How to Make a Basic Marinade

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Marinades transform basic dishes. A mixture of just a few ingredients can add spice, tang and brightness to nearly any vegetable or protein and tenderize tough cuts of meat. While a bottle of Italian dressing works as a marinade in a pinch, making your own variety is nearly as simple as opening a bottle, and experimenting with flavor combinations will make you feel like a pro.

Acid and oil are the building blocks of any marinade, though most recipes also call for additional flavorings. Olive oil or canola oil are the popular choices, but it's worth experimenting with other oils such as sesame, or substituting coconut milk for cooking oil. Wine, citrus juice, vinegar and yogurt can all be used as the acid component. For flavor, add chopped garlic, ginger, herbs, brown sugar, salt, honey, pesto, scallions, green chiles, soy sauce, ketchup, cumin or any other seasoning you have on hand.

It's not necessary to submerge food in marinade, but you do need to make enough so that all sides of the food can be well coated. Most recipes call for about 1/2 cup of marinade per pound of meat. One quarter cup of marinade is usually sufficient for 1 cup of vegetables. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats recommends using a ratio of 1 part oil, 1 part acid and 1 to 2 parts additional flavorings, but don't be afraid to experiment.

Metal bowls aren't right for marinating because the acid in the liquid could react with the metal. Use a sturdy plastic food storage bag or container, or a glass bowl. Put your protein or vegetables into the container, pour the marinade over and toss until all food is thoroughly coated. Seal the container or cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate it. Never marinate food on the counter. Delicate foods like seafood and many vegetables need only 15 or 30 minutes of soaking time. Root vegetables and chicken breasts can marinate for 2 hours. Marinate large or tough cuts of meat overnight.

Once raw meat or seafood has been soaking in marinade, it's not safe to reuse the mixture unless it has been boiled to kill any bacteria, advises Foodsafety.gov. Cook marinated poultry within 2 days; and marinated beef, veal and pork within 5 days. Don't assume that the longer food marinates, the more flavorful it will be. If your marinade is high in acid or salt, don't let the food soak for as long as you would with a more mild marinade. Acid will toughen meat and saltiness will build up if food is left to marinate for too long.

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