No matter what your local Grilling Enthusiast Bro says, marinade mixology ain't rocket science. At a bare minimum, all you need is a good bit of salt, probably some fat, and a smidgen of acid for basic flavour enhancement and tenderising action. Sweet, spicy and/or funky elements are optional, but never unwelcome.
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Sure, it's fun to play mad scientist, adding a pinch of this and a scoop of that, but super-complex marinades don't show up in the finished product the way that spice rubs do. A good marinade derives maximum flavour and tenderness from minimal ingredients - so choosing the right ones is crucial.
The specific flavours are up to you, but a good strategy is combining one or two powerful seasoning agents (fish sauce, soy sauce, citrus juice, miso or chilli paste, alliums, anything with MSG) with a multitasking tenderiser (buttermilk, yoghurt, mayonnaise, beer, soft drink) and a few pinches of salt. That's it. Here are some very simple - and very effective - ideas to get you started:
- Buttermilk and pickle juice: Anything you soak in this will come out juicy, tender and gloriously briny. It works with any kind of pickles, so pick your favourite.
- Sriracha and mayonnaise: A little spicy, a little funky, a little sweet. Don't freak out about the mayo: It makes meat unbelievably tender and leaves a beautiful, almost-fried crust on vegetables.
- Maple syrup and Frank's Red Hot: Grilled chicken wings are desperately underrated, and this marinade gives 'em an unmistakable Buffalo wing vibe.
- Plain yoghurt, turmeric and garam masala: I'm begging you to put this on lamb chops and then invite me over. Thanks!
- Sesame oil, umeboshi vinegar and black pepper: Incredible on grilled asparagus - trust me.
- Sweet chilli sauce, fish sauce and lime juice: Tangy, sweet, funky and salty enough to work on everything from pressed tofu to beef short ribs.
- Sprite, soy sauce, and a lot of garlic: This is a pared-down version of a classic Filipino marinade for barbecued pork skewers. It's everything you want and more.
- Dr Pepper, ketchup and Worcestershire: Trashy? Sure. Delicious? Absolutely.
- Cheap beer, adobo seasoning, lime juice, and oil: Beer is the single best booze for marinades; you can't change my mind. Try this on pounded chuck steak and fat slices of onion destined for a very hot grill.
- Cheap beer, Dijon mustard, garlic and thyme: Almost fancy - but not quite. This one is great on chicken legs or thick, bone-in pork chops.
- Miso, soy sauce, garlic and pickled ginger: A variation on the classic miso, mirin, soy marinade that's extremely good on eggplant.
You can't go wrong with any of these, but always taste your marinade before throwing in your meat, tofu or veggies; it probably needs more salt. I also recommend pouring the excess into a saucepan and gently reducing it for a no-brainer of a dipping or basting sauce, but you probably already know to do that.