Taking the Mystery out of Marinades

Suzanne Klein
Chief Yummy Officer
Savory Spice Shop

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Tags: chicken fish marinade marninate pork seafood
Taking the Mystery out of Marinades

If you have a collection of Savory Spice products, you’ve probably seen the phrase “great for a marinade” on the side one of our spice blend jars. We have published several marinade recipes using specific spice blends in the Recipes section of our website. But making your own marinade is one of those things that rarely requires a recipe and can usually be accomplished with whatever you have in your pantry and on your spice rack. The following guide to marinades offers simple ingredient ideas and tips that will help you create the perfect marinade every time.

What is a marinade?

A marinade is a mixture of oil, acid, and seasoning in which proteins or vegetables are soaked prior to cooking. The combination of these ingredients not only tenderizes the food but can also add amazing flavor to the final dish.

pike place protein marinadePike Place Protein Marinade made with pomegranate molasses is great with salmon.

The word “marinade” comes from the Latin word “mere,” which means “sea.” It is thought that the origins of marinade took root in the Mediterranean, where local olive oils, vinegars, lemons, limes, and herbs were used to prepare fresh-caught fish for cooking. In some cases, a marinade would help preserve the fish for a day or so if it needed to travel from the coast to its final destination. Other cultures outside the Mediterranean demonstrate traditions of using marinades for both preserving and for tenderizing the toughest cuts of meat, like mutton, goat, or less desirable cuts of beef.

What can be marinated?

Fish is still a popular protein to marinate. In fact, when you make ceviche (by curing fish in a base of vinegar and citrus juice with seasoning) you’re really just “cooking” the fish in a marinade. While chicken, beef, and pork are the most popular for marinating, most anything being prepared for cooking can be marinated, including tofu, vegetables, lamb, and seafood. Even things that aren’t being cooked can be marinated, like cheese, vegetables, olives, and fruit—food you might nibble on for a cheese plate or use to dress grilled or roasted meats.

What do I need to make a marinade?

You need just three types of ingredients to put together a great marinade: oil, acid, and seasoning. Each individual ingredient serves a specific purpose.

woody creek marmalade marinated wingsOrange marmalade and yogurt season these Marmalade Marinated Woody Creek Wings.

Oil: Fats are primary flavor carriers in any type of cooking. In a marinade, oil is an emulsifier that helps hold the marinade together, infuse flavor into what’s being marinated, and moisten the marinated goods so they don’t burn or dry out on a high heat cooking surface.

  • Oil options: Olive, canola, grapeseed, vegetable, any infused or flavored oil of choice


Acid: The acid in a marinade helps tenderizes tougher cuts of meat and harder vegetables. The acid acts to breakdown protein chains, making meats more tender and allowing the seasoning to be carried into the food being marinated.

  • Acid options: Any kind of vinegar, red or white wine, citrus juices (orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime), pineapple, yogurt


Seasoning: The seasoning provides the all important flavor component to a marinade and may include dried spices, fresh herbs and aromatics, salt, and sweeteners. Various spices, herbs, and aromatics can add different flavors to a marinade, salt helps make proteins more juicy, and sweeteners help balance the acid in the marinade.

  • Spice options: Any combination of single spices, dried herbs, Savory Spice Shop spice blends
  • Fresh herbs and aromatics options: Any combination of fresh herbs (like rosemary, thyme, oregano leaves) or any combination fresh aromatics (like chile peppers, scallions, shallots, ginger root, garlic cloves)
  • Salt options: Sea salt, kosher salt, soy sauce, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, miso
  • Sweetener options: White sugar, brown sugar, turbinado sugar, honey or honey powder, maple syrup or maple sugar, jams or preserves


How do I make a marinade?

Generally, marinades are made with three parts oil to one part acid. More acid can be used depending on the protein being marinated. Too much acid or too much time spent in the acid can cause more tender cuts of meat to become mushy. Too much time spent in acid can also cause chicken, pork, or fish to start to cook as acid breaks down the protien (similar to ceviche.)

jamaican jerk marinadeGrilled chicken thighs with pineapple is our favorite meal to make using the Jamaican Jerk Marinade.

After selecting your ingredients, mix them together in non-reactive container (e.g. glass, stainless steel, or plastic) that will withstand the acidic ingredients in your marinade. Then add seasoning, salt, and sweetener to taste. Place your protein or veggies in a zip top storage bag with the air squeezed out, or use a large baking dish that you can cover with plastic wrap. Pour in the marinade to cover the contents then refrigerate for the recommended amount of time.

Generally, about ½ cup of marinade per pound of meat or vegetable is a good amount to prepare. If you plan to make a sauce with the marinade (see "What else should I know about marinating?" below), prepare about ¾ cup to 1 cup of marinade per pound.

How long do I marinate?

The following are general rules of thumb for planning marinating times for different types of foods. Just remember that marinating times may vary depending on the cut of food (thin or thick, tender or tough cut) or the type and amount of acid used in the marinade.

Veggies & Fruits: 30 minutes to 2 hours

Seafood & Fish: 30 minutes to 2 hours

Tofu: 1 to 12 hours

Chicken & Pork: 2 to 12 hours

Beef & Lamb: 2 to 24 hours

What else should I know about marinating?

It’s hard to go wrong with a marinade if you follow the tips above. But here are a few more guidelines for a successful marinating experience:

Yogurt and lemon make a tangy Tandoori Marinated Grilled Chicken and Sauce.

  • Refrigerate items while they are marinating to eliminate the risk of contamination or bacterial growth.
  • Flip the bag or uncover and stir the mixture halfway through the soaking time to ensure everything stays thoroughly coated.
  • Shake off any excess marinade before cooking to prevent flare-ups on the grill and ensure properly browned meat.
  • Instead of tossing out the marinade, use the excess to baste what you’re cooking to infuse it with even more flavor.
  • Turn excess marinade into a sauce by boiling it for at least 5 minutes. Boiling will kill any harmful bacteria from the raw meat and thicken the marinade into a flavorful sauce or paste that you can serve alongside your cooked protein or veggies. Alternatively, prepare double the amount of marinade and use half for marinating the meat and save the other have to use as a dressing or dipping sauce for the finished dish.
  • When selecting marinade ingredients, be creative; mix and match to explore different flavor options. If you love a certain marinade combination for chicken, try it with veggies or shrimp to change up your menu.


Do you have any recipes to get me started?

If you’re not quite ready to venture out on your own to create a marinade recipe, don’t worry. We have several marinade recipes to get you started. Here are a handful of our favorites:

grilled thai beef saladThe lime, soy, and Thai curry seasoned marinade is also a dressing in this Grilled Thai Beef Salad.


A huge thanks to Scott and Amy MacCabe, owners of the Savory Spice Shop in South End/Charlotte, NC, for providing much of the marinade guide content for this post.

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