A little pre-planning, a bit of time and some pantry staples can take basic vegetables, fish or meat and transform it all into a tasty meal. And, with marinades pairing particularly well with standard produce and budget-friendly cuts of meat — such as flank steak — it’s also a cost-effective way to cook.
Marinating for grilling season is as simple as mixing together a few ingredients, coating vegetables, tofu or meats and letting it all sit so the flavours can penetrate. If you’ve got five minutes, you have time to make a marinade. Mix it all in a re-sealable bag or a covered dish, put it in the fridge and, with a bit of patience, dinner is just a quick sear, roast or grill away. Since time is essentially one of the main ingredients, marinades are great for those busy days when you don’t have time to hang out in the kitchen
Glass baking dishes, food-safe plastic containers and re-sealable bags are your best bets here. You’ll want to make sure all your meat or vegetables are covered with the marinade — or, in a pinch, you can occasionally flip them to make sure they get equal time in the mixture. Baking dishes are great for large, flat, skirt or flank steaks. You’ll want to stay away from metal containers or pottery, though, as they can react with the acidic ingredients in your marinade.
The fridge is your friend when it comes to marinating. It keeps things cool, which will prevent any harmful bacteria from growing. For quick dinners on busy nights, you can also freeze ingredients in a marinade in advance, then let them thaw in the fridge before cooking.
Skip store-bought and head to your cupboards for DIY versions that pack a punch of flavour. Most marinades are made up of oil, aromatics — think ginger, garlic, shallots — acids like vinegar or lemon juice, herbs and some salt. You can also find ones with yogurt bases, especially when cooking Indian. Some call for acidic fruits such as kiwi or pineapple, which are great for tenderizing meat.
You’ll want flavours that naturally lend themselves to the ingredient you’re marinating. Lemon, oregano and garlic are great for Greek-inspired chicken dishes, for example. Or go for an Asian-inspired marinade for pork using soy, ginger, garlic and sesame oil. Avoid overpowering your meat or vegetables, though. Steak, chicken and tofu can stand up to more robust flavours, but seafood is best with simpler marinades. You still want the fish flavour to shine through.
How Long Should You Marinate For?
The combination of fat, acid and aromatics adds flavour and moisture and turns even tough cuts of meat tender. Letting ingredients sit in a marinade allows it to penetrate the ingredients’ surface for maximum flavour. Of course, the marinade can only go so far, so this works best for thinner cuts of beef, like flank or skirt steak, thinly sliced vegetables or ingredients with a lot of surface area. Cubing thicker cuts like chicken breasts will make your marinade go further with flavour. Taking off chicken skin before marinating will also help the flavours penetrate.
Timing is everything. Marinating is great because you can mix everything up and then walk away, letting it do all the work before you’re ready to cook. But you’ll still need to watch the clock. For seafood and soft vegetables, too much time can ruin dinner. Fish and shrimp only need a little time in a marinade before they’re ready to cook — 30 minutes or so. Too long and the marinade will actually start to break down or ‘cook’ seafood — like in a ceviche. Firm veggies, such as carrots and potatoes, can handle up to a half-hour of time in a marinade, but softer ones, like zucchini, just need a quick dip. Too long and they’ll just get soggy.
There’s more flexibility with chicken, beef and tofu when it comes to time spent marinating. A couple of hours will add flavour, but, for the most part, you can let these ingredients sit in the fridge in a marinade for a day. Prepare in the morning and dinner is quick to make when you get home.
Once you’re ready to cook, it’s time to toss the marinade. It might seem wasteful, but re-using a marinade, which could contain dangerous bacteria, is a health concern. It did its job already — you can let it go!
Now your food is flavoured, you’ve tossed the remaining marinade and you’re getting hungry. The last step is to get cooking. Marinated meats, fish and vegetables are great on the grill. Thin beef cuts, cubed chicken or chicken thighs, shrimp, prawns, fish and sliced vegetables need just a few minutes of searing to make them perfect. Thicker cuts will naturally take longer. Don’t forget to use a meat thermometer to ensure chicken or pork is cooked to the proper temperature!
If it’s not grilling weather — though when isn’t it grilling weather in Canada? — you can also sear meats and vegetables on your stove top. Grill pans are great, but any pan will do. Larger portions of meat — whole chickens, pork tenderloins and so on — will do well roasted in the oven, as will sturdier vegetables.
They’re easy, require no chef skills or unusual ingredients, but marinades make for a delicious meal. Let that idea marinate for a bit and then hit the kitchen!