You haven’t grabbed your parka from the closet in weeks, and it’s light out until well past dinnertime. Grilling season is back, guys. And whether you’re into burgers or kebabs, this is the year you’re going to up your outdoor cooking game. That means mastering the art of the marinade.
Why? Because we don’t want you to ruin a healthy dinner by flavoring your favorite beef recipes with store-bought marinades that are loaded with sugar and processed ingredients. These delicious flavor baths don’t just make your beef taste extra good, they also help keep proteins moist and tender, says Rachel Begun, M.S., R.D., nutrition advocate and certified natural chef.
Best of all, whipping up a great one doesn’t take a ton of extra work. In fact, you don’t even need a recipe. By sticking to a simple formula, you can let loose and throw together your own creative flavor combos using whatever you have on hand. Here are the five components that every delicious marinade needs, plus a few tasty ideas to help you get started.
What it is: Think oils (olive or canola) or even full-fat yogurt or coconut milk.
Why it matters: This is what will coat your beef to lock in moisture. Fat also acts as a carrier for the other flavoring agents in your marinade, helping them infuse your food, Begun says.
How much: Use 2 parts fat per 1 part acid.
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What it is: Any type of vinegar—red wine, apple cider, rice wine, or balsamic—or freshly squeezed citrus juice.
Why it matters: The acid in your marinade will help break down proteins, making them more tender, Begun says. Acidity will also help to cut through the fat, so your finished dish feels light.
How much: Use 1 part acid per 2 parts fat.
Herbs and Spices
What they are: Garlic, ginger, shallots, fresh or dried herbs, spices, and hot peppers (like chipotles) all work here.
Why they matter: They give your marinade plenty of flavor, without the need for tons of sugar or salt. Use at least one, but for the sake of simplicity, you don’t need more than four.
How much: In general, the flavors in your marinade should be pretty strong—that’s how they’ll infuse the food. But there’s no right or wrong amount. It’s really to taste, Begun says.
What they are: Sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, or even fruit juice are great in marinades.
Why they matter: Sweeteners can help balance out the salt and acid in your marinade, giving it a more well-rounded flavor, Begun says.
How much: Again, there’s no right or wrong amount, but you usually don’t need much. For a marinade using 1/2 cup fat and 1/4 cup acid, a tablespoon or two is plenty, depending on the flavor profile you’re after. (BBQ or Asian-style marinades tend to be slightly sweeter.)
What it is: This is pretty self-explanatory, but note that low-sodium soy sauce works here too.
Why it matters: A pinch or two is the finishing touch that will help bring out the flavors of your other marinade ingredients—and your protein or veggies.
How much: For a marinade using 1/2 cup oil and 1/4 cup acid, you’ll want around 1/2 teaspoon salt or a tablespoon of low-sodium soy sauce.
Now you pretty much know everything you need to know about making an awesome beef marinade. (Told you it was easy.) But if you’re looking for some flavor inspiration, let these combos be your guide. Each one makes enough to marinate 1 1/2 pounds of beef.
1. Shallot Herb
1/2 cup olive oil1/4 cup white wine vinegar2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives2 minced shallots1 1/2 teaspoons sugar1/2 teaspoon salt
2. Creamy Greek
1/2 cup full-fat plain yogurt1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano2 cloves minced garlic1 tablespoon honey1/2 teaspoon salt
3. Chipotle Lime
1/2 cup canola oil1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice2 tablespoons chopped chipotle peppers in adobo2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro1 tablespoon brown sugar1/2 teaspoon salt
4. Smoky BBQ
1/2 cup canola oil1/4 cup apple cider vinegar2 tablespoons tomato paste1 tablespoon smoked paprika1 tablespoon chili powder2 cloves minced garlic2 tablespoons maple syrup1/2 teaspoon salt
5. Ginger Scallion
1/2 cup canola oil1/4 cup rice wine vinegar2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger2 tablespoons chopped fresh scallions2 tablespoons mirin1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
6. Honey Mustard
1/2 cup olive oil1/4 cup red wine vinegar2 tablespoons Dijon mustard2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley2 tablespoons honey1/2 teaspoon salt
7. Spicy Thai Coconut
1/2 cup full-fat coconut milk1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice2 tablespoons red Thai chili paste2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro2 tablespoons chopped jalapeño peppers1 tablespoon sugar1/2 teaspoon salt