Where It Shines: Marinades work on meat, fish, shellfish, firm tofu, halloumi cheese and vegetables. Those with more acidity are best applied to tougher cuts of meat, as their tenderizing effect breaks down chewy fibres and lets the great flavour of these cuts shine through. Foods with more subtle notes, such as tofu, chicken breasts and pork chops, benefit from the moisture- and taste-boosting effects of a marinade. Root vegetables and potatoes also get a lift from herbal or spicy marinades.
Make It: The basic marinade is a combination of acid, oil, seasonings and salt — although you can omit the acid if tenderizing isn't the goal. While the proportions are flexible, the basic formula includes one part oil, one part acid, one to two parts seasoning, and salt and pepper to taste. Adjust the ratio of acid to oil depending on how much you want it to break down any toughness in the main ingredient.
Typical acidic ingredients to consider are citrus juice, vinegar, wine, beer, buttermilk and yogourt. Pineapple and papaya juice also contain enzymes that break down protein fibres, increasing tenderness. You can use olive, canola or vegetable oil — any of them will help keep lean meats nice and moist during searing. For seasoning, think fresh or dried herbs, spices, garlic, chilies, salt and pepper or soy sauce.
Some marinades also contain a little sugar, honey or maple syrup to aid browning, but don’t overdo the sweet stuff or you'll risk excessive charring. A touch of salt (or soy sauce) helps seal in moisture in foods, and it opens up your taste buds to all the wonderful elements in the marinade.
Use It: Large, tough cuts of meat such as beef (not ground) or game can soak in a marinade for up to 24 hours in the fridge. So can bone-in chicken pieces; extended marinating keeps them extra juicy during grilling. Small cuts of meat and boneless poultry need just an hour or two, and little chunks of meat, vegetables, firm tofu and tender fish only require up to 30 minutes. Shellfish such as shrimp should not be marinated for more than 30 minutes; any longer than that, and you risk making them tough. For all fish and seafood, keep in mind that extended exposure to a powerful acid, such as lemon juice, can “cook” (or cure) the flesh, changing the texture – a technique used intentionally in some seafood dishes, such as ceviche.
The most convenient way to marinate food is to immerse it in the marinating liquid in a resealable plastic bag; just make sure to distribute the liquid evenly before popping it in the fridge. You can also marinate in a shallow nonaluminum dish or container, turning the ingredient occasionally, to ensure even coverage. Before cooking, gently remove excess marinade with a paper towel. Bonus: Some marinades can be divided and then double as a pour-over sauce after cooking (see below for a safety tip).
Keep It: Refrigerate marinades in airtight (or plastic-wrap-covered) earthenware, plastic or glass containers. Aluminum bowls or dishes can distort flavours, so avoid using them for storage or preparation. Discard any marinade that has been in contact with raw meat — it could become a breeding ground for bacteria. If you plan to use some of your marinade for basting, or as a pour-over or dipping sauce, separate the batches early on and clearly label them to avoid confusion.
Try It: These hearty tandoori cauliflower steaks get their Indian flavours from a simple marinade of yogourt and tandoori spices.