Looking for a great way to add flavor to steak, pork chops, chicken and more? We’ll teach you how to tenderize meat with marinades and rubs.
Are your taste buds in a rut? Do family members roll their eyes when you announce your intent to throw another piece of meat on the grill? Maybe you need to spice things up a little! A finishing sauce applied at the end of cooking can make a lot of difference, but the way to get real flavor impact while improving meat’s texture and tenderness is to apply a marinade or rub before cooking ever starts.
Marinades and rubs are almost never used together, and the two techniques are completely different from one another. For starters, one is wet and the other is dry. In the first of a two-part series, we’ll get your feet wet—as well as your meat—with a dive into the flavorful world of marinades.
Marinating: The Basics
The word “marinate” comes from the French verb mariner or Italian marinare (to brine or pickle in brine). It’s not the same as brining, in which a salt-and-sugar solution, sometimes spiced, is used to soak whole chickens, turkeys or cuts of meat in order to add deep moisture. A marinade typically consists of an acid (such as citrus juice, vinegar, wine or yogurt) to penetrate and tenderize meat, fat for flavor and moisture, and spices for flavor. It’s used for a shorter period of time and is more of a surface treatment; you generally won’t get more than a quarter inch of penetration.
- One part oil: Don’t use your expensive extra-virgin olive oil; use ordinary “pure” olive oil or another neutral oil like grapeseed, canola or sunflower.
- One part acid: Fresh lemon or lime juice is great (lemon for a Mediterranean influence; lime for Latin or Asian). Vinegar is generally too harsh, but can be used as part of the acid portion; balsamic vinegar (which is not a true vinegar) adds depth and sweetness. And wine is an excellent choice for most meats. Also note that in India and the Middle East, plain yogurt is often used as both the fat and the acid.
- Seasonings to taste: Aromatics like garlic, ginger, spices and fresh herbs are always good; select flavors that complement your meal. A little salt is fine, but soy sauce adds more depth and a shot of umami. Sugar enhances browning and, some say, tenderness…but don’t use much if you’ll be grilling, as the sugar can burn. Worcestershire sauce is a perfect addition to beef, and a touch of bourbon or brandy adds a nice touch.
Plan ahead: Many grillmasters prefer to let their steaks marinate overnight, or start them in the morning so they’re good to go by dinnertime. Others, however, warn that you should only marinate for thirty minutes to two hours, as food can get mushy. Generally, really tough cuts of beef like round steak need the extra marinating time; sirloin or flat iron steaks do not.
Pour marinade over meat in a glass baking dish (don’t use a metal bowl, which can react unpleasantly with the acid). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to cook. Turn it once halfway through if you have time.
You can use the marinade as a baste while grilling, but be sure to discard the marinade when you’re done cooking; DO NOT apply it to cooked food unless you’ve boiled it for at least three minutes.
How to Marinate a Steak
Marinades are great on leaner cuts that could use a little extra moisture, or tougher cuts that need tenderizing. You would not want to marinate prime cuts like filet mignon or rib eye, especially premium aged beef that is already delectably flavorful and tender. But for classic grilling cuts like flank steak or hanger steak, a marinade can transform an otherwise chewy cut into an absolute delicacy.
Using the above basic marinade pattern, try these flavor options for steak:
- Classic: oil, red wine, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper
- Fajita-Style: oil, lime juice, garlic, chili powder, cumin, oregano, cilantro
- Chimichurri: oil, lemon juice, garlic, parsley (lots of it)
- Asian: oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger, five-spice powder, sesame oil, sugar
Marinade for Pork Chops
Pork takes especially well to marinades, as it lacks the intramuscular fat (marbling) of beef. While you would generally not marinate a fine beef loin (strip) or tenderloin (filet mignon) steak, lean pork loin and tenderloin are made more juicy and flavorful with a marinade.
Using the basic marinade pattern, try these variations for restaurant-quality pork chops:
- Classic: oil, red or white wine, garlic, Dijon mustard, rosemary, sage
- Porchetta (porketta): oil, white wine, garlic, crushed fennel seeds
- Barbecue: oil, apple cider vinegar, mustard, onion, chili powder, paprika
- Jamaican Jerk Marinade (from our website)
Chicken Marinade for the Grill
Chicken is the perfect canvas for any grill artist, and loves pretty much any marinade…including most any you would use for pork. Skinless chicken—especially lean chicken breasts—needs basting throughout, and you may want to increase the oil content.
Using the above basic marinade pattern (with optional increase in oil), kick up your chicken with these:
- Asian: oil, soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger, chili paste, sesame oil, sugar
- Greek: olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, oregano, black pepper
- Italian Diavolo: oil, lemon juice, garlic, lot of black pepper and/or red pepper flakes, rosemary
- Indian: yogurt, lime juice, ginger, garlic, curry powder or garam masala, cilantro
- Jamaican Jerk: (as above)
Leg of Lamb Recipe
A roast leg of lamb is as traditional as it gets in Greece, Italy and other parts of the Mediterranean. To grill it (and to allow it to marinate more thoroughly), you may want to butterfly the roast by slicing it lengthwise, removing the bone (if there is one) and laying it open, pouring the marinade over it. Or if you’ll be roasting it with the bone in, make the marinade thicker: use more garlic and pound it, along with the herbs, into a paste with a mortar and pestle and use very little oil and liquid.
- Italian: olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, rosemary, black pepper
- Greek: olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, oregano, black pepper
- Middle Eastern: olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, mint, black pepper
Marinades are used in virtually every cuisine on the planet, and are a fantastic way to add flavor and mouthwatering tenderness to even standard cuts of meat. Next, we’ll show you dry rubs for ribs and any kind of meat you can imagine. Happy grilling!