A great marinade can make the difference between a so-so meal and a memorably mouthwatering dish. You can always buy one at the grocery store, but these premade marinades often have unnecessary additives and preservatives and are way more pricey than creating your own. When you make your own marinade, you have complete control over exactly what goes into it and can adjust accordingly for your taste preferences and the cut of meat you’re preparing. In my experience, making things like marinade fresh always takes meals to the next level. There’s nothing like a dinner cooked completely from scratch and made with love. And of course, quality meat makes the best marinade shine that much brighter. Once you understand the guidelines for what makes a marinade work well, you’ll find that it’s not only easy to make your own but also really fun to get creative with the ingredients.
First of all, it’s important to know which cuts of meat benefit from a marinade and which ones don’t need one at all. Premium steaks like tenderloin and ribeye don’t need a marinade and should be cooked just as they are. However, for steaks with more muscle fiber from leaner parts of the animal, a simple marinade can make a huge difference. Cuts like sirloin and flank steak will become much more tender after soaking in some juicy goodness. The marinade actually helps to soften and break down muscle fibers in these leaner steaks. Marinades can also be used purely for adding flavor, and in this sense may be desirable for cuts of meat that may not need to be tenderized. You can always adjust the recipe to account for a lesser need for breaking down muscle fibers in more tender cuts.
Fat Makes For Juicy, Succulent Steak
At the most basic level, a good marinade should contain fat, acid, salt and sugar. The fat helps to add moisture and juiciness to the steak. Since the cuts that benefit the most from a marinade tend to be leaner, it’s easy to understand why adding some fat to the meat can make a difference. The most popular choice tends to be high quality olive oil. However, you could use any oil that you enjoy or have on hand. It’s important to keep in mind that not all oils are healthy, and some have better flavor than others. You can even use fats like coconut milk or yogurt. When using any coconut product, remember that some of the flavor will be left behind on the meat.
Acid Makes Tougher Cuts Perfectly Tender
The acid component of the marinade is what helps to soften and break down tougher cuts of meat. It tenderizes muscular connective tissue and can completely transform steaks that would be chewy into something that melts in your mouth. Vinegar is a great choice and you can select the perfect flavor based on your preferences and the other ingredients in the marinade. Balsamic, red wine, apple cider or rice vinegar can all be great options depending on what you’re cooking. You can also use the acid from citrus fruits like lemon, lime or orange for this part of the marinade.
Salt For Even More Tenderness & Extra Flavor
Salt further aids in tenderizing the meat, while also adding an important flavor aspect. Interestingly, the salt also plays an important role by drawing existing moisture out of the steak. This might seem like the opposite of what a marinade is supposed to do, but it actually helps to make the meat more flavorful. When the moisture that’s already present is removed, the meat responds by soaking up more of the liquid from the marinade. This is one reason to make sure that the meat is completely submerged while marinating. We always recommend using a high quality salt like sea salt, kosher salt or Himalayan pink salt. You can also use a salty liquid like soy sauce or tamari.
Sugar Completes The Flavor Profile
Something sweet balances out the flavor profile of the marinade. I love to use honey, brown sugar, coconut sugar or agave. Fruit juice can be a delicious and flavorful addition. Anything sweet will do the trick – some recipes even call for soda. Another hidden benefit of some sugar in your marinade is that it creates a better sear on the meat. The sugar will caramelize and form a delectable, crispy crust that gives meat great texture and multidimensional flavor.
Those four components create a great basic marinade that will achieve tender, juicy success. However, there’s endless options for adding herbs, spices and other ingredients to customize and enhance the flavor of the meat. Onions and garlic are reliable classics – simply finely chop and mix them into the marinade. Other herbs like thyme, rosemary and sage can add layers of flavor and savory goodness. More unusual ingredients like coffee or beer can complement the rich flavors of a great steak in a really memorable way.
You can combine the ingredients in a food processor, or just mix them together by hand. Make sure any solid ingredients like garlic, onion or herbs are chopped finely for maximum surface area so that all the flavor is soaked up by the meat. Aim to marinade steaks for at least 30 minutes beforehand, but a few hours is even better (unless it’s an already relatively tender cut that you just want to add flavor to). Keep in mind that too much time spent soaking in marinade can make meat too soft – adjust accordingly depending on the cut and be mindful of how much acid is going into the mix. All steaks have equal potential to be delicious, it’s just a matter of proper preparation. Learning to make a great marinade can open the door to far more cooking options and truly delicious meals.