With a little time and planning, marinating can boost the flavor of almost any dish.

Jessica Ball, M.S., R.D.
July 26, 2020
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One of the simplest ways to boost the flavor of any dish is through marinating. Marinating is the act of soaking food in a sauce before cooking, so it can absorb the flavors and become more tender and juicy. "Marinades infuse food with flavor and work particularly well on tough cuts of meat that will be cooked for long periods of time," says EatingWell Test Kitchen manager Breana Killeen. As a bonus, you can mix and match ingredients to vary your marinades and fit your preferences. With a little extra time and planning, this formula will help you make your meats, poultry and vegetables even more delicious.

How to Make a Marinade from Scratch

Any marinade can be broken down to a ratio of fats to acids, along with seasonings and aromatics. "Acid tenderizes and allows for the flavorings to absorb," explains Killeen. Fats help seasonings and aromatics get distributed evenly over whatever you are marinating. And the seasonings and aromatics provide flavor, of course. Typically, marinades rely more heavily on fats than acids—this prevents whatever you are marinating from getting mushy or over-tenderized. The longer a food marinates, the stronger the flavor will be, but Killeen says to beware that over-marinating in an acidic marinade can compromise the texture of the protein. (This is particularly true with delicate proteins like fish.) For this reason, we suggest a ratio of three parts fat, one part acid and one part seasonings and aromatics. "None are supposed to overpower—they're supposed to work in harmony," says Killeen. Examples of specific ingredients to use are below for each category.

Three parts fat

  • Olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Avocado oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Coconut milk

One part acid

  • Vinegar (any type)
  • Lemon or lime juice
  • Orange juice
  • Greek yogurt
  • Buttermilk

One part seasoning

  • Soy sauce
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Salt
  • Fish sauce

Aromatics to use

  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Shallots
  • Fresh herbs
  • Dried herbs
  • Spices
  • Citrus zest
  • Sugar (white or brown)
  • Honey
  • Chile peppers

How Long to Marinate

Timing and temperature are two important factors when marinating. Especially for things that will be soaking for over an hour, it is crucial to keep the food refrigerated so it stays safe. Marinating for too little time can diminish the amount of flavor the meat can absorb, but going for too long can mess with the food's texture. Too much time exposed to acid can make tender meats mushy, so be sure not to go much beyond a few hours for delicate meats and vegetables.

Killeen gives the advice that, if you are short on time, cut meat into smaller pieces. "Sliced beef only needs to be marinated for 10 minutes, but a whole piece of meat needs hours," says Killeen. Here are some suggested times for marinating different foods:

  • Boneless chicken: 1-12 hours
  • Bone-in chicken: 2-24 hours
  • Pork: 2-12 hours
  • Beef: 2-24 hours
  • Fish: 10 minutes-1 hour
  • Vegetables: 30 minutes-1 hour
  • Tofu: 1-12 hours

Flavor Suggestions

Once you get the basics of making marinade, it is a perfect opportunity to get creative with flavors. "Because I learned first how to make Chinese food, the basis of a sauce and marinade was always based on the five flavors: salty (soy sauce), spice (five-spice powder, chile or pepper), sour (rice vinegar or rice wine), sweet (hoisin, sugar, honey or jam) and bitter (garlic), so I always use all of these when I cook too," explains Killeen. Here are some pairings we at EatingWell go back to again and again for their delicious flavor.

  • Canola oil + rice vinegar + soy sauce + garlic + ginger
  • Olive oil + lemon juice + salt + garlic + dried or fresh herbs (basil, parsley, mint)
  • Vegetable oil + orange juice + fish sauce + chile + thyme
  • Olive oil + cider vinegar + Worcestershire sauce + cumin + shallots