Should You Marinate Meat With Oil? (Best Oils To Use)

Marinading is a fantastic way to add extra flavor to your food and also helps to tenderize meat before cooking. Many marinade recipes contain oil, but when making your own you might have wondered which oils are best and why even add oils in the first place.

Oil should be used in a marinade as it helps moisten the meat and keep it tender by preventing it from drying out. Oil will carry fat-soluble flavors of the seasonings to the meat better than water-based marinades and will balance other strong ingredients like acids.

I’m sure you’ve seen how often oil is one of the main ingredients in a marinade, and perhaps you’ve wondered why it is such a key ingredient. The essential requirement for a marinade is that it helps to tenderize the meat and to carry flavor added by the herbs, salts, and spices.

In this article, I’ve looked at the best oils to use in a marinade and how to use substitutes if a recipe calls for an oil you don’t have on hand.

Marinating Your Meat With Oil

Oil is seen as a key ingredient as it helps fat-soluble flavors pass easily onto the meat better than a dry rub. It gets your meat ready for cooking as oil is used to create a barrier against heat on the grill and stops the meat from drying out.

There is also evidence that oil can be better than water in carrying some flavors as oil brings these flavors out.

I found a study where red pepper flakes were heated in a pot of oil or a pot of water for 20 minutes before being strained. The 2 leftover liquids were tested in a lab for the compound that gives chili its heat. It was found that the oil sample had more capsaicin compound than the water sample.

Oil will also help balance the acidic elements in your marinade, add extra flavor, and the fat will stop the meat from drying out. That is why it’s seen as a key ingredient in a marinade.

You might be wondering if oil adds lots of calories to your marinade – I covered that in a post does marinating add fat and carbs? and also wrote about how much oil gets absorbed in food.

The other key ingredients of a marinade are an acid (for tenderizing), seasoning (for flavor) and salt (for both seasonings and tenderizing). You don’t need a lot of marinade when tenderizing meat – the ratio is generally around a 1/2cup marinade for each pound of meat.

Some marinades, such as fish and seafood, only use acids like lime or lemon juice to tenderize and ‘cook’ the fish and use little if any oil.

Always keep your meat covered and in the refrigerator while they are marinating to prevent bacteria from growing.

Does Oil Marinade Tenderize Meat?

While oil may tenderize meat slightly, its main function is to keep the meat moist and help keep the already tender meat stay tender. It’s unlikely it will turn a tough cut of meat into something tender.

The task of tenderizing in a marinade comes from enzymes found in fruit juice or from acidic or salty ingredients instead.

The marinating process that tenderizes your meat is a process that we call denaturing. When a tenderizer is kept in contact with the surface of the meat, it begins to break down the protein bonds. This softening process also allows flavors to penetrate the meat.

Acidic substances like lemon juice, wine, vinegar, and yogurt are excellent at denaturing and softening meat, but oils also do this to a lesser degree. One of the things oil does brilliantly is help to transfer flavors into the meat.

Oils and fats also help keep the meat from drying out due to the acidic ingredients, air, and heat. Oil works with the other marinade ingredients to develop flavors and helps a little in the tenderizing process while it keeps the meat moist.

How long you marinate your meat will also depend on how tough that meat is – some tough cuts may need to marinate for up to ten hours to give the marinade time to soften the meat. Other meats, such as chicken, usually only need thirty minutes to three hours for the flavors to develop.

It’s best to cut the meat into small pieces as marinating doesn’t penetrate into a large piece of meat.

Which Oil Is Best For Marinating?

When choosing an oil for marinating, some choices will depend on flavor, while others will depend on how you plan to cook your meat.

Extra virgin olive oil and sesame oil are top stand-outs in flavor and health benefits. However, this oil and other oils like pumpkin and walnut oil are what we know as low smoke point oils. Low smoke point oils are not the best choice if you plan to cook your meat at a high temperature.

They can begin smoking and burning at a lower temperature (especially if there is a lot of oil). For example, this is why you don’t use olive oil for deep frying food or making stove-top popcorn.

So, before you decide on which oil to use for your marinade, you need to think about how you plan to cook it. If you’re going to have a BBQ where the meats grill at high heat, it’s good to choose oils for your marinade with a high smoke point.

Oils with High Smoke Point for Grilling

  • Sunflower
  • Peanut
  • Vegetable
  • Canola

Oils with Moderate Smoke Point for Sauteing

  • Olive
  • Sesame
  • Avocado

See a list of oils ranked on their smoke point.

Can I Use Vegetable Oil In A Marinade?

You can use vegetable oil in a marinade but it will be less flavorsome than the stronger flavors of a fruity olive oil. This might be advantageous if cooking dishes wanting to avoid this flavor, like Asian food.

As we’ve seen from the above list of oils with high smoke points, vegetable oil might be the better choice if you plan to grill your meat. When substituting vegetable oil in a marinade recipe, keep the identical amounts.

Sometimes you may not want the oil flavor to overwhelm the natural taste of the meat, so a light, flavorless oil such as canola, sunflower, or vegetable oil will work fine.

If you need to swap out oil in the recipe, try using one with a similar smoke point, as listed above. This way, you know it will match the cooking process.

What Other Liquids Are Good Marinades?

A marinade comprises three essential components: acids, fats, and flavoring.

The acidic liquids are the one that do most of the work tenderizing the meat, and they are usually ingredients such as citrus juice, pineapple juice, wine, vinegar, buttermilk, and yogurt.

The oils can help tenderize the meat a little, but they mainly help counteract the acid, preventing it from drying the meat out. Oil holds the acid and the flavorings together and acts as a lubricant carrier, penetrating the meat with the added spices and herbs.

Your flavor ingredients are herbs, spices, salt, and pepper. By combining different flavoring ingredients with acids and oils, you create a flavor that matches the dish you want to make.

If you look at any marinade recipe, you’ll quickly see that no matter how complicated or simple, you usually have these three base elements. Once you understand how the different flavor profiles work, you’ll find it easier to experiment with new combinations and substitutions.

Make Your Own Marinade with Oil

You can easily create your own marinade using the three elements of acid, oil, and flavorings. Making your own recipe for a marinade is a great way to save money on store-bought marinades and use what you have on hand in the kitchen.

The balance of the ingredients is to use one part acid to three parts oil. So, if you made a marinade using a cup of apple cider vinegar, you would balance that with three cups of vegetable oil.

Add the seasonings and salt you want to create your preferred flavor profile. For example, if you want a marinade with a sweet and sour flavor base, you might want to try soy sauce, honey, garlic, ginger, and lime juice.

You can experiment with different flavorings for your marinade – consider mustard, Worcestershire sauce, thyme, oregano, soy sauce, ginger, brown sugar, and rosemary. Don’t forget the salt, as this really helps bring out the flavor.


Oil is an essential part of most marinades, as it helps to prevent the meat from drying out from the air, heat, and the acidic nature of the tenderizing ingredients. It also penetrates the meat with flavor, adding interesting tastes to the meat. Oils have different smoke points, so if you plan to grill or stir-fry your meat, you want to use sesame oils, sunflower, or vegetable oil to prevent smoking or burning.

Have any questions? Ask me in the comment section below and I’ll get back to you.

Tom Hambly

Tom Hambly is the founder of Boss The Kitchen. With a background in cooking and building websites, he enjoys running this site to help other cooks improve. About Tom Hambly.

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