A Chef’s Building Blocks for the Perfect Marinade

June  1, 2018

We've partnered with Smithfield to bring you recipes, tips, and tricks for cooking with one of our favorite ingredients: fresh pork loin!

Marinades can work magic. They tenderize meat, infuse it with flavor, and can give a dish that one-of-a-kind twang that'll keep you coming back for more. According to Colby Garrelts, James Beard Foundation award-winning chef of Rye and Bluestem in Kansas City, the right marinade is all about balance. "Whenever I make marinades, I need acid, salt, sugar, and liquid," he says. On top of that, though, he may also incorporate aromatics and flavorings, such as garlic, herbs, shallots, or whole spices, to give that juice even more depth of flavor.

Lettuce wraps are just one of the many ways you can cook with Smithfield Prime Boneless Fresh Pork Loin. Photo by Rocky Luten

Take for example these sweet and sour lettuce wraps. It's simple enough—pork loin strips, fresh vegetable garnish, and crisp Bibb lettuce. But what gives it that extra zest is the tangy marinade.

"Pork loin is already very naturally tender and juicy," says Garrelts, who recommends Smithfield Prime Fresh Pork for its freshness and quality. "But pork loin absorbs flavor well. It doesn’t have to be marinated, but it’s a nice complement." Here, soy sauce seasons the meat, balsamic vinegar tenderizes it, and garlic and sriracha add zing. Meanwhile, brown sugar adds a sweet complexity and helps the pork develop a crust in the pan.

Whether you try out Garrelts’ sweet and sour recipe or improvise your own, here are a few tips for building a beautifully balanced marinade from scratch.

Get the quantities right.

Aim for roughly 1 1/2 cups of marinade per pound of protein. The idea is that you want enough liquid to submerge it.

Swap a container for a storage bag.

Instead of using a bowl, dish, or other container, try marinating your meat in zip-top bag—there’s no need to flip if you’re using one, and cleanup is especially easy. "You’re able to surround the pork loin with liquid a lot better in a storage bag," says Garrelts.

Start with an established ratio.

When making a marinade, Garrelts recommends a 70:30 ratio of liquid to salt and sugar as a starting point. But that doesn’t mean you should treat these proportions as a hard-and-fast rule: "Always use your palate to guide you," he says. That means tasting and testing as you make the marinade to check the levels of seasoning, spice, and the overall balance of flavors. (Just remember: make sure not to try the marinade after you’ve dropped in the raw pork!)

Time it just right.

How long you marinate depends on the size and type of cut. You want to marinate it long enough so the meat soaks up flavor, but not so long that the acid cures it. "My mom used to marinate chicken breasts in Wish-Bone Italian dressing," says Garrelts. "The acid was so high it cooked the meat." In other words, look out for your ratios and how long you’re marinating for. "That’s why we only marinate the pork loin strips for an hour in the wraps. If it’s over-marinated it will be dry and rubbery when you cook it."

Stock your kitchen with these marinade building blocks.

A good marinade is a balanced mixture of salt, acid, sweetener, liquid, and flavoring. Here are some ideas for what that might look like in terms of ingredients:


  • Soy sauce
  • Miso
  • Kosher salt
  • Sea salt


  • Any vinegar (Garrelts likes rice wine, champagne, and apple cider)
  • Any citrus juice (or other fruit juices such as pineapple or mango juice)
  • Wine
  • Pickle juice


  • Honey
  • Sorghum
  • Molasses
  • Sugar
  • Agave
  • Maple syrup

Additional Liquid

  • Water
  • Stock
  • Tea


  • Garlic
  • Fresh herbs
  • Bay leaves
  • Whole spices
  • Mustard
  • Horseradish

Do you have a favorite marinade? Tell us in the comments below!

Our partner Smithfield offers several versatile cuts of all-natural, hand-trimmed, fresh pork, ranging from the boneless pork loin you see above to meaty back ribs to bone-in, thick-cut pork chops.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

Erin Alexander

Written by: Erin Alexander

1 Comment

Diari June 6, 2018
I have always winged marinades for beef with great results. Soy sauce lime/lemon juice, ancho chili paste, cumin, cilantro, brown sugar, garlic, and a dab of fish sauce. Never fails. Perfect for skirt.