Marinate…Like a Chef

In Eat, May 2021 by Bobby McFarlandLeave a Comment

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It’s grilling season—but, first, learn how to make a marinade for your meats using what’s already in your fridge and pantry.

If any of my talents could be considered a superpower, it would be my ability to produce a great marinade out of any ordinary group of ingredients. It comes so naturally to me that I didn’t think anything of it until I started bringing marinated meats to tailgates and cookouts. Now, friends send me pictures of the ingredients in their house and ask me to walk them through my creative-ish process.

I say “ish” because, while the process appears creative, it is—at least in my mind—very structured and logical, and, fortunately, this makes it teachable. There’s no Disney moment where I float around the kitchen allowing the perfect ingredients to present themselves to me while a symphony plays uplifting music in the background. It’s more me standing there saying things like “this needs acidity” and then finding a few bottles of vinegar and picking one. With no abracadabra required, I’m confident that you, too, can recreate the process at home.

Steps to Mastering Marinades

1. Break out your blender. Save yourself the time and cleanup of knife work by pulling out your blender. Garlic cloves, onions and herbs are in almost every marinade I make, and liquifying them in a blender is not only faster, but it extracts more flavor.

2. Summon your scraps and stragglers. If you’re like me, almost-empty sauce bottles, jam jars, onion halves and forgotten herbs plague your refrigerator. However, when I buy a bunch of meat that I intend to grill, these annoyances get purged and put to use. Pull out everything you’d love to get rid of—the thyme you bought last week, the jar with one pickle left, the fig jam you picked up for a holiday charcuterie spread, and the gaudy hot sauce bottle your co-worker curiously decided to get you for secret Santa. You don’t need to use everything, but pulling it all out will make it a lot easier for you to make decisions in the next step.

3. Pick your profile. With your driving ingredients in front of you, it’s time to decide your general direction. Great marinades require a balancing act of savory, sweet, tart, spicy and herbaceousness, but the ingredients you choose should depend on what you’re marinating. For example, the jar of strawberry jam in your fridge would bring a nice sweet complexity to a balsamic-red wine marinade for beef or lamb, but it would probably be off-putting in your lime- and beer-based taco marinade. In that case, maybe turn to your pantry for something more neutral like agave or sugar.

Start arranging ingredients on your counter by what you know you want to use, and then turn to your pantry for staples like spices, oils and vinegars to fill out the rest of your flavor profile.

4. Add and adjust. Start filling your blender, making sure to add some oil—most of the time I use something neutral like canola. Fat helps round out the flavor and texture of the final marinade, and I believe marinades with oil cook up more nicely on the grill. Eyeballing it, try to make your marinade about 20% oil.

Don’t worry about making too much marinade—it freezes indefinitely, and if you grill a lot, you’ll use it in no time.

Once you have every flavor category from the included blueprint represented in your marinade, blend it up and give it a taste. The flavor should be aggressive but agreeable, and salty but not indelibly so. Marinades don’t penetrate very far into the meat, so the flavor should be strong to compensate.

5. Pour on and pack up. When you’re happy with your marinade, put the meat (or whatever you’re marinating) in a Ziploc bag and pour the marinade over it straight from the blender. Use enough to generously coat every nook and cranny of the meat, but not so much that it’s swimming in it. Reserve extra marinade in a separate container to label and freeze.

6. Wait, cook and enjoy. With the exception of fish and tofu—which shouldn’t marinade for more than an hour or two—I prefer marinating most things from six hours to up to a couple of days. However, if you find yourself short on time, studies show that as little as 30 minutes to an hour in marinade can make a big difference.

Finally—the part where the magic happens: Be proud that you made something unique using nothing but your sense of taste and a little know-how (plus some what-to-do-with-this leftovers). And enjoy the extra space in your refrigerator—as short-lived as it may be.

Pro Tip: If you’re short on time, two-parts store-bought Italian dressing, one-part hot sauce, a squeeze of mustard and honey, and some fresh or dry herbs make a great impromptu chicken or pork marinade.

Blueprint for a Great Marinade

Savory: Soy sauce, Worcestershire, anchovy paste, miso, fish sauce, garlic, onion
Sweet: Sugar, honey, agave, jam
Acid: Vinegar, citrus
Spice: Hot sauce (also an acid); fresh, canned, dry or powdered chile peppers; black pepper
Herb: Fresh or dry herbs, pesto or chimichurri, dill pickles/pickle juice (also an acid)
Fat: Sesame oil, olive oil, neutral oil (like canola)
Salt: Soy sauce or kosher/sea salt
Booze* (optional): Wine, beer, bourbon, tequila

*Booze doesn’t just taste good on its own, but thanks to chemistry, it enhances the existing flavors in a marinade. Many flavor compounds in food are alcohol-soluble, which means they can only be extracted by alcohol.

White wine/rosé • Citrus • Lighter vinegars (cider, white wine, rice) • Beer • Pickle juice

Red wine • Robust vinegars (balsamic, sherry) • Worcestershire

Herbs • Alliums (garlic, onions, etc.) • Soy sauce • Mustard • Hot sauce

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