Whether you are vegetarian or a meat-eater, marinades are one of the easiest and cheapest ways to enhance foods. These magical liquids not only impart flavour, they frequently reduce cooking times, and can also tenderize tougher cuts of meat.
Acid and oil are the basic ingredients, the yin and yang of most marinades, carefully balanced depending on the food and the purpose for its curing. Acid is not entirely accurate. Sometimes alcohol is used as the chemical component of the marinade but its cooking and tissue-softening effects are similar.
- The acid used most frequently is some form of acetic acid: white, red wine, rice, or balsamic vinegars; or, highly acidic fruits such as lemons, limes, and some tomatoes. Beers and ales, dry wines like sherry, and grain alcohols like Saki or bourbon work best in marinades for tougher, more robust-flavoured meat proteins. The alcohol will cook off, but its tenderizing effect and aromatic flavours remain.
- The oils can be anything from common corn or canola oils to specialty nut and olive oils. Herb-flavoured oils have delicate flavour profiles and are better suited to light-flavoured contrasts with vegetables, low-fat seafood or pale meats. Butter, though rarely used, should be clarified.
Generally, vegetables are marinated to impart flavour before grilling or braising and, because they contain no natural fat, their marinades often include a more generous ratio of oil to acid and marination will be brief (15-30 minutes.) Recipes intended to chemically-cook vegetables (e.g. sauerkraut) generally use marinades with a higher acid to oil ratio and require a longer marination – 24 hours, at least.
Seafood proteins which are low in fat – like cod, trout, or sole – will require marinades with more oil than acid and, because the delicate tissue is quickly affected by the acid, a short marination time (15-30 minutes) is best. Shell fish and other higher fat content seafood can handle a more acidic marinade but even these tougher fish proteins will breakdown and become unpalatably mushy if marinated too long.
Animal proteins are the costliest portion of many grocery budgets. Of the few ways to control this expenditure, one is to choose a tougher, so-called "lesser" cut of meat and treat it with a little marinade magic. Prime cuts might cook faster and without the aid of marinade, but there's a prime price to pay at the check-out for their convenience. Utility grades, however, can be transformed into melt-in-your-mouth good if allowed some quality time in a flavourful infusion. Beef and pork generally require longer marination – anywhere from 6 to 48 hours – but the savings will merely be the bonus to a very tender and tasty meal.
Marinades, themselves, cost very little to make. Depending on the type and quality of ingredients you choose, they can cost mere pennies to an extravagant few dollars. With a few culturally specific ingredients marinades can turn an ordinary meal into international cuisine: olive oil with red wine vinegar, garlic and oregano adds an Italian flare, while peanut oil with Saki, soy sauce, ginger and garlic brings flavours of the Orient.
Most marinades can be cooked after the soak is completed, to become a complimentary sauce for the meal. If the marinade is used on raw meat proteins it must be brought to a boil and cooked a few minutes to ensure safe eating. So, if time constraints prevent this cautionary step, simply set aside some of the untainted marinade for later use as a dipping sauce. If reducing your concoctions, be aware that concentrating the sauce will intensify flavours, including salt, so use high-sodium ingredients, like soy sauce, sparingly. If saltiness might be an issue, you can thicken the marinade with a little corn starch instead of reducing the sauce.
Whatever you're cooking, be it a vegetable medley or flank steak, marinades add a gourmet touch. Apply their magic and your grocery budget will gain value, too!