A Beginner’s Guide to Marinating

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When I first started learning how to cook, the concept of marinating anything seemed daunting and foreign. Beyond the simple fact that I would have to handle raw meats for more than a few minutes at a time, there seemed to be so many rules about what to use and how long to leave things soaking that I just flat-out avoided it for quite some time. And then when I did initially try… well, let’s just say I learned some valuable lessons. Once I got the swing of it, though, I realized the whole process was actually pretty simple–you just need to know what you’re doing.

Marinating is the process of infusing flavor into uncooked food and tenderizing meats by letting them soak or rest over an extended period of time. You can marinate almost anything, from meat to meat substitutes (like tofu), seafood to vegetables. Today I’ll be breaking down some basic rules to follow, the two major categories of marinades (wet and dry), and how long to marinate each type of meal (beef, chicken, shrimp, fish, tofu, and vegetables), as well as a few simple recipes you can try yourself with ingredients you probably already have at home. Hopefully this comprehensive guide helps out anyone afraid to take the leap!

Basic Rules:

Use a seal-able container with an airtight lid or plastic saran wrap.

  • This is to keep any bacteria in the air from contaminating your food while it rests for long periods of time.

Use food-safe glass or plastic containers or Ziploc bags.

  • Never use anything aluminum or metal. Disposable tins can give your food a metallic taste, and some marinades may even begin to corrode aluminum if left for an extended period of time.

Use only raw foods. 

  • A major benefit of marinating is meat tenderization, which is the process of acid breaking down tissue that results in a more succulent, juicier product after the application of heat. This process requires a combination of both elements–acid and heat–to work, so marinating after the fact will have little to no effect on the quality of your meal.
  • Many flavors and spices require heat to reach their true potential, and marinating after the food has been cooked will not release the oils in your sauce or seasoning needed to take your meal on a direct route to Flavortown. That’s why many recipes from cultures who heavily season their food (Indian cuisine, for example) will oftentimes require you to toast the spices before grinding. Trust me.

Keep all marinating foods in the refrigerator or freezer. 

  • Because the basic premise of marinating is leaving raw foods to sit for a long period of time, it’s important to keep your food fresh. Bacteria grows naturally in warmer environments, so to prevent things like raw meats from going bad within a few hours it is important to store everything at a colder temperature.
  • Marinated food kept in the fridge can last for up to 48 hours, and frozen marinated foods can last up to 9 months.

Always keep different kinds of food separate.

  • Each kind of meat and fish cook at different temperatures and times, and all meat cooks differently from tofu. Additionally, different kinds of meat host unique bacteria (for example, chicken is particularly prone to salmonella, and swordfish is particularly prone to things you absolutely should not Google) but follow the same rule of always playing home to something. In order to kill the bacteria typically associated with each type, different meats have temperatures they should always reach when cooking.
  • Seafood, for example, should always be cooked to an internal temperature of 145F, but chicken should always reach 165F. If you marinate chicken and fish together, the fish will become contaminated with the bacteria growing on the raw chicken and then must be cooked to 165F, which would be way overcooking and vastly degrade the quality of your meal. It would be come tough and dry, which is the exact opposite of what you’re going for when you marinate something. Likewise, tofu can be eaten raw, but if you marinate it with beef it would have to be cooked to an internal temperature of 145-160F (depending on the cut of beef) and that would basically reduce your tofu to ash.
  • The one exception to this rule is that tofu and raw, washed vegetables can be marinated together.

Never reuse leftover marinades.

  • Because your marinade has come in contact with raw food, it should never be ingested without first also reaching the required internal temperature of the meat it housed. It has become a breeding ground for bacteria, and can be very dangerous.
  • Either reserve half of the prepared marinade in a separate container by itself to use as a sauce, or bring any remaining liquid marinade to a rolling boil (212F) and let it boil for 3-5 minutes.
  • If grilling, you can use leftover marinade to baste the meat, but only very early in the grilling process and not once the meat has reached half of the required internal temperature.

Never excessively salt your marinades.

  • While salt can be a great flavor enhancer, when food is soaked in large amounts of salt for an extended period of time it naturally begins to cure. Curing is a way to preserve meat that ultimately results in jerky, and salt is a major part of the process. Overly-salted marinades can result in an incredibly tough and near-inedible final product.
  • Salty liquid marinade ingredients like soy sauce or miso paste should be used sparingly (usually no more than ¼ cup) to achieve good flavor while still retaining a juicy and tender final product.
  • Although dry rubs do typically utilize salt, it’s important to use it as a flavor enhancer rather than a major ingredient (a few teaspoons vs. ½ cup or more makes a huge difference).
  • This is a hotly debated topic (whether or not to add salt your marinade/rub) in barbecue circles, but when people refer to a “salt marinade” they more often than not actually mean a brine. Brines and dry brines are salt-based solutions or rubs used to tenderize large or whole cuts of meat, and they’re a little more advanced so we won’t be talking about them today.

Liquid Marinades vs. Dry Rubs

Liquid marinades are mixtures made of three distinct parts: acid/enzyme, oil, and seasoning. They can have a consistency anywhere between water and peanut butter, but usually fall somewhere in between.

  • Acids/Enzymes are a key player in what marinades actually do to foods. They are the ingredients that facilitate the breakdown of tissue and the ultimate absorption of flavor. Citrus or fruit juices, vinegars, alcohol, yogurts, creams, and natural sweeteners like honey or agave are all examples of acids/enzymes that you can use in your marinade.
  • Oil not only provides a medium for your seasoning flavors to reside in, it also prevents your food from drying out during marination by holding in liquid and assists in the cooking process by providing non-stick base for pan-frying, grilling, and baking. Any oil will do, whether than be olive oil, sesame oil, avocado oil, mayonnaise, or flavored oils like chili oil or tomato oil.
  • Seasoning is the basis of what makes a delicious marinade. It provides the potent flavor associated with marinated foods, and can be anything from dry spices to aromatics to citrus zest to fermented pastes to whatever. The world is your oyster.

Dry rubs are liquid-free seasoning mixtures coated onto meats or meat substitutes that form a crust when cooked, and are typically made of two parts: sugar and seasoning.

  • Sugar helps tenderize the meat or meat substitute like acid/enzyme ingredient in liquid marinades, and facilitates caramelizationwhen cooked. Caramelization is when a browned, delicious crust forms on your food, and it is the result of sugars melting and then solidifying during the cooking process. This is the main appeal of using a dry rub over a liquid marinade. Only dry, granular sugars like white, raw, brown, or coconut sugars can be used.
  • Seasoning serves essentially the same purpose in both “types” of marinade, with the added caveats that all seasonings must be dry (aka garlic powder instead of minced garlic, etc), and there should be a minor salt component in dry rubs, typically about 1-3 tsps depending on the amount of rub you are making. Dry seasonings can include dried herbs, ground spices, and dehydrated aromatics, but–as with liquid marinades–the world is your oyster.

Marination Times

Contrary to popular belief, marinating doesn’t have to be a 24-hour process. While overnight marinades are typically thought to infuse the most flavor into your food, different factors contribute to how little or long you can (or should) let something sit. While I mentioned above that refrigerated marinades can last up to 48 hours in the fridge, that is the absolute maximum.

Any liquid marinades that are majority acid (aka the largest portion of marinade is made up of vinegars or citrus juices) should not be kept more than 4-6 hours, lest your raw meat begin to pickle… gross. Typically, though, acid will make up only a relatively small part of your overall marinade, so I would not worry too much about that.

Chicken Breasts

  • 2 – 48 hours
  • 6 – overnight for best results

Chicken Thighs

  • 6 – 48 hours
  • 12 – overnight for best results

Beef, Tender (Rib-eye)

  • Don’t

Beef, Medium (Sirloin, Flank, Skirt, Chuck)

  • 6 – 36 hours
  • 10 – overnight for best results

Beef, Tough (Roasts)

  • 10 – 48 hours
  • overnight for best results

Fish, Firm Steaks

(Tuna, Salmon, Swordfish)

  • 3 – 10 hours
  • 3 – 6 for best results

Fish, Flaky Fillets (Mahi-Mahi, Talapia)

  • 30 minutes  – 4 hours
  • 2 -3 hours for best results

Shrimp (Shell Off)

  • 2 – 24 hours
  • 6 – overnight for best results

Shrimp (Shell On)

  • 12 – 48 hours
  • 24 – 36 hours for best results

Tofu, Firm

  • 2 – 24 hours
  • 12 – overnight for best results

Tofu, Soft

  • 30 minutes – 12 hours
  • 2 – 6 hours for best results

Tofu, Silken

  • Don’t

Vegetables, Hard (Potatoes, Carrots, Squash)

  • 4 – 24 hours
  • 6 – 12 hours for best results

Vegetables, Medium (Green Beans, Peppers, Zucchini)

  • 30 minutes – 12 hours
  • 4 – 8 hours for best results

Vegetables, Soft (Leafy Greens, Broccoli)

  • Don’t

Simple Marinades to Try

Honey Garlic Shrimp

  • 10-15 shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp olive (or sesame) oil
  • 3 tbsp honey
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic (or 2 tsp garlic powder)

Italian White Fish (30 Minute Marinade)

  • 2 small tilapia fillets
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp Italian seasoning (store bought or 1:1 oregano, basil, garlic powder)

Chipotle™-Inspired Chicken

  • 2 chicken breasts
  • ¼ cup olive (or avocado) oil
  • 2 tsp brown sugar
  • ½ tbsp minced garlic (or 1 tsp garlic powder)
  • 2 tsp chili powder
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • ½ tsp black pepper

Orange Ginger Tofu

  • 1lb (1 package) firm tofu
  • 1/3 cup orange juice
  • ¼ cup soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp olive (or sesame) oil
  • 1 tbsp minced ginger
  • ½ tbsp minced garlic (or 1 tsp garlic powder)
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes

Steak Dry Rub

  • 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp thyme (or store bought Italian seasoning)
  • ½ tsp onion powder

Sweet and Spicy Vegetables

  • ½ cup sliced zucchini
  • ½ cup sliced bell pepper
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp honey (or brown sugar)
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper (or 2 tsp black pepper)

Hopefully this helps anyone who has any concerns about marinating or learning to marinate! If there’s anything I should add to this guide or you have any questions, feel free to let me know!

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