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?

Flank steak with mojo marinade sliced on a platter
Credit: Brie Passano

Marinades add flavor to food. They also add moisture, particularly when the marinade contains an oil base. Some marinades are also thought to tenderize meats. Buttermilk and yogurt are popular for this purpose. Whether or not they significantly tenderize meat, buttermilk and yogurt help balance out the sweet, spicy, and aromatic flavors of a marinade.

What's Happening as My Meat Marinates?

When meat is exposed to an acidic marinade, 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. Acid bases include vinegar, wine, citrus juice, and tomatoes.

Acidic marinades might actually toughen chicken. So when using a highly acidic marinade for chicken, add a little olive oil and/or minimize marinating time. Two hours is usually more than enough time to marinate chicken.

On the other hand, enzymatic marinades work by breaking down the muscle fiber and connective tissue (collagen). Kiwi, papaya, raw pineapple, honeydew melon, and figs all contain protein enzymes (proteases). Again, they might work too well if the marinating goes on too long. Chicken might turn to mush without passing though an intermediate stage of tenderness. Two hours is usually enough time to marinate chicken.

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

1-2-3 Formula for Marinades


If you can count to three, you've got it made with marinades. Delicious success is guaranteed with this simple formula:

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

marination chart
Credit: Allrecipes

As you can see from the above chart, marinades typically feature an oil and an acid — but the sky's the limit for creativity:

  • Add your own punctuation marks with fresh or dried herbs, spices, and chile peppers; onions, shallots, garlic, ginger, citrus zest; prepared condiments like mustard, ketchup, or plum sauce.
  • 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 vinegars, try wines or beers, lemon or lime juice, and yogurt.

How Much Marinade Should I Use?

Easy Grilled Lemon Chicken
Credit: Sahara B

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.

Tips for Making Marinades

grilled chicken thigh with marinade, herbs, and cherry tomatoes
Credit: bellepepper
  • 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.
  • Adding sweet ingredients (molasses, brown sugar, honey or even maple sugar) to the marinade can help form appealing caramelized, crispy coatings on grilled meats.
  • Hold the salt! Salty marinades dry out food. Salt food just before grilling to bring out food's natural flavor.
  • Use a non-reactive container for marinating: Stainless, steel, glass, re-sealable plastic bags are all great. Stay away from aluminum containers -- aluminum can react with acids, changing the color and flavor of the food.
  • Marinate in the refrigerator in a closed container.
  • While the food is marinating, turn it over at least once so all sides are coated in marinade.
  • Always boil leftover marinade for at least 3 minutes before using as a sauce.
  • Simply remove the food from the marinade and let excess drip off. No need to pat dry.

How Long Should I Marinate Meat?

Marinated Grilled Shrimp
Credit: Sonya

Beef and lamb are always up for a long, leisurely soak. But delicate meats like seafood and skinless chicken only need a minimal soak. Too much time in an acidic marinade, and they can become mushy.

  • Most seafood need only 15 to 30 minutes and should not stay in for longer than an hour
  • Boneless chicken breasts only need about two hours
  • Pork loin can soak for four hours
  • Lamb can go from four to eight hours
  • Beef can marinate for 24 hours or more

Remember, the goal is flavor. Even if your meat might get the most from several hours in a marinade, it will still get flavor benefits from a shorter soak.

steaks marinading in plastic bag
Credit: Meredith

Does Marinating Affect Cooking Times?

Marinating for 12 hours or more does cut cooking time by about 1/3, so keep an eye on the grill.

Fun Fact: 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."

Marinated Meat Recipes

Best Steak Marinade in Existence
Credit: Happyschmoopies

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