Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.
Hoping for high fives this week? Before you lay anything on the grill, give it a soak in some homemade marinade. Broccoli, portobellos, chicken, lamb, tuna steaks -- almost anything can benefit from the infusion of flavor, and meats will become more tender.
Making a marinade from scratch is fun and easy. As I've experimented with a variety of different marinade recipes, I've noticed a pattern: start with olive oil and garlic, choose an acidic liquid and a fresh herb, and you can't go wrong.
... lemon juice + cilantro = Middle Eastern marinade that works great with shrimp (thanks Claudia!)
... lemon juice + basil = tuna steak marinade (thanks Steve!)
... balsamic vinegar + basil = portobello mushroom marinade (thanks again Steve!)
But don't stop at these examples -- take the best ingredients you have on hand and proceed with confidence through these steps for grilling perfection.
How to Make Any Marinade In 5 Steps
1. Add about a half cup of olive oil to a mixing bowl and get ready to add your acid. Take a look in your pantry -- you likely have some sort of cooking vinegar and any will do. Or if you're fortunate enough to have a fresh citrus fruit on hand, its juices will work great as well.
Stir it in and taste -- you're looking for a balance of flavor similar to a good salad dressing; 2 tablespoons will likely be enough vinegar, you might need a few more with lemon juice.
You may be tempted to add salt at this point, but I recommend holding off and sprinkling it on just before or after grilling. I've read conflicting advice as to whether salt is an important part of a marinade (Does it dry out meat? Or help infuse flavor?), but the best recipes I've followed have included either little or no salt, and if I'm after a salty bath, I'll go for brine over a marinade.
2. Choose your fresh herb. If you're lucky enough to have a garden or window box, this may be as easy as picking what's freshly available. Basil, cilantro, mint, and sage are all good choices. You'll want at least a full handful. Roughly chop the herbs.
3. Use anywhere from 2 to 10 garlic cloves depending on how spicy you want the result. Add all your marinade ingredients to a blender and combine. Or, if you don't have a blender on hand, you can smash the garlic cloves by hand before mixing with the liquid and herbs.
4. Cover your veggies or meat with the marinade and let it rest in the fridge. Whether you lay out chicken breasts in a baking dish or Tupperware container and pour the marinade over, or place chopped broccoli in a Ziploc bag with the marinade and squish it all around with your hand from the outside, the key is to have all surfaces covered, and to use a non-reactive container (avoid aluminum).
How long you need to let them soak depends on what you're grilling -- at the very least, give it 30 minutes to infuse the flavors.
- Veggies: 30 minutes to a few hours
- Seafood: 30 minutes to an hour -- any longer and things can get mushy
- Chicken and pork: 3 to 12 hours -- the longer the more time the acids have a chance to tenderize
- Beef and lamb: 3 to 24 hours -- these tougher cuts can benefit from more tenderization
Even though meat can benefit from longer duration periods, it doesn't mean they have to -- don't fret if you only have an hour to let them soak. It's still worth it for the flavor alone.
5. Grill time! (And what to do with the leftovers.) Remove your veggies, seafood, or meat from the marinade and place on a platter for transport to the grill. They should be coated but not dripping with your marinade. If you're working with veggies, save the marinade for another round of soaking with a fresh batch, otherwise it's best to discard.
Still want a recipe? Here are a few for inspiration:
• Lamb Kebabs in Pomegranate-Walnut Marinade
• Snowpea, Cabbage, and Mizuna Salad with Marinated and Seared Tempeh
• Finger-Lickin' Finger Lakes Chicken
We're looking for contributors! Email email@example.com and tell us the type of dish you could make in your sleep, without a recipe.
Photos by James Ransom