Here's your ultimate guide to making and using marinades.
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Here's your ultimate guide to making and using marinades. Get ready for succulent steaks, flavorful chicken, tender lamb, and zesty veggies. We'll share tips and recipes to make the tastiest marinades and answer frequently asked questions about how to marinate all kinds of foods.

Why Marinate Foods?

Marinated baked baby back ribs with a papaya dipping sauce
Baby Back Ribs with Papaya Marinade
| Credit: Allrecipes

Marinating is an effective way to enhance the flavor, add extra moisture, and tenderize meat before cooking. In addition, a good marinade can help make leaner cuts less dry and make tougher pieces of meat more succulent.

People have been soaking their meats in seasoned liquid for centuries. The original marinades were briny liquids like seawater meant to preserve foods while also tenderizing and flavoring them. In fact, the word marinade comes from the Latin marinara, which means "of the sea."

What's Happening as My Meat Marinates?

steaks marinading in plastic bag
Credit: Meredith

When meat is exposed to an acidic marinade, like vinegar, wine, citrus juice, and tomatoes, the bonds break between protein bundles, and the proteins unwind, forming a loose mesh. Initially, water is trapped within this protein "net," and tissue remains moist and juicy. But after a while, the protein bonds tighten, water squeezes out, and the tissue toughens.

On the other hand, enzymatic marinades work by using protein enzymes (proteases) found in kiwi, papaya, raw pineapple, honeydew, and figs to break down the muscle fiber and connective tissue (collagen).

Dairy-based marinades, such as buttermilk or yogurt, are probably the only marinades that truly tenderize. They are only mildly acidic and don't toughen meat the way strongly acidic marinades do. The calcium in dairy products activates enzymes in meat that break down proteins; this process is similar to how aging tenderizes meat.

The 1-2-3 Formula for Marinades

Making your own marinades at home is as easy as 1, 2, 3 —literally. Following this simple formula will guarantee delicious flavor-inducing success for any recipe.

(1) 1 part acid + (2) 3 parts fat or oil + (3) seasonings = 1 unbeatable marinade

marination chart
Credit: Allrecipes

Marinades typically feature an oil and an acid — but the sky's the limit for creativity:

  • For your oil base, try olive, peanut, truffle, sesame, walnut, or chile oil. You can also use milk, coconut milk, buttermilk, or yogurt.
  • For acids, experiment with different types of vinegar, wines, beers, lemon, or lime juice.
  • Add some flavor, sprinkle in fresh or dried herbs, spices, and chile peppers; onions, shallots, garlic, ginger, citrus zest; prepared condiments like mustard, ketchup, or plum sauce.

Tips for Making Marinades

spicy garlicky beef marinade
Credit: Chef Mo
  • Use a blender to emulsify oils with acids. These two ingredients don't naturally want to mix together, so it'll be hard to emulsify them by hand.
  • Add sweet ingredients. Using Molasses, brown sugar, honey, or even maple sugar) in your marinade can help form appealing caramelized, crispy coatings on grilled meats.
  • Hold the salt. Salty marinades can dry out food, so salt your meats just before cooking to bring out food's natural flavor.
  • Use a non-reactive container for marinating. Stainless, steel, glass, and re-sealable plastic bags are all great. Stay away from aluminum containers because aluminum can react with acids, changing the color and flavor of the food.
  • Marinate in the refrigerator. Keep the food in a closed container and turn it over at least once, so all sides are coated in marinade.
  • Boil leftover marinade. If you're going to use it as a sauce, always boil any remaining marinade for at least 3 minutes to kill any bacteria.
  •  No need to pat dry. Simply remove the food from the marinade and let excess drip off. 

How Much Marinade Should I Use?

You want your meat to be completely immersed in the marinade. Generally, 1/2 cup of liquid marinade for every 1 pound of meat will do the trick. If you can't completely cover the meat, turn it over occasionally in the marinade.

How Long Should I Marinate Meat?

marinated pork chop
Credit: haoliang/Getty Images

Based on the type of marinade you're using and the kind of meat, your food could marinate for 30 minutes or overnight. Beef and lamb are always up for a long, leisurely soak, but delicate meats like seafood and skinless chicken only need a minimal soak. Be careful not to over-marinate your food since the acid in the marinade can cause the food to become too tough or too mushy.

  • Seafood - 15 to 30 minutes (1-hour max)
  • Boneless chicken breasts - 2 hours
  • Pork loin - 4 hours
  • Lamb - 4 to 8 hours
  • Beef- 24 hours or more

Remember, the goal is flavor. So even if your meat might get the most from several hours in a marinade, it will still get flavor benefits from a shorter soak. Marinating for 12 hours or more does cut cooking time by about 1/3, so keep an eye on the grill.

Marinated Meat Recipes

Now that you know everything there is to know about marinating meat, try your hand at one of these top-rated recipes:

By Carl Hanson and Allrecipes Editors