Marinating Isn't Just for Meat (or Summertime)

January 21, 2016

“We believe in adding as much flavor to food as possible before cooking. To that end we make great use of dry and liquid marinades.”

So write Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman, very matter of factly, in the introduction to their book Cucina Fresca, which is all about foods best eaten cold or at room temperature (i.e. made ahead). It’s a book that’ll save your lunch game, and your dinner party planning, and make you wish it was summer: meat marinating, picnicking and chilling, pasta salads sitting, the whole deal.

But this quote isn't giving marinades their worthy due: It doesn’t encapsulate what marinades can accomplish, and when.

We typically think of marinating as something we do mostly to meat, but also to vegetables and fish, before it's get cooked—whether that’s by grill, oven, or stove. But have you ever marinated something for what seemed like a long time, only to cook it and then not really taste the marinade flavor? It’s a bummer, but understandable: The acid mellows, the rawness of garlic and spices dissipates.

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And a marinade isn’t a brine: It doesn’t fully penetrate the ingredient, instead acting only on the outer bits. That said, it’s still worthwhile—the marinade accomplishes something: It works to tenderize. That’s why it’s good to marinate tough meat, and why you don’t find yourself marinating vegetables before they hit heat quite as frequently. They’ll soften on their own, the nice folks.

So what happens if you apply marinade after the ingredient is cooked? Might the marinade flavor, settled into the food, make it to the plate? As Food52’s Chef in Residence Sara Jenkins explained to me, applying marinade before cooking might be better for tenderizing—but applying marinade after is better for flavor.

Bingo! Your food may not get more tender, but if you're using a piece of meat that’s already plenty soft or, better yet, treating vegetables, that's okay.

The Italians have been doing this—putting already-cooked foods in a mixture of acid (whether it be vinegar or citrus or wine), oil, salt, and spices—for eons, whether for flavor or preservation. There’s caponata, a condiment of sorts made from a mixture of cooked eggplant, celery, tomatoes, and onions that’s doused with vinegar, oil, and punchy flavor from olives, capers, anchovies, and/or pine nuts. There’s a sauce called agrodolce, meaning “sweet and sour,” that you’ll find coating everything from grilled eggplant to Swiss chard, fish to chicken.

And then there’s a Roman-Jewish dish called Concia di Zucchine, whereby fried coins of zucchini sit in a marinade of vinegar, garlic, salt, and mint (I promise to write about it when zucchini shows up again! It is a treat). And that recipe has cousins that look like this and this.

The moral of this story is that Italians (and others) let cooked foods—specifically porous foods that you find in the summer and that don’t need softening—hang out in marinades. So it’s reasonable that you only think about marinating in warmer months.

But even though zucchini and eggplant have left us and the grill’s in the garage, the power and pull of marinating needn’t be isolated to warmer months. You still want flavor and food that gets better with time, right?

These days there are piles of kind-of-bland squash around. Squash soup and mashes and purées, too. But you know what to do.

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Sarah Jampel
    Sarah Jampel
  • Kenzi Wilbur
    Kenzi Wilbur
Editor/writer/stylist. Author of I Dream of Dinner (so You Don't Have To). Last name rhymes with bagel.


Sarah J. January 21, 2016
Will I try this with every single vegetable in my refrigerator (hello, cabbage)? And with pan-fried tofu? And maybe with feta cheese, too?

Why yes, I think I will!
Kenzi W. January 21, 2016
Oooooh roasted then marinated cabbage. Hello.