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What Is a Marinade and How Do You Make One?

There is nothing better than grilled meats hot off the barbecue. But if you want to make that meat taste even better, give marinades a try. 

Maximizing the flavor of your favorite cut of meat is easy to do with a marinade. There is no better way to explore a world of complex flavor than soaking meat in a seasoned sauce before cooking. A marinade combines the flavors of your favorite spices, ultra-fresh herbs and citrus to boost flavor and make your BBQs more memorable.  

Marinades infuse meats with mouthwatering flavors. 

A marinade is a sauce composed of herbs, spices and oils that you can make in minutes. But this simple mix of seasonings offers more than meets the eye! Marinating allows you to tenderize the meat and add layers of flavor. Imagine marinating chicken thighs in a saucy, super-seasoned balance of spicy and sweet flavors. The result is a delicious, protein-packed meal that elevates your every day with amazing flavors. 

The same goes for red meat. You can fire up tasty steaks grilled to perfection with a dash of salt, fresh ground pepper and heart-healthy garlic. But what if you could lock in complex, fresh and aromatic flavors with just a little extra prep? Steak can fully absorb the spices and fresh herbs from a marinade, taking on a balanced but boosted flavor profile. 

And the flavor-filled fun doesn’t stop there. You can also marinate fish, lamb, pork and even certain vegetables with the same savory results. Marinating meat makes flavor explode, but it’s never overwhelming. The spices and salt, fat and acidity, herbs and sugar should balance each other out, never tipping too far in one direction. 

It’s easy to make a marinade with pantry staples.   

There are many excellent bottled marinades on the market, but you can also make one at home with spices and other common ingredients. Below are the building blocks of flavor that make marinades taste great: 

Oil: Oil is a fat that acts as the base of a marinade. Because most meats that you marinate are fatty, oil works to transfer fat-soluble flavor into the meat. You can impart slightly different flavors depending on the oil that you use. Olive oil provides a familiar fruity, herbal flavor, or you can try sesame oil or peanut oil to impart flavors from various world cuisines. 

Sea Salt & Fresh Ground Pepper: Salt is a crucial ingredient in any marinade. Through a process known as osmosis, salt brings the meat’s internal juices to the surface and allows your seasoning to absorb into the fibers. Even if you mix only two or three spices into your marinade, you should always add salt and fresh ground pepper.  

Acidity: Lemon juice, lime juice or vinegar provide acidity that helps to break down muscle fibers and increase tenderness. Acidity also balances taste, so sweet and bitter flavors are never overpowering. While acidity is known to introduce sourness to some dishes, it’s not something to worry about here. That dash of lemon juice will liven up the flavor and make the meat more tender.  

Spices & Sauces: Your choice of spices will build complex yet complementary flavors. The goal is to create a flavor profile that is smoky, sweet, spicy or a mix of all three. Look at your spice rack for inspiration. Everything from paprika to onion powder is fair game. And don’t forget about sauces in your fridge. Sauces are already seasoned and have a distinct flavor. Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce and even sriracha can make a memorable marinade. Remember that a little goes a long way. Spices and sauces may be high in sodium and too much can overpower a dish. 

Herbs: Fresh herbs take the flavor you build with spices up a level. They are aromatic and bring an air of freshness to every bite. Dill, lemon juice and mustard seed is a pairing we love, especially for marinating fish. Or you might try thyme, cloves and orange zest to give your beef marinade a bit of citrus zing. A mix of basil and garlic with a dash of white vinegar makes poultry extra delicious. Mix and match your spices and herbs to find your favorite blend. 

Sugar: Brown sugar works great in a marinade, delivering that sweet flavor with depth. There are a lot more ingredients that you can use as sweeteners. Honey, ketchup, barbecue sauce, or agave nectar are excellent options. Each brings a unique flavor, adding layers of sweetness to the dish. Sugar also helps with texture and caramelizes the meat when grilled. 

Experiment to find the flavors you love.  

Think about your favorite flavors. Are you a fan of heat? Consider leading with spicier seasonings and sauces like paprika, cayenne pepper or sriracha. If you enjoy the sweeter things in life, brown sugar, cinnamon or coriander can provide the punch you want. For many, grilling is all about smoke-filled flavor, and if that’s true for you, smoked paprika, black cardamom and cumin should be at the top of your list. 

You can always find inspiration in your pantry and refrigerator. Use what you have on hand. If you don’t have a sought-after spice or are without fresh herbs, substitute something else. No paprika? Try chili powder. Out of fresh parsley? Sub in dried oregano. Marinades are not an exact science, and you can always put a new twist on familiar flavors.  

But don’t fret if you’re short of a spice or two. Raley’s store brands give you the tasty ingredients you need to make the ultimate meat marinade at everyday low prices. Our Raley’s Private Label products offer quality, variety and value, and you can get great flavors free from artificial ingredients with our Raley’s Purely Made products. 

Marinating meat takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 12 hours.  

Meat needs time to soak and absorb those wonderful flavors. But if you let the meat soak too long, you risk disrupting that great taste, and it can become mushy.  

In general, soaking time depends on the fattiness of your cut. Here is a guide: 

  • Seafood: 15 to 30 minutes 
  • Chicken breasts: 30 minutes to 2 hours 
  • Pork loin: 2 to 4 hours 
  • Lamb: 4 to 8 hours 
  • Beef: 8 to 12 hours 

Be sure to store the meat in the refrigerator while it soaks. The raw meat must remain cold to reduce bacterial growth. You should also avoid using metal or aluminum foil to marinate meat. The acidic ingredients in a marinade can react with metal, resulting in unwanted flavors. Put your marinade and meat in a glass or food-safe plastic container. 

Take your flavors to new heights with homemade marinades. 

Marinades infuse heaps of flavor into otherwise ordinary meats. This unique combination of spices, oils and herbs penetrates the meat and spreads fantastic flavor.  

So go ahead and be creative. Toss together spices and fresh herbs, add a dash of citrus and some oil and make a marinade that more than satisfies those taste buds. Your local Raley’s, Bel Air, Nob Hill Foods or Raley’s O-N-E Market has all the spices and fresh herbs you need to make a magical marinade. But first, stop by our butcher counter and choose from our selection of top-quality meat, including grass-fed beef and lamb, 100% sustainably sourced seafood and no antibiotics ever poultry. 

For all your meat marinating must-haves, shop Raley’s in-store or online. 

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