The first step in mastering meal prep is getting a handle on the basics. That means learning how to make a smart grocery list that covers all your bases; how to batch-cook proteins, grains and vegetables and how to combine everything throughout the week. Once you’ve got all of that down, you can start thinking about how to make sure everything tastes great, and there’s enough variety from week to week. That’s where marinades come in.
Not only are marinades a great way to tenderize meat, but they’re also great for adding flavor to veggies. While you can always find a recipe for whatever kind of marinade you’re in the mood for, you can also wing it according to the formula below:
Fat found in oil helps prevent food from drying out as it sits in the fridge, and then again as it cooks. It also helps bring out the other flavors in your marinade. Neutral-flavored oils like canola, grapeseed and light olive oil are great if you want them to take a backseat to other ingredients, but strongly flavored oils like peanut, sesame and pumpkin seed can also be a good choice if you’re looking for something more bold. Try a 50/50 mix of a neutral oil and more flavorful oil. Steer clear of coconut oil, butter and rendered animal fat, however, as these solidify in the fridge and won’t allow your meat to marinate.
Acid is the key to tenderizing proteins, so it’s an absolute must. That said, keep it to about 25% of your total marinade, because too much can cause proteins to denature (think of ceviche, which “cooks” and turns opaque in a super acidic sauce) before you cook them. Any kind of vinegar or citrus juice works here, as will buttermilk or yogurt.
SALT AND OTHER SPICES
The sky’s the limit when it comes to flavoring your marinade. You can use salt and a combination of herbs and spices or use condiments that already pack salt alongside flavor such as soy sauce, mustard, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce or teriyaki sauce. You can also add finely minced garlic, ginger, shallots, lemongrass or other aromatics, although you should wipe them off before cooking if you’re using a high-heat method like grilling or pan-searing, so they don’t burn. You might also choose to add a small amount of sugar, maple syrup or honey. Beware: Sugary ingredients will also burn a bit over high heat.
HOW MUCH MARINADE TO MAKE
Aim to make 1/4–1/2 cup (60–120ml) marinade per pound (450g) of food, and be careful about how long you marinate things. For veggies, fish and chicken, 1/4 cup (60ml) of marinade per pound (450g) is plenty since it sits in the marinade for a shorter amount of time. For pork or red meat, you can use as much as 1/2 cup per pound because it takes longer to marinate. Once you’ve made your marinade, toss your food in it, then either place everything in a resealable plastic bag or shallow dish and let it sit in the fridge. The important thing is that your marinade is making contact with all of the meat or veggies as it sits.
HOW LONG TO MARINATE
How long you marinate is also important, and varies depending on what you’re cooking. More delicate proteins can’t sit in a marinade as long, whereas heartier ones need more time. There’s more leeway with vegetables, since there’s no protein to break down, but you don’t need to let them sit for longer than 30 minutes. Here are some guidelines:
When you’re ready to cook, wipe your meat gently, or let the marinade drip off. You want the flavor of the marinade to stick, but you don’t want your proteins or vegetables to be dripping in sauce when you cook them. Either use a paper towel or clean kitchen towel to gently blot or wipe off the marinade (this is especially important if you’re grilling or pan-searing, since extra moisture prevents browning).
SKIP REUSING MARINADES
You might be tempted to save a marinade for a second use, but don’t. It came into contact with raw meat, so you don’t want to risk cross-contamination. Also, the flavors will have dulled after the first use, so there’s really no point.