Chef Isabella and Her Take on “Marinades”

I hate technicalities, but I have to go there for a minute. So many people ask: What is a marinade?  

Technically, it’s just a simple, seasoned liquid in which food (such as meat, fish and vegetables) is soaked (for a lack of a better word) in order to absorb the marinade’s flavor and enhance the taste. You probably knew this. What you might not know is that if you’re looking to tenderize meats, marinades aren’t the complete answer, but I’ll explain that a little later.


The basics: Most marinades contain an acid base,  like lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar, wine, along with some herbs, spices and oil. It’s really that simple.  There is one rule: Because of the acid component, when you’re making a marinade, always prepare it in a glass, ceramic or stainless steel container-never use an aluminum bowl or dish.

So you got your marinade ingredients ready and you’re saying to yourself, “Now what, Isabella?”  Well, before you start, remember that meat can handle a more acidic marinade; say one part acid to two parts oil. Fish, on the other hand, favors an acid-oil ratio of one to four because it’s more delicate.  When creating your marinade you don’t have to stick to citris juice, vinegar and wines as a liquid, acid base either. You can use yogurt or buttermilk, too. Both are milder than wine, vinegar or citrus juice when it comes to acidic content, plus they contain calcium, which activates enzymes in the meat or fish that will help break down muscle fiber.  My opinion is that using a dairy product as the liquid base is the best choice for delicate proteins, but some people will say, “What does she know?”

Okay, so you come up with this incredible marinade recipe and actually mixed everything together. You’re now practically dying to try it out. You’re looking at it and asking yourself, “How long do I marinade this food?” Good question. I have a not-so-defined answer. “It depends.”

Here’s what I mean:  Since shrimp are more delicate (and will cook faster) than, say, a piece of flank steak, I usually marinate shrimp (and most other fish) for 30 minutes (one hour max) before cooking. But when I’m working with meat, I let that baby sit in the marinade for a longer time, at least 2 hour, sometimes longer. Although the size of the meat could play a role in how long you want to keep it in the marinade, remember that most of the time ‘longer doesn’t mean better.’  The fact is that marinades only penetrate the meat itself by a fraction of an inch, no longer how long you let it soak. So if you’re working with a big piece of roast you don’t have to let it sit overnight to get more flavor out of it (unless you want to put it in the refrig and forget about it.) A few hours will do.  “But,” you say, “I want to make sure that when I go to serve it, that it’s tender.” Well, the only way to tenderize meat beyond the surface is by cooking it slowly in a liquid (braising) or through aging the meat. That’s the key to tender meat. Got it?  Marinating only plays a very small role in tenderizing meat.  Marinades are for flavor!

Do you need a refreshing, party-in-your mouth recipe that will knock your socks off (If you’re wearing any) ?  Well, I have one for you!

¼ cup fresh orange juice

2 tbs. fresh lime juice

2 tbs. canola oil

2 tsp brown sugar

2 tsp pure ancho chili powder

2 medium garlic cloves, minced

Pinch of red pepper flakes

½ tsp kosher salt

Mix all these ingredients together and marinate your favorite meat, fish or veggies in it. Remember to turn what you’re working with over in the marinade and let it sit for awhile before removing it from the NON-ALUMINUM container. Pork, chicken, beef, veggies, potatoes? That’s your call. Next move is to grill and enjoy!