With a little time and planning, marinating can boost the flavor of almost any dish. Learn the formula for successfully marinating chicken, pork, beef, seafood, vegetables and tofu.
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One of the simplest ways to boost the flavor and enhance the texture of any dish is through marinating. According to the Food Lover's Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst, a marinade is "a seasoned liquid in which foods such as meat, fish and vegetables are soaked (marinated) in order to absorb flavor and, in some instances, to be tenderized."

Breana Lai Killeen, M.P.H., R.D. and beloved former Test Kitchen manager at EatingWell, adds that "Marinades work particularly well on tough cuts of meat that will be cooked for long periods of time."

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 proteins and veggies 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 like herbs and spices (also called aromatics). "Acid tenderizes and allows for the flavorings to absorb," explains Killeen.

Most marinade recipes will call for acid in the form of citrus juice (commonly lemon), vinegar or wine. Fats are usually added to marinades in the form of oils, although coconut milk or yogurt may also be used. They help distribute the seasonings evenly over whatever you are marinating. Typically, marinades contain more fats than acids—this prevents whatever you are marinating from getting mushy or over-tenderized, essentially cooking in the acid. 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.

Because of the acidic nature of marinades, always marinate in a glass, ceramic or stainless-steel container. (Do not use aluminum containers.) The marinade ratio we suggest is three parts fat, one part acid and one part seasonings. "None of the seasonings  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
  • Sunflower oil
  • Coconut milk
  • Full-fat yogurt

One part acid

  • Vinegar (any type)
  • Citrus juice
  • Wine (red or white; red tends to work best with beef)
  • Low-fat or nonfat yogurt
  • Low-fat or nonfat buttermilk

One part seasoning

  • Soy sauce
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Fish sauce
  • Dry spices or spice blends
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Shallots
  • Lemongrass
  • Onion
  • Fresh herbs (See note about dried herbs, dry spices/blends below.)
  • 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.

Killeen advises 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"

Here are some suggested times for marinating different foods:

  • Boneless chicken: 1-6 hours (Tenders will require less time than large chicken breasts.)
  • Bone-in chicken: 2-12 hours
  • Pork: 2-12 hours (Tenderloin will require less time than larger cuts like pork butt, shoulder or thick bone-in chops.)
  • Beef: 2-24 hours (Individual steaks will require less time than larger cuts like brisket and bottom round.)
  • Seafood: 20-30 minutes
  • Shellfish: 15 minutes
  • Vegetables: 30 minutes
  • Tofu: 1-12 hours

Flavor Suggestions

Once you have the basics of making a marinade down, 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 were 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," explains Killeen.

Here are some pairings we at EatingWell go back to again and again for their delicious flavor. The amounts below are based on the ratio above, and they are guidelines, so feel free to play and see what suits your palate. But, in general, use more fat than acid. The flavor profiles of the marinades below may be used on many different types of proteins, so there is room for experimentation. We're sharing our best recommendations.

The measurements are based on one pound of protein. When using dry herbs instead of fresh, use one-third of the amount. For example, 1 teaspoon dried parsley to replace 1 tablespoon fresh parsley. Dry and ground spices (including spice blends) are potent as well, so we recommend using them similarly to dried herbs, depending on the potency level desired. Use salt at your discretion, but we advise 1/4 teaspoon per pound of protein when called for in the marinade.

  • Try with chicken, pork or tofu: 3/4 cup canola oil + 1/4 cup each rice vinegar + soy sauce + chopped garlic + ginger
  • Try with veggies, seafood or shellfish: 3/4 cup olive oil + 1/4 cup each lemon juice + chopped garlic + fresh herbs (basil, parsley, mint) + 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Try with chicken or seafood (especially shrimp): 3/4 cup canola oil + 1/4 cup each orange juice + fish sauce + chopped chile pepper + 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon dried thyme (or about 10 sprigs fresh thyme)
  • Try with beef or pork: 3/4 cup olive oil + 1/4 cup each cider vinegar + Worcestershire sauce + chopped shallots + 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cumin