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Soak It! Your Go-To Guide for Marinating Food for the Grill

Italian Dressing Marinade

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by Elizabeth Karmel
from Fine Cooking, #118, pp. 62-67

When it comes to cooking techniques, there’s one that almost every home cook uses: marinating. The secret to many a great griller’s repertoire, it’s also often one of the first flavoring methods novice grillers try. That’s because it couldn’t be simpler: Just stir together the ingredients, soak the food, and you’re ready to go. But as easy as that is, there are a few things you need to know. Here, I’ll walk you through what makes a good marinade, plus the most important dos and don’ts for using one.

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The Makeup of a Marinade
To flavor foods effectively, a marinade should contain three fundamental components: an acid, a fat, and seasonings.

Acids are the flavor foundation. Some of my favorite acids for marinades are cider vinegar, wine, beer, buttermilk, peach nectar, and lemon, lime, orange, and cranberry juice. Other acidic juices, like those from raw pineapple, papaya, melon, ginger, and kiwi, are fine for short soaks, but take note: They all contain enzymes that can turn meat into mush, and the longer the marinating time, the mushier the meat will get.

Fats keep the food moist. Common examples include mayonnaise and full-fat Greek yogurt. You can also use flavored oils like hot chile oil, basil oil, or Asian sesame oil as part of the fat component, but since these can be very concentrated, use them sparingly if you’re adding seasonings to the marinade as well.

Some people are tempted to leave the fat out of a marinade to make it lighter, but it’s not a good idea. Not only does the fat keep the food moist, but it also promotes browning and prevents sticking on the grill.

Seasonings act as flavor boosters. There are endless good choices. Try fresh or dried herbs and spices; aromatics like garlic, shallot, scallion, onion, fresh ginger, or citrus zest; condiments like hot sauce, ketchup, soy sauce, fish sauce, mustard, jam, marmalade, or Worcestershire sauce; or even a touch of spirits. Just beware of adding too many sugary ingredients, which can cause the food to burn on the outside before it’s cooked on the inside.

The recipes that follow are great examples of how to combine these components to create different flavors, from a basic herb marinade to a spicy Mexican marinade with beer and chipotles. Once you make them, you’ll see why marinades are my secret to fabulous weeknight summer meals.

Marinating Dos and Don’ts
Always marinate in a nonreactive vessel, such as a stainless-steel, glass, or plastic container, or in a heavyduty zip-top plastic bag. Do not marinate in an aluminum container, which will react with acidic ingredients to change the color of the food and give it a metallic flavor.

Marinate in a closed container in the refrigerator, making sure that none of the marinade and raw meat juice can contaminate other foods.

Use enough marinade to coat the food. Your food doesn’t need to be swimming in marinade, but it should be well coated.

Go for a short soak. Marinades generally penetrate only the outer 1/4 inch of the food, which doesn’t take very long. Soak shellfish for about 15 minutes, fish for 20 to 30 minutes, and everything else for 30 minutes to 2 hours.
Don’t overmarinate. If your food starts to turn a cloudy grayish-white, take it out of the marinade-the acid and enzymes in the marinade are “cooking” the food. Note that citrus and vinegar marinades are stronger and work more quickly than mayonnaise or buttermilk marinades.

Turn the food as it marinates. Do this at least once to make sure all sides of the food are exposed to the marinade.
Don’t wipe off the marinade. Just remove food from the marinade and let the excess drip off; what’s left will create a delicious exterior.

Salt marinated food just before cooking. There’s not much salt in these marinades, because a salty marinade tends to dry out food. (The exception is a mayonnaisebased marinade, which is salty by nature.) Salting before grilling is important because it brings out the food’s natural flavor.

Never use a marinade as a sauce unless it has been boiled for three consecutive minutes to kill any bacteria from the raw food.

Grill It!
Once you’ve marinated your food, use this chart for guidance on grilling methods and times.
Food Grilling Method Time
These are some of the most common foods you might marinate and grill. If you don’t see the item you want on this list, look for something of a similar size Direct heat means that the grill is evenly hot. Indirect heat means that the grill has both hot and cool zones; sear over the hot zone and finish over the cool zone. Remember that these times are approximate; the actual grilling time depends on the amount and size of the food.
Food Grilling Method/Heat Time Food Grilling/Method Heat Time
Bone-in chicken pieces Indirect/Medium 35–45 min. Boneless pork chop Direct/Medium 11–13 min.
Boneless, skinless chicken Direct/Medium 7–12 min. Lamb chops Direct/Medium 12–14 min.
Butterflied whole chicken Indirect/Medium 45–60 min. Fish fillets Direct/Medium 6–10 min.
Flank steak Direct/Medium 15–20 min. Small whole fish Indirect/Medium 10–15 min.
Rib-eye steak Direct/Medium 13–15 min. Fish steaks Direct/Medium 8–10 min.
Pork tenderloin Direct/Medium 14–18 min. Shrimp or scallops Direct/Medium 4–8 min.
Pork loin roast Indirect/Medium 45–60 min. Soft vegetables like asparagus,mushrooms, etc. Direct/Medium 6–15 min.
Bone-in pork chop Direct/Medium 14–16 min. Hard vegetables like potatoes and onions; whole or large pieces Indirect/Medium 40–60

Scott Phillips


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