What About Marinade Recipes?

When it comes to BBQ, marinade recipes get used a lot. Marinades are sauces that flavor meat. Sometimes, though, they are dry rubs . They are a little different than BBQ sauces (which also flavor meat). A marinade is used before cooking, BBQ sauce is used during and/or after cooking.

The ingredients of the marinade (which, by the way, are an acid, an oil, and seasonings) get mixed together. Then the meat (or vegetable) sits in it for a while to take on those flavors. The whole idea is to add flavor.

Originally, using marinades was a form of preserving food. The acid in the marinade recipe chemically alters the muscle fibers of the meat. It doesn't technically tenderize it, but it does soften the outer layer of the meat.

Ingredients in Marinade Recipes


Acids used in marinade recipes can be:

Lemon juice
Lime juice
Other fruit juice

And that is not all of them. Combinations like tequila and lime go together very well (do Margaritas come to mind?). Although these acids "chemically alter the muscle fibers", they also provide tremendous flavor, as well as the tenderizing effect.

Vinegar is probably the most commonly used acid in marinades (and salad dressings too, come to think of it). I prefer using apple cider vinegar. Although I do use my share of lime juice.

Enzymes found in pineapple, green papaya, fresh ginger and raw onion can denature (break down) muscle fibers like the acids do. Yogurt and buttermilk are actually more powerful than any of them. But, they soften the meat in a little different way.

These fermented milk products use the digestive qualities of the bacteria found in them. Meats seem to stay moister when cooked with these.

The acids tend to cook the meat in a way very similar to heat. Because of this, marinating should be limited. The time varies based on how long that chemical change takes. The stronger the acid, or the more delicate the meat, the shorter the time should be. (More on this later)


Oil is used in marinade recipes to maintain moisture. It acts as a thickener and helps distribute the other seasonings. If you look at a bottle of vinaigrette salad dressing, you're actually looking at a marinade (vinegar, oil, and seasonings).

Shake it up... see how the oil keeps the seasonings suspended. After a while, though, it separates again into layers.

Oils can also change the flavor of your dishes. Think about using sesame oil, peanut oil, olive oil, fire oil, and others.

Seasonings for Marinade Recipes

Here is where you have total control.

The combination of what you use here, controls the final flavor. Not only the combination, but the amounts of each as well as when and how you combine them.

Some common ingredients found in marinade recipes include seasonings like:

soy sauce
Worcestershire sauce
chili powder

Not all necessarily in the same marinade. But the list of choices could be huge. Literally thousands of choices and combinations are possible.

Here is a website that not only has a few exotic spices for your marinade recipes, but it's also an excellent source of information on how to store your spices. Pickles and Spices World Experience a Unique Outlook from a Malaysian Cook. Recipes, tips, anecdotes and hard facts concerning exotic spices guided by a Malay Cook.

As you know, different cuisines of the world have their own groups of seasonings. Marinade recipes can take advantage of this to create the right flavors for a specific theme. For example, soy, sesame oil, ginger, and garlic could serve as a base for an oriental marinade.

Recently a proud restaurant owner (Earnesto) from San Antonio was telling me about his award winning tomatillo sauce. He told me, "it's not the ingredients (that makes it good), it's the process".

Give two different people the same recipe with the same ingredients list, and ask them to go into separate kitchens to make it. Do you think they will turn out the same result?

Probably not. Unless maybe the recipe was very specific about not only how much to use, but in what form, in what order, in what manner, etc.

For instance, garlic powder or fresh garlic... whole, sliced or minced... tomato juice or stewed tomatoes... dried cilantro or fresh... jalapeno or serrano... fresh or roasted... seeded or not... heated or refrigerated... stirred or pureed... strained or not... you get the idea?

Can you see that you are in the driver's seat on this trip?

This is where the fun comes into the picture. Be creative. Try new things. Just take a look at what Luke did with this pork chop marinade that he calls Drunk Butter Apple Chops.

Here is one of the best things about doing all this. The next time, you will know much more than you did before. And your confidence level will really begin to climb. You're just one notch closer to being that local expert. Have another drink and try again.

Take your time and enjoy. Chances are that you won't make a masterpiece on the first try. No biggie. You will need to taste along the way. After all, that's what you are going for is that perfect flavor.

You will probably have an idea of what you want. Maybe it's extra sweetness. Maybe it's a little more fire or tang. Whatever it is, work toward it in your marinade recipes. Many ingredients are very potent, such as liquid smoke or Worcestershire sauce. Too much is hard to overcome.

Bringing it all Together

When getting the marinade recipes ready for use, they should be emulsified. The acid, which is mostly water, and the oil won't mix. So, when it is blended together, it's not a solution (like saltwater). It's not a mixture (like milk and flour). It's an emulsion, because it is temporary and will separate (like the salad dressing).

Here is a way to bring this oil and acid together. Wisk the acid while adding the oil a little bit at a time. By adding the oil slowly, it is broken down into tiny droplets that will stay suspended (for a few hours anyway).

Either do that, or put it all into a sealable jar and shake it like crazy for a minute or so.

When creating your marinade recipe, you will need to use a container or tumbler that is non-reactive (non-aluminum). Otherwise you may get discolored meats.

I like to use glass. Many people use zipped plastic bags. They work very well. Just make sure they are sealed properly. They allow you to use a smaller amount of marinade and get better coverage.

All parts of the meat need to come in contact with the marinade. So, depending on what you use, you will need to turn the meat every 30 minutes or hour.

A Little Bit About Safety

Remember, this is raw meat that you are dealing with. Once it comes into contact with the marinade, it is contaminated. Be clean.

Any area of spilled marinade should be cleaned and disinfected as if it was touched by raw meat. For the same reason, leftover marinade should be thrown out and never reused.

Let's say... for some reason you seemed to think that this original recipe of yours was too good to waste. Let's say... you wanted to use it as a basting sauce. Well, if it's that good, I can see your point.

If that's what you want to do, you will need to boil the marinade for several minutes to kill any remaining bacteria. If you want to use some of it as a dipping sauce, simply reserve some of it before you use it as the marinade.

Flame cooking at high temperatures can produce cancer-causing agents called Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs). Marinades may discourage formation of HCAs in char-grilled meats. (Just thought you might want to know.)

Always marinate in the refrigerator (unless it will be for 30 minutes or less). The same theory applies (food safety). Keep the bacteria from forming.

Sure flavors will be absorbed quicker at a higher temperature, but why risk salmonella for a little difference in time? Besides, we've got time. Get another drink and think about it.

What about the time?

Through my research of marinades, I have found marinating times as long as several days. Evidently no standard rules apply.

If something is marinated too long, it will become mushy and discolored. You can tell from looking. Meat will begin to turn gray, chicken and pork will start to look white, and fish will turn opaque.

If this starts to happen, take it out of the marinade. Dry it off, wrap it in plastic, and put it back into the refrigerator until your are ready to cook it.

It's like seasoning with salt. Just a little bit doesn't change the taste much. A little more may be just right. But, too much can ruin it.

The best I can do is to give you some guidelines. I (personal opinion here) would not marinate anything over 24 hours (even beef). Usually overnight is plenty. And back off even more than that if you have small cuts, tender cuts, or a high acid marinade recipe.

For chicken and pork, I marinate from 2 to 6 hours. I would say overnight would be the maximum. Fish, though, is more delicate. Between 20 minutes and 2 hours is usually enough. Vegetables the same as fish.

I have talked to butchers that tell me marinating times for a good quality steak should be 15 minutes or less. They say that it covers up the flavor of the meat if left too long.

Some people even say steaks are better without a marinade at all. Isn't that the way it ought to be, though? Everyone fixing good food to suit their own taste. If you like marinades, use them. If you don't like them, don't use them. If you don't know, go get another drink and create one.

Take these times as a guide and adjust them as needed. Times are a part of your marinade recipes. Adjust them as you would the ingredients. Try to get that right balance of flavor and tenderness.

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