Okay, so what is a marinade? It’s a liquid in which you soak food, usually meat, to tenderize it, flavor it, or both. To tenderize, the liquid has to contain an acid to break down the meat tissue. Beyond that, many of them also contain oil. When I was going for low fat, I often skipped this, but some cooks (commenting online, anyway) feel oil is essential for spreading the flavor, and some even think it’s the oil, rather than the acid, that does the tenderizing. I’m still undecided on that. Oil obviously does at least one thing for a marinade — help it stick to the food.
There are plenty of acidic liquids to base your marinade on — vinegar, lemon juice, and wine are some of the classics. Soy sauce is also good for an Asian dish, and you can always try the juice from your canned tomatoes or the last little bit of orange juice.
Beyond that, it’s a matter of taste. You can put in any seasoning that will go with the base, like basil or oregano with tomato juice. Something sweet to offset the acid, like sugar or honey with vinegar or lemon juice, can be good too. Garlic goes nicely with soy sauce — really with just about anything. Mix your seasonings with your acidic liquid before you add the food, to distribute all the ingredients evenly.
Most marinade recipes will tell you to do the soaking in a “non-reactive” bowl, meaning something other than metal. Metal and acids sometimes do strange-tasting things together. Possibly the easiest way to marinate is in a plastic bag with a good secure zip top. You should probably still put the bag in a bowl for support, but there’ll still be less to clean up.
That bowl/bag/both has to stay in the refrigerator — marinating meat at room temperature is, just like doing almost anything else with it for several hours at room temperature, unsafe. And you will want to marinate meat for at least several hours, unless it’s sliced very thinly, for the full effect. Overnight is the usual time, but foodsafety.gov says it’s all right to marinate meats in the fridge up to five days. The longer you leave it, the deeper the flavor.
When you’re ready to cook your food, it may not take as long as it would’ve without marinating, due to the tenderizing process. Keep an eye on it as it cooks, especially if it’s meat — the only way to be sure it’s done is by temperature.
The leftover marinade should be thrown out, and so should the plastic bag if you used one. That’s the only way to avoid spreading any contamination from the raw meat.
Marinades offer you infinite possibilities for tenderizing and flavoring food — if you’re careful, they can make your cooking much more interesting in a good way.
(U.S. Army photo)