Marinades are mixtures of oil, seasonings, and often acidic ingredients, like vinegar, wine, or citrus juice, used to enhance the flavor of foods. There are different types of marinades, classified as acidic, enzymatic, or oil-based.
South American ceviche, raw fish cured in lime juice; German sauerbraten, braised beef marinated in red wine vinegar; and the northern Italian braised beef in red wine dish, Barolo al Brasato, are examples of acid-based marinades. They incorporate citrus juices, wine vinegar, or wine, along with aromatics and seasonings. Although we have been taught that acids, like vinegar, help to tenderize meats, they actually do the reverse, and toughen the outer surface, without penetrating much below it. In the case of ceviche, the small-diced texture of the fish makes it easy to chew; and sauerbraten and brasato are tenderized by braising.
Simple marinades of oil, herbs, and spices, are great for raw vegetable crudités, meat, fish, or poultry. Fresh herbs, dried chilies, garlic, and ginger are some options for these types of marinades. Oil options include olive, sesame, hazelnut, coconut, or oil blends.
Use 2 parts acid to 1 part oil. Acids include white or red wine, wine or fruit vinegar, and citrus juices. Yogurt, in Indian tandoori, and buttermilk for southern fried chicken, are tangy options. Remember that the more acidic they are (vinegar, citrus), the less you need. Soy sauce, fruit juices (pomegranate, tomato), or Thai fish sauce can also be used, as all or part of the acid. The oil can be neutral, such as canola or soy, or more flavorful, including olive or sesame oil. Add fresh or dried herbs as desired, including rosemary in an Italian marinade, or oregano in a Greek one. Spices vary depending on the flavor profile, for example an Indian marinade would use garam masala, or a Thai marinade would use a red or green curry. Other flavorings, including prepared Dijon mustard for a French flavor profile, coconut milk for a Caribbean style, or a hoisin sauce in a Chinese marinade, can also be incorporated. Aromatics, including garlic, ginger, onion, or chili peppers, are often included too.
Enzymes found in certain fruits aid in the tenderization process, and are used to make tough cuts of meat more palatable. Papian, derived from papaya juice, contains protein enzymes (proteases), a commonly marketed steak tenderizer. These agents are also known to work too efficiently, and can make meat textures mushy and dry. When using papain, a small amount goes a long way. An amount equal to 0.05% of the weight of the product, is sufficient for most applications. Other tropical fruits with similar properties include kiwi, raw pineapple, honeydew melon, and figs.
Dairy-based marinades, such buttermilk or yogurt, are the only marinades that truly tenderize. The mild acids in these products don't toughen meats, the way citrus or vinegar marinades do. Calcium, a key ingredient in dairy products, activates enzymes in meat to break down proteins, similar to the way aged meats become tender.
Marinades only penetrate about ¼ inch/ 1 cm of the surface, so long marinating is not necessary. This chart includes recommended marinating times for meats, poultry, and seafood.