What is a marinade?

A marinade is a liquid used to flavor a variety of foods, mainly meats like beef, pork, chicken, and seafood, but also vegetables and meat substitutes like tofu. These foods, hereafter referred to as "meat", are left in the marinade for a certain period of time to add flavor and tenderness. The meat is then cooked generally by grilling but can also be baked, roasted, broiled, steamed, or thrown in a stir fry. The term "marinade" dates back to the 1600s when meats were left in a brine solution in order to preserve them. Sailors preserved fish in this manner, which is why "marinade" has its roots in the word "mariner". Marinades are very easy to make and the marinating process requires little attention.

Marinade components

Marinades are generally made up of three types of ingredients:

  • Acid: The acid component works to soften and flavor the meat by denaturing the meat proteins in connective tissue. When the proteins are denatured they create pockets in the meat where flavorings can enter. However, this denaturation can also create blockades that prevent the marinade from penetrating very far into the meat. Acids also help the marinade soften particularly tough cuts of meat. This softening is not the same as the tenderizing method, which softens meat by physical impact. Acids commonly used include red or white wine, all types of vinegars, tomato or citrus juice, and buttermilk or yogurt,
  • Oil: Oils are used to moisten the meat and to add flavor. Certain types of meat such as red meats may not need oil in the marinade since they contain enough fat. Leaner types of meat such as chicken and fish benefit greatly from oil in the marinade. Many different types of oils can be used, ranging from stronger flavored oils like olive or sesame to more delicate oils like vegetable.
  • Flavorings: A wide variety of ingredients are used to impart flavor to the meat. Flavorings include the huge variety of fresh or dried herbs and spices. Fresh garlic and ginger are also popular choices, as are chili peppers, shallots, and mustard. Salt can be used to both flavor and tenderize the meat. Sweeteners such as molasses or honey are also used and the sugar can give meats a brown color when they are cooked. Asian sauces such as soy sauce, hoisin, oyster, and fish sauce are common as well.

If you're new at making marinades, I recommend searching through cookbooks and the internet to see what ingredient combinations are commonly used. For example, the flavors of lemon juice, olive oil, and garlic combine well, as do the flavors of rice vinegar, sesame oil, and ginger. Also, certain herbs go well with certain types of meat. A marinade with fresh rosemary goes very well with lamb and dill mixes quite nicely with delicate fish. Once you get comfortable with marinades try experimenting with your own combinations. Play with different types and ratios of acids and oils and try new herbs and flavorings. Marinade combinations are limited only by your imagination.

How to marinate

You will need about 1/2 cup of marinade per pound of meat. When adding the marinade to the meat, don't just dump the ingredients into the bowl with the meat. It is important to mix the marinade ingredients separately before adding it to create an emulsion of the oil and water ingredients. If the oil was simply poured on it would form a coating around the meat which would prevent the acids and flavorings from penetrating. A blender can be used to mix the marinade, but using a whisk or shaking the liquid in a tightly sealed jar works just as well. The meat should be turned in the marinade several times during the marinating period to ensure all sides of the meat have come in contact with the marinade.

It is important to use a proper marinating container. The acids in the marinade can react with a metal bowl, both damaging the bowl and giving the meat a metal flavor. Acids can also react with a ceramic bowl, potentially leaking the glaze into the marinade. This is particularly dangerous if the glaze contains lead. The best choices are either a glass or plastic bowl that will not react with the marinade. Many people, including myself, prefer the convenience of using Ziploc bags. The bags seal tightly, require less marinade, and make it much easier to turn the meat.

The time that you marinate the meat is also important. If the meat marinates too little the marinade does not have a chance to soften and flavor the meat. If you marinate too long the acids in the marinade can overtenderize the meat, leaving it mushy and unappetizing. The acids can also actually begin to cook the meat (as in cerviche), which causes the meat to dry out and toughen. Marinating times vary greatly depending on the kind, cut, and size of the meat. Denser meats like pork and steak can marinate for 24 hours or even longer, while lighter meats like chicken should marinate for no more than 2 hours. Seafood times generally range from 15 to 60 minutes. Meat that has been sliced will marinate faster than meat that is whole, due to the additional surface area. Puncturing the meat does not appear to help marinade penetration and may actually cause the meat to lose valuable juices.

Not in the mood to whip up a marinade? Any store-bought marinades or salad dressings (the oil based ones) make easy substitutes. However, the flavor will not be as fresh or strong as a homemade version. Homemade vinaigrettes also make good marinades.

Food safety concerns

Be especially careful if you plan on serving the marinade with the cooked meat. Some people mistakenly think that the acid in the marinade is enough to kill harmful bacteria. Never serve the reserved marinade without cooking it first to kill the bacteria. Bring the marinade to a boil in a saucepan and let it cook for 5 minutes to make sure all contaminants are dead. Better yet, make some additional marinade that doesn't come into contact with the meat and serve that instead. Marinades used on vegetables or meat substitutes do not have to be cooked before being served.

It is also risky to leave the marinating meat out on the kitchen counter for a long period of time. If you are going to marinate the meat for more than a half an hour, it is best to throw the container in the fridge. This slows the growth of any harmful bacteria without affecting the rate of marinating.

Recent research has shown that grilled meats contain a reasonable level of carcinogens called HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). Interestingly, grilled meats that were first marinated have about 90% lower levels of carcinogens than nonmarinated meats. Scientists are still unsure how the marinade protects, but some think that antioxidants in the marinade prevent the carcinogens from forming.


Mar`i*nade" (?), n. [F.: cf. It. marinato marinade, F. mariner to preserve food for use at sea. See Marinate.] Cookery

A brine or pickle containing wine and spices, for enriching the flavor of meat and fish.


© Webster 1913.

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