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Grilled Steak Marinade
And a blueprint for building flavorful marinades for meat
The weather is heating up in Austin, and I’m starting to do a lot more outdoor grilling. One of my favorite things to grill is a simple marinated skirt steak— it’s delicious, cooks fast, really absorbs a marinade, and is easy to get right. Pair that with some simple grilled vegetables and bread for an easy meal you can do entirely on the grill.
Today I’m going to talk about how to build a flavorful marinade for meat. Marinades are a great way to both tenderize and add flavor to certain cuts. In theory you can marinate just about anything, but I’ve found it works particularly well for skirt steak, flank, hanger, flat iron, tri-tip, and top round (for beef), tenderloin or chops (for pork), and thighs, breasts, or whole legs (for chicken).
I’ve included a recipe (borrowed from my mom, who used to make this every summer) for one of the most reliable steak marinades I know. But I also wanted to give a breakdown of how to build a marinade so that you can work with what you have and customize it with flavors that you like.
As always, let me know if you have any questions!
How to Build a Meat Marinade
There are a few core components to every marinade, but there are no set ratios you have to follow.
I usually start with a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of oil to acid. Start there, and then add additional elements, tasting as you go and adjusting as needed.
I’m personally a huge fan of umami components like soy sauce in marinades— not only do they bring a major savory note, but they also help tenderize the meat even more. I’ll often add as much soy sauce as I do vinegar.
Start your marinade with oil— this coats the meat, helps retain moisture during cooking, helps the seasonings adhere to the surface, and allows for certain fat-soluble flavors to become more pronounced. I usually use olive oil, but avocado oil can be a good high-heat, neutral alternative.
An acidic component helps tenderize the meat and brighten up the flavors. I love using lime juice or lemon juice (if using these feel free to throw in some zest as well), vinegars, other citrus juices, or even yogurt or buttermilk in certain cases.
I’ll often add a heavy umami component to my marinades— soy sauce and fish sauce are my favorites. Fish sauce especially can be quite potent, so start with a little bit, taste, and add more as needed. If you want to get even more creative you can add in things like anchovies, miso, and various ferments.
Garlic, onion, shallot, scallion, ginger, fresh chiles, and fresh herbs all make excellent aromatic additions to marinades.
Each of these components should be finely chopped— in the case of garlic and ginger I prefer to grind them down into a paste. I tend to liberally throw in big handfuls of chopped fresh herbs (cilantro, basil, parsley, mint, etc), fresh chiles, and any form of onion.
Adding a sweet component like honey, brown sugar, or maple syrup can help balance the flavors of the marinade and contribute to caramelization during cooking. This creates that slightly sweet char on the outside of the meat that’s so delicious.
Any and all spices can be added to marinades as flavoring agents. Pick and choose based on the flavor profile you’re looking for.
I personally think that chiles deserve their own category. Fresh chiles might be considered aromatics, and dried ground chiles might be considered spices. But there are other forms you can play with, too. I’ll often add some fresh or fermented chile paste or hot sauce to the marinade in order to round things out and add some heat.
All marinades need salt. Some of the ingredients used to build the marinade already have salt in them, so start by mixing together your main ingredients, then taste the marinade and add more salt if needed.
Marinade times can vary widely depending on which type of meat and which cut you’re using. Thicker cuts like tri-tip require a slightly longer marinade, as do tougher cuts like flank and skirt.
Because of the acidic components present in marinades, letting them sit for too long can turn the meat mushy— we want to avoid this. If your marinade very acidic, cut down the time slightly. I’ve occasionally seen marinades that call for the use of pineapple juice— just know that pineapple juice has an enzyme that breaks down meat even more so than acid, so it can turn mushy fast. I personally prefer to avoid it— you can use it by all means, but make sure you marinate it for less time.
As a general rule of thumb, use the following times:
Seafood and shellfish: 15-30 minutes
Boneless chicken breasts, thighs, and tenderloins: 30 minutes to 2 hours
Chicken with bones (whole or in pieces): 4-12 hours
Pork chops, tenderloin, or loin roast: 2-4 hours
Beef steaks (strip, ribeye, tenderloin, etc.): 2-4 hours
Beef roasts or tougher cuts (brisket, flank, skirt, etc.): 4-12 hours
Lamb chops, steaks, or roasts: 4-8 hours
Skirt Steak Marinade
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 tbsp fish sauce
1/3 cup red wine vinegar (or lime juice)
2 tbsp honey or brown sugar
5-6 cloves of garlic, ground into a paste
several large scallions, sliced
1 large pinch of chile flakes
1-2 tbsp chile paste (sriracha, sambal oolek, and chipotle adobo all work great here)
Mix together all of the ingredients in a large bowl and whisk them to combine.
Taste the marinade and adjust as needed with more salt or vinegar. Taste before adding any additional salt, as many of the ingredients have enough salt already that it’s sometimes not necessary to add more.
Put your steak in a large ziploc bag (or bowl). Pour the marinade all over the steak, making sure to coat it on all sides.
Put the steak in the fridge for about 4 hours, or up to 12 hours, until you’re ready to cook it. Turn it over a few times throughout the marinade process to make sure it remains fully coated.
Pull from the fridge an hour before you plan to cook. Pull the steak from the marinade, and shake off the excess marinate.
Grill until the steak is lightly charred on the outside and cooked through.