Of all the flavor-enhancing weapons in a grill jockey’s arsenal, none is more powerful than well-made marinades. They begin working their magic before you even light the grill.
While often used on lean, mild-tasting proteins like chicken breasts, shrimp, or fish fillets, marinades are great on steaks, too, especially if you’re tiring of the simple salt and pepper routine. There’s no easier (or inexpensive) way to change the meat’s cultural flavor profile, as you’ll see below.
Most marinades have three main components: an acid, an oil, and aromatics or other flavorings. Acids—citrus and other fruit juices, vinegar, tomato juice, brewed coffee, or wine or beer—add brightness. Oils coat the exterior of the meat and help prevent the meat from sticking to the grill grate or drying out. Aromatics add powerful blasts of flavor. They can include ground or whole spices, especially salt and pepper; chopped vegetables (like onions, ginger, or garlic); condiments like soy sauce or hot sauce; sweeteners like sugar, honey, or agave (all of which encourage good caramelization); and fresh or dried herbs. The flavor combinations are endless, limited only by your imagination.
In addition to their flavor-enhancing properties, studies suggest that marinating steaks (or other proteins) for at least 40 minutes before grilling is potentially a more healthful cooking method. Marinades, researchers say, reduce by up to 90 percent carcinogenic compounds (called HCAs) that can form when food is charred over high heat. Why? That’s a question that’s still being investigated.
Tips for Marinating Steak
- Always use nonreactive containers to marinate steaks or other foods as the acids in marinades can cause metals like aluminum to oxidize. Sturdy resealable plastic bags (double them to contain leaks) are convenient, but ceramic, glass, stainless steel, or enamelware containers work well, too.
- If you’re developing your own recipe for a steak marinade, a ratio of 1 part of acid to 3 parts of oil is a good starting point. Be sure to record your recipe so you can replicate your successes.
- Tougher cuts of steak will benefit when you tenderize them mechanically with a meat mallet or Jaccard.
- If grilling flank steak, score it before marinating to maximize the exposed surface area.
- For the best grill marks, pat the steaks dry with paper towels and knock off any solids like onion or garlic before grilling.
- Avoid packaged pre-marinated steaks as you have no idea how long they’ve been soaking in the marinade. Too long (24 hours or more), and the surface of the meat will begin to get mushy or chalky.
- Premade marinades can be frozen for up to 6 months.
- Discard any marinades that have touched raw meat. If you want to use the marinade as a sauce, reserve half and refrigerate until serving time.
5 Marinades for Steak
Steven’s book, Barbecue Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades is a wonderful resource for grillers who want to improve their game. In the meantime, here are 5 recipes to get you started:
The Only Marinade You’ll Ever Need: The name says it all. Redolent with garlic, piquant with fresh lemon juice, and fragrant with extra virgin olive oil, this marinade instantly transports you to the Mediterranean. We love it on flat iron steaks as well as sirloin.
Filipino-Style London Broil: Rodolfo Lagua, a California barbecue veteran of Filipino heritage, was the inspiration for this recipe. Lagua learned this way of preparing tri-tips from his friend Sammy Ariola, one of the area’s first Filipino immigrants. “I have no money for you to inherit,” said Ariola, as he lay on his deathbed, “but I’ll give you the recipe for my marinade.” Since then Lagua has won numerous barbecue contests with his Filipino-style tri-tips, raising thousands of dollars for Filipino community charities.
Chipotle Chile Marinade: This pugnacious marinade belongs to an extended family of Latino seasonings called adobo. Mexican versions contain chiles and this one owes its fiery smoke flavor to chipotle chiles (smoked jalapeños).
Belgian Beer Marinade: Barbecue without beer would be like, well, pick your metaphor. Beer is the beverage of choice among many of the world’s barbecue cultures and an essential ingredient in innumerable marinades, bastes, and barbecue sauces. There’s good reason for its popularity; beer adds a unique malty sweetness, with a pleasantly bitter edge of hops. You can vary the potency of this marinade by your choice of beer: A light ale or pilsner will give you a mild beer flavor; there’s no mistaking the presence of a dark beer, like porter or stout.
Sweet Sesame-Soy Marinade: This marinade mashes up flavorings from several Asian grill cultures: soy sauce and sake from Japan; sesame oil and seeds from Korea; five-spice powder and oyster sauce from China; plus jalapeños from the United States. To get the full effect, use dark nutty Asian-style sesame oil, made with roasted sesame seeds. Oyster sauce is a thick briny condiment available in Asian markets and many supermarkets.