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What is a Marinade?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A marinade is a sauce which is designed to flavor and tenderize meats. Marinades can also be used to flavor vegetables, especially harder vegetables like eggplant, zucchini, and mushrooms. Typically, food is soaked in a marinade for at least several hours and sometimes several days before it is cooked. As it soaks, the marinated food absorbs the flavors of the marinade, and when it is cooked, the food will be more flavorful and complex as a result. Many markets sell packaged marinades, and it is also easy to devise your own at home, especially with the assistance of a cookbook which provides options and suggestions.

The concept of marinating food is quite ancient, and many cultures have some tradition of marination. Meats have classically been marinated because they can be stringy and tough, and a marinade will tenderize the meat and improve the flavor. Many cultures have a tradition of eating meats from older animals, like mutton, which comes from adult sheep, and these meats would be rather unpleasant if they were not marinated and slowly cooked.

When a marinade is designed as a tenderizer, it includes an acid like vinegar or lemon juice. The acid attacks the fibrous connective tissue between the muscles, softening it so that the meat will be less stringy. As the acid penetrates the meat, it can also carry flavorings along with with it. Obviously, the longer the meat marinates, the softer it will be when cooked, although there is a point when the meat will turn to mush, making it useless.

Flavorings in marinades vary widely. They can be spicy, smoky, sweet, bitter, and sour. They can utilize herbs, spices, fruit juices, vegetables like garlic and onions, soy sauce, yogurt, wine, sugar, chocolate, and a wide assortment of other ingredients. A very basic marinade might include vinegar, olive oil, herbs, salt, and pepper, and this base can be endlessly revised and updated, replacing vinegar with orange juice, for example, and adding a hint of brown sugar or molasses for a sweet, dark flavor.

Once food has been marinated, it can be cooked in a variety of ways. Many people like to grill marinated foods, but they can also be baked, roasted, broiled, fried, or stewed. Older meats tend to benefit from a slow, gentle stewing which helps to break down the fibrous tissue of the meat even more, while cuts of chicken and steak can be quite excellent when they are cooked on a grill.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By summing — On Jun 06, 2011

I am a vegetarian and my diet would be so boring if it was not for marinades. People often think of marinating meat, but marinating tofu is a great way to infuse it with big bright flavors that improve on something which is usually kind of boring.

I also love marinating vegetables. This works best with hearty plain tasting vegetables like squash or mushrooms, but you can also marinate veggies with bold flavors. I have had some delicious marinated tomatoes and peppers in my life. Really I think there are few things that are not made better with marinating.

By GreenWeaver — On Jun 06, 2011

@Sunny27 - I think that another easy steak marinade is the use of Italian dressing. Salad dressing really works as a great marinade too.

I sometimes buy a bottle of sour orange that is sold in the Spanish spice aisle section. I think that the bitterness of the orange really wakes up the flavor of the steak and if you add a little salt and garlic, you will have the best tasting steak you have ever had.

I can’t believe how easy this is to put together. My husband is always amazed when I use this marinade recipe. If he only knew how easy it was to put together.

By Sunny27 — On Jun 06, 2011

I usually use a mojito marinade for steak. It is a blend of lime and garlic juices that really adds a Cuban inspired taste to the steak. This is a great marinade for steak that is found in the spice aisle of most major supermarkets.

I sometimes marinate the steaks overnight and it really adds flavor. I then cook the steaks in a little bit of olive oil and butter and add a little bit of garlic and they taste great. I usually brown the steaks because I am paranoid of them being undercooked.

The mojito marinade also works great with pork and chicken. It actually works with most cuts of meat.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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