A great marinade involves a little bit of science, and a little bit of know how. There are rules, and there is a trick – and there is a bonus – and beyond that there is endless variation. Like a chemical experiment, some of the ingredients have a particular function. Others add depth and flavour. Taken all together they work synergistically, so that the final result is much, much more than if they’d been used in isolation.
An ordinary marinade involves only the two key players of oil and acid. The ingredients of a Great Marinade are chosen from five specific categories, and these are combined in a certain way. Like a yoga pose, your challenge in creating a marinade is to find the right balance between structure and ease. The structure is established through the categories of the ingredients. The ease comes from the flexible choice of ingredients within those categories, and how you choose to put them together.
The 5 Essential Ingredients of a Great Marinade
- Oil Oil coats the meat, and evenly distributes the flavours. When cooked, the hot oil creates a crisp outer seal, preventing the meat from drying out. Try: Olive oil, extra virgin olive oil.
- Acid Acid breaks down the outer protein structures, and thus acts as a tenderizer. Try: lemon juice, lime juice, orange juice, grapefruit juice, vinegar, yoghurt, rice wine vinegar.
- Salt. Salt helps the meat to maintain it’s moisture. The salt molecules stimulate the taste buds, and the brain/body responds by setting into motion the digestive process. Try: salt, coconut aminos, fish sauce, worcesteshire sauce.
- Sweet Sweet contributes to the browning of the meat. Other than this aesthetic role, it serves no purpose, but our love for the flavour is embedded deep in our DNA. This is reason enough for it to be considered a key ingredient of a Great Marinade. Try: maple syryp, molasses, muscovado sugar, concentrated date paste, honey, apple juice.
- Aromatics. Most aromatics – herbs and spices – contain healing properties. They might be anti-bacterial (garlic), anti-inflammatory (tumeric), heating (chili) or cooling (mint). They might also stimulate the digestive process (fennel). But without needing to know anything about their properties, they add flavour and elegance, or punch. Try: rosemary, thyme, sage, fennel, bay, parsely, coriander, cumin, tumeric, ginger, garlic, onion, pepper, paprika, pink peppercorns, etc.
The Quantities of Ingredients in a Great Marinade
There are various approaches to play around with, depending on what flavour or effect you are hoping to create.
- The Vinaigrette Approach. Use the same principle as you would for a vinaigrette salad dressing: oil for a king, and vinegar for a pauper. The marinade might be: 3 parts oil to 1 parts acid with salt, sweet and aromatics to taste.
- The Mild Acid Approach. If you are using one of the very mild acids, such as yoghurt or buttermilk, as used in many Indian marinades, use equal portions: 1 part oil to 1 part acid, with salt, sweet and aromatics to taste.
- The Paleomantic Great Marinade Approach. 4 parts oil (8 tablespoons, 120mls), 3 parts acid (6 tablespoons, 90mls), 1 part sweet (2 tablespoons, 30mls), 1 part aromatics (2 tablespoons, 30mls), and salt to taste (1 teaspoon).
The Trick to Marinading Meat Successfully
Marinade your meat for no more than two hours. Within two hours, the acid enzymes will render your meat tender, but if they are left to work for longer, the meat will either end up mushy, or the opposite effect will result, and the meat will be tough. So, if, like me, you need to prepare as much as possible in advance, make your marinade long before you need to add the meat so that the flavours have more time to infuse.
And the Bonus?
A marinade is basically the same as a salad dressing. So, if you’ve made too much marinade for your meat, use the extra for your leafy greens. Or vice versa.
Following the Paleomantic Great Marinade Approach, I’ve just swirled these ingredients together:
- 8 tablespoons olive oil (120mls)
- 6 tablespoons lemon juice (90mls)
- 2 tablespoons concentrated date paste
- 1 tablespoon finely minced rosemary
- 1 tablespoon finely orange zest
- 1 small garlic clove, finely minced
From the taste-test of my dipped fingertip, it’s going to be a good thing! We eat at 6pm, so I’ll let it sit until 4, giving it a swirl with a fork each time I happen to pass by. At four I’ll cut the steak into strips, and pour on enough marinade to give them a good coating. The rest will be used to dress up our raw salad.
I hope this inspires and informs. Do you have other ways of putting together a marinade? Have you a favorite combination that you keep returning to? Do share in the comments!
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Best Wishes, Good Health
- 4 parts oil (120 mls, 8 tablespoons)
- 3 parts acid (90 mls, 6 tablespoons)
- 2 parts sweet (60 mls, 4 tablespoons)
- 1 part aromatics (30 mls, 2 tablespoons)
- 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- Place all the ingredients into a bowl or jar, and mix thoroughly.
- No more than 2 hours before cooking time, coat or soak the meat.
- Use any left over, unused marinade as a salad dressing.