Why We’re Marinating Just About Everything in Mayo

From bread and squash to chicken and tofu.

August 29, 2023
Photo by Mark Weinberg

This article is a part of Mayo Week—seven days celebrating all things mayonnaise—presented in partnership by our friends at Primal Kitchen.

Mayonnaise is a savior in a spread, a miracle in a jar, a genie in a bottle. Besides decking out our sandwiches and dressing up our grain bowls, it makes the fluffiest pancakes, the fudgiest chocolate cake. It can even remove watermarks from tables, stickers from jars, mistakes from the past.

With a little of this and that, it can also become your new go-to marinade. We love this for the same reason we love mayo on the outside of a grilled cheese—it stalls burning, bronzes evenly, and adds rich flavor. This idea hails from longtime contributor EmilyC, who developed the recipe with a grilled bread salad in mind. Her version includes: mayo, olive oil, lemon juice (and zest!), garlic, salt, Aleppo pepper, smoked paprika, and cumin seeds. Mix and done.

This throw-together sauce becomes the happiest place for summer squash and broccoli rabe, which marinate for half an hour, then get charred on the grill. In the recipe headnote, Emily writes: “The mayonnaise marinade for the vegetables creates a wonderful blistery crust....The marinade soaks into the squash and clings to the leaves and florets of the broccoli rabe, resulting in a delicious smoky char that perfectly complements the natural sweet-bitter flavors.”

Our favorite part: The recipe can be riffed on—all to taste, it’s just a marinade—and the application can, too. Here are some ways to play around:

Swap out the garlic

Call in another sassy allium. Try minced shallot, chive, scallion, or even our old friend, onion. Or, take another direction entirely and substitute fresh, grated ginger or turmeric. Psst, any of these can be included in addition to the garlic.

Replace the spices

Swap out the smoked paprika for sweet or hot. Replace the cumin seeds with crushed caraway or fennel seeds. Add in some cayenne or hot ground mustard for kick. Or, try a blend, like chili powder and za’atar.

Keep it saucy

Bump up the flavor—and/or the color!—by adding another condiment to the mix. Think dijon, tahini, or miso (a big dollop, in each case). Harissa or hot sauce (dash by dash, depending on your spice preference). Even a splash of soy sauce, fish sauce, or pickle brine. (That’s actually another trick we learned from EmilyC.)

Get started!

The mayo-based marinade possibilities are infinite, but here are a few of our favorites. Adjust as you see fit!

  • Boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Make the marinade with lime juice and zest, instead of lemon. Swap out all the spices for chili powder. Tuck it all into flour tortillas. Bonus points: Marinate poblanos and red onions, then grill those for the tacos, too.
  • Tomato halves. Swap out the marinade's cumin seeds for fennel seeds and add crushed red pepper flakes. Grill until the tomatoes slouch. Serve on buttered, open-faced bread.
  • Tofu slabs. Swap out all the spices in the original marinade for togarashi. Add grated ginger and a splash of soy sauce, to taste. Serve on steamed rice or peanutty noodles.

What’s your go-to marinade? Tell us about it in the comments!

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    Emma Laperruque
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Lisa October 28, 2019
Do you know if vegan mayo works? My children are allergic to eggs.
Emma L. October 29, 2019
Hi Lisa—I haven't tried this trick with vegan mayo, but it's worth a go! The flavor might be a little different or more subtle, but it would still work as an enricher and marinade. If you give it a try, please let me know what you think!
judy March 28, 2018
I use a mayo-based dressing to marinate kale and cabbage salad. I make it myself, varying the flavors to compliment my dinner, then toss the greens and let them sit for 10-15 minutes. NO need to massage the kale so that is softer. I have recently been mixing mayo and samba lek or sriracha for a spicy kick. Add some orange or lemon zest and the dressing/marinade pops!
AntoniaJames March 27, 2018
Togarishi + ginger + soy sauce? Yes, please! Thinking I might do that with chicken . . . . I've been using mayo + miso + lime as a glaze/basting sauce for various proteins for several years, thanks to Campion and Brennan in "Keepers," and extrapolating to substitute a dab of mustard and a light splash of cider vinegar for the lime juice.
Thanks so much for the tips! With the longer days and the spring-like temperature (finally) here in the East Bay, I plan to grill this weekend. ;o)