Marinade Mojo

What is a marinade [MEHR-ih-nayd]?

According to the "Food Lover's Companion," the indispensable culinary dictionary by Sharon Tyler Herbst, a marinade is "a seasoned liquid in which meat, fish and vegetables are soaked in order to absorb flavor, and in some instances, to be tenderized."

Sounds like a textbook definition that we all can live with, right? But as many of us know, the "seasoned liquid" definition but skims the surface; a marinade is more like an elixir, mysterious and nuanced, possessing near-magical powers, transforming the tough, sinewy and one-dimensional into complex, multilayered morsels that melt in the mouth.

We all know the effect that a good marinade has on us -- it nearly makes us swoon, as we lick our fingers into oblivion. But how many of us know the underlying tenets of marinade mastery -- the chemistry and the elements that give a sauce its magic powers? Most of us either pour the stuff out of a bottle or follow the rules of an ancient passed-down recipe, without any explanation of the marinade's hows and whys.

So, what exactly gives a marinade its mojo?

There are three main components -- Acid, Fat and Flavor.

Acid is the most important element, as its function is to break down muscle proteins and tenderize tough cuts of meat. Its secondary function is to impart flavor; however an acid cannot act alone; it needs fat and additional layers of flavor to achieve balance. Examples include: tomatoes, citrus fruits, pineapple, papaya, vinegar, wine, beer, hard booze, buttermilk and yogurt.

Fat -- You don't need much, but even a few tablespoons of oil helps to keep things lubricated. Solid fats (butter, lard, shortening) are not used because they wouldn't dissolve until cooking, which defeats the purpose. Certain fats, such as sesame oil, olive oil and walnut oil will impart flavor as well.

Flavor is where you can get creative. Generally speaking, the flavor components includes all or most of the following elements: Sweet, Heat, Salt and Savory.

Sweet: It's amazing how a little bit of sugar, honey, molasses or any other sweetener can bring out the savory qualities of a dish. Not necessary, but worth a smidge.

Heat: Again, a little dab will do ya -- from cayenne to paprika, harissa to hot sauce. The goal here is to achieve a multilayered experience, and a small amount of heat from peppers can complement all the other flavor components.

Salt: Maybe this seems obvious, but it cannot be understated. Marinades need salt, at least 1 teaspoon for every 1 1/2 pounds of meat. Salt alternatives are soy sauce, fish sauce, smashed anchovies, and to a lesser degree, olives and capers.

Savory: This comprises the flavor notes you want to stand up and sing. Think spices, from aniseed to zaatar, and woody herbs, including rosemary, thyme and bay leaf. Savory can also include lemon zest, onions, garlic, ginger root and pureed fruit.

So, I challenge you: Start with an acid -- any you like -- and build your very own marinade using this crib sheet. I'd love to hear what you come up with and how you got there.

One last note: For those of you who've tried the Vietnamese marinade for chicken or zucchini, the reason this marinade works is because it incorporates all the pieces of the marinade equation, even with its simple lineup of ingredients.

If you've got some of your own marinade mojo to share, we can always use more. Do so in the comments area below.

Have a delicious weekend!

By Kim ODonnel |  August 17, 2007; 11:47 AM ET Discoveries
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I tried the Viet marinade with chicken thighs a few weeks ago, and it is delish. I don't have access to a bbq grill, so I used my cast iron grill pan to sear the parts, then transfered them to the oven (about 375-degrees) until cooked through. Made extra to shred and use in salads and wraps later in the week. This is a keeper, for sure.

Posted by: Dinah | August 17, 2007 3:12 PM

Hello - I enjoyed reading the marinade basics with the fish sauce a few weeks back. So, yesterday I tried pork chops with my own marinade of lime juice (about a half a cup), olive oil, salt, pepper, and some nice mustards. It was actually great! We cooked them on the grill and it had a nice limey tang.

I know probably not that impressive, but it was stuff I had handy and didn't require me to try fish sauce which I'm not sure I'll like.

I enjoy the blog and thanks for the idea to try it myself on the marinade.

Posted by: RC | August 17, 2007 3:56 PM

I love using marinades esp. when I am pressed for time. I usually start with some sort of citrus for my acid (orange, lemon or lime juice)and olive oil (can't live without it). Recently, I added some greek seasoning and mint to my basic recipe. And it was a winner with the folks at home.

Posted by: LisaLuvs2Cook | August 20, 2007 10:26 AM

I like the authentic Eastern Shore marinade for chicken parts. Throw em on the charcoal grill and....YUM!!

Posted by: Lip Smackin Good | August 20, 2007 9:26 PM

I go up to Seattle at least a couple of times a year and I never leave without visiting two places on the narrow street behind and below (a lot below) the Pike Street Market. There is a spice story that gets everything right. The selection is profound and since the Northwest knows its fish, their rubs are always perfect compliments to whatever they touch. A couple of doors down is a Spanish (as in Spain) ingredient/cooking store. I always buy one of their imported paprikas and I'm always pleasantly surprised when I try them. While you're at it, there's a Mexican grocery on the street in front of the market that has plenty of real Mexican ingredients, including an array of hot sauces that will make your eyes water.

Posted by: RGD | September 2, 2007 2:17 PM

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