DIY Food

How to Make Any Marinade In 5 Steps

July  1, 2013

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.

Today: Make everything you grill on the Fourth more delicious with our VP of Technology Karl Rosaen's handy marinade formula -- no recipe required.  

grilled fish

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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. 

Olive oil + garlic + ...

... 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.

grilling marinades

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.

juicing a lemon

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.

marinating fish


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).

marinate fish

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.

grilled fish

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 protected] and tell us the type of dish you could make in your sleep, without a recipe.

Photos by James Ransom

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • mra
  • anita
  • Laura415
  • DragonFly
  • CorinnaB
Karl Rosaen

Written by: Karl Rosaen

F52 team alumnus


mra April 1, 2018
Re: Salt. Salt does pull moisture from the meat proteins, however, it also alters the protein in the process, enabling the protein to reabsorb the lost moisture and added flavor profiles. This is the concept of a brine. Mostly salt. Salt does all the work. I prefer a dry brine, which is just a sprinkle of salt and some time.
anita July 3, 2014
Handy information. I am developing an offhand all - purpose viniagrette with combinations of lemon juice, a good red wine vinegar, S & P, garlic salt, Poupon, olive oil, and a few sauteed cloves of garlic. Worked just fine on the tuna steaks, with a little tarragon.
Laura415 September 15, 2013
I like not using recipes when making marinades. I like to simply think of what flavors I want to taste and go for it. Lately I've been juicing each day and if I need a marinade I often use my juice as a marinade with added salt/spice and maybe some oil. For instance, today's juice was orange, ginger, lemon, basil, cilantro, and dandelion greens. I poured some of that over shrimp, added one chili sliced and a dash of fish sauce. Can't wait to taste how that turns out.
Karl R. April 16, 2014
That's a great idea - now that summer is near I'm starting to think grilling again, will take your lead on the juicing -> marinade tip.
Laura415 April 18, 2014
Glad you like it:) Juice with citrus can be a great base for marinading. I think I added garlic to that one too.
DragonFly July 3, 2013
I use these marinade combinations often, very easy and tasty! Thank you!
CorinnaB July 2, 2013
love the grillin for the summer!
Amanda H. July 1, 2013
Thanks, Karl. The time chart is really helpful, as well as the salting tip!
Karl R. July 2, 2013
Thanks Amanda!
Pegeen July 1, 2013
Karl, thanks for a great tutorial. On the subject of how and when to use salt when grilling, Food52 contributor Cynthia (boulangere) has a wonderful blog post on the subject: "A Dark Good Steak and Asparagus with Charred Lemon" on
Karl R. July 1, 2013
Thanks! And interesting article - seems to describe the benefits of salting early similar to brining. My question is, in order to really get that benefit would you need water too as with brining? Or if you were going for dry brine ala "Judy Bird" would you need a lot of salt? I do know that you can't go too wrong with omitting salt from the marinade and only salting to taste after grilling.
Pegeen July 1, 2013
I think that question (whether a water brine is necessary) depends A LOT on the cut. This is a great question. Would you mind if I moved it to the hotline, referring back to this Feature?
Karl R. July 1, 2013
Yes! Peegan! Perfect question for the hotline.
Pegeen July 2, 2013
Done! (Hope I phrased it correctly!)
Karl R. July 7, 2013
Thanks again Pegeen, looks like we found some resolution on the salt topic! I think my revised approach will be to use salt to taste as part of the marinade.