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Cooking Lesson Five: The Mighty Marinade!

Some quick and easy ways to get variety into your home-cooking menu.

Marinades are a great way to add variety to your cooking -- you may only be able to, say, grill chicken or broil fish. but if you change your method of seasoning you can have a different final product every time you cook. Personally, I like to marinate whatever we're going to eat and then grill it. This allows me to throw a bunch of ingredients together early in the day, and then simply pull them out and place them on the grill to make dinner quickly later.

The simplest definition of a marinade is a seasoned liquid which meat, poultry, fish or vegetables are soaked in (I'm just going to say "meat" from here on in to make it easier on me, but think fish or chicken or tofu if that's what you prefer), in order to infuse them with the marinade's flavors and/or tenderize them prior to cooking. Generally, a marinade consists of an oil and an acid, with seasoning added to the mixture. The oil and acid help infuse the flavors into the meat, and the acid has an additional tenderizing effect -- so marinades are especially good for tougher (i.e. cheaper) cute of meat. For something which doesn't need tenderizing, you can use a low-acid marinade, or even skip mxing up a "proper" marinade -- you can take any liquids you would use to season your food and soak your meat in them. Soy sauce, wine, orange juice -- with or without additional seasoning added.

Don't worry about being too incredibly precise, or about following any specific recipe. This is a great opportunity to experiment. Base your seasoning mix on any flavors you are partial to, or on a recipe you think sounds interesting, but don't worry too incredibly much about precision. You can even use almost any salad dressing as a marinade. In a "proper" marinade, the acid will actually partially cook the meat as it marinates. There really is a huge difference -- if you try a number of different marinades you'll find that any marinade high in acid will visibly cook the meat as it soaks!! (And you can even leave the oil out entirely -- although for things like lean meat or skinless chicken the oil is rather necessary for the cooking process.)

There's a few basic rules of thumb when it comes to marinades -- but beyond that, you can do whatever you want! (Marinades are one of the areas of cooking that allow for the most experimentation with only very rare bad results.)

Make sure not to over-marinate. Especially in the case of acidic marinades, which could actually start to break down your meat! Generally, red meat can be marinated for up to 24 hours (although I usuall just go for 3 or 4); chicken should be marinated in the 2-4 hour range; fish for 45 minutes to 2 hours depending on what kind of fish it is (anything, for example, that may be called "steak" -- swordfish, tuna, etc -- can probably be marinated for up to 2 hours); and vegetables only need 15 minutes or so, as the flavorings are more of a coating and don't really soak in. (But they can be left much longer.) Of course, use your own judgement. Very thinly sliced chicken obviously needs much less time than whole parts do. And honestly, if you need to leave the chicken in the marinade all day while you're at school or work, don't worry about it!!

Keep everything cool! Especially in the case of chicken -- do not marinate at room temperature as a rule. Make up your marinade and then slip it into the fridge. You can bring it out a little while before cooking, but be careful. And if you want to use the leftover marinade as a sauce, make sure to cook it thoroughly -- pour it into a small saucepan and bring it to a boil before using it.

Match your seasoning to your meat. Obviously, the stronger the flavor of the item you're marinating, the stronger the seasonings you can use. However, that's not a strict rule by any means. Just keep in mind that milder ingredients like some fish and chicken will be totally overwhelmed by heavy flavoring. Of course, sometimes that's what you want.

Don't waste dishes! The absolute best way to marinate is in a one-gallon reclosable freezer bag. It's much easier to get the meat covered completely, you can simply turn it over every half hour or so instead of stirring, and you just throw it away after you're done. I'm generally not into using plastic, but this is one case where it is so much easier and the result is so much better it's completely worth it. You simply pour the ingredients directly into the bag, add the meat, close and go!

I personally prefer to grill all marinated meat, but you could also pan-fry, broil, or even put in a roast or stew.

Here's my basic all-purpose marinade; used by friends with good results:

1/4 cup vegetable oil (or olive oil, or other flavored oil you like) 1/3 cup soy sauce (or vinegar, fruit juice or wine) approximately 1 tablespoon each of your favorite herbs and spices. I most commonly use mustard powder and lemon pepper in my soy/oil mix, occasionally adding a little chopped garlic.

The only important thing you should keep in mind is to keep the flavors balanced. If you use a strongly flavored oil (such as peanut or olive) you need to make sure that the accompanying liquid won't clash. Soy sauce and olive oil, for example, would not be high on my list of optimal mixtures. With olive oil I'd probably use a flavored vinegar; with something like peanut oil I'd experiment with juices and vinegars to find one I like (peanut oil and lime juice, for example, are a good foundation for a Southeast Asian-inspired marinade). If your seasonings are very hot (chili powder, cumin, garlic) you might want to either use a fruit juice in your mixture, or balance them with some honey or sugar. Here are a few more basic marinades for you to start with:

A vegetable marinade:
1/4 cup olive oil; 1/4 cup vinegar; 1 teaspoon powdered mustard; 1 clove minced garlic; 1 cup ice water

For any meat or fish: 1 cup water; 1 cup wine*; 1 tablespoon pepper; 1 bay leaf; 1 small onion, sliced thin; 1 teaspoon crushed rosemary or thyme; 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves. *use red wine for beef; dry white wine for chicken or fish; vinegar if you'd prefer not to use wine
For beef or shrimp: a beer marinade!! 1-1/2 cups beer; 1/2 cup vegetable oil; 1 small onion, sliced thin; 1 minced garlic clove; 2 tablespoons lemon juice; 1 teaspoon salt; 1/2 teaspoon pepper; 1 teaspoon powdered mustard.

Have fun!!

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