste from all the herbs & spices.
Five Components of a Marinade - Examples
Salt Sea salt, kosher salt Soy sauce Tamari sauce
Acid Wine Vinegar – balsamic, rice, red wine, champagne, etc. Citrus fruits/juice Yogurt
Oil Olive oil Walnut oil Chili oil Sesame oil
Spices, Herbs, and/or Aromatics Cracked peppercorns Lemon/orange zest Thyme, sage, rosemary, oregano, basil, marjoram, dill, cilantro Chili peppers, cayenne, paprika, Onions, garlic, shallots Cumin Ginger Mustard Worcestershire sauce Fish sauce
Sugar White sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar Honey Agave nectar