Marinades can be the ultimate mix of your favorite flavors. From spicy and savory to sticky and sweet, clearing out your fridge and pantry has never tasted so delicious! There are, however, a few ingredients that you should keep out of the marinade bowl.
Foods to not add to a marinade include oils with a low smoke point, fats that solidify at room temperature, water, sugar alternatives, and coarse sea salt. The food you should not attempt to marinate is frozen meat, delicate fish, prime cuts of meat, and different types of meat in the same bowl.
It’s difficult to imagine ingredients that won’t work well in a marinade – or food that won’t benefit from being marinated! Let’s discover the ingredients that don’t work well in a marinade and the food to avoid marinating in this article.
Ingredients To Not Put In A Marinade
The list of ingredients not to include in a marinade is minuscule when you consider the infinite number of possible flavor combinations. Whipping up a marinade at home enables you to push the boundaries, experiment, and create unique and exciting dishes every time.
The perfect marinade should ideally consist of fat, acid, salt, and seasoning. When mixed into a marinade, certain ingredients perform better than others in each category.
The following ingredients shouldn’t be incorporated into a marinade:
1. Oils With A Low Smoke Point
Smoke points refer to the temperature at which oil begins to smoke and essentially ‘burn.’ Once the oil is heated beyond its smoking point, it develops a burnt, rancid flavor and can produce carcinogens (cancer-causing compounds).
As most food is marinated before being cooked at high temperatures (grilling, roasting, frying), it is best to use oils that can stand up to the heat or extensive cooking time.
Keep low smoke point oils such as pumpkin seed oil, flaxseed oil, and walnut oil for dips and salad dressings, and use high smoke point oils like avocado, sunflower, peanut, canola, and olive oil instead.
See my guide on the best oils to use for marinating and how to use them.
2. Fats That Solidify At Room Temperature Or Cooler
Fats such as butter, ghee, and coconut oil are not recommended for marinades because they solidify (harden) at room temperature or lower.
These solid fats will not emulsify or blend well with the other ingredients and form clumps in the marinade. When this happens, the marinade cannot coat the meat sufficiently to give it the desired flavor.
Upon contact with chilled meat, the fats will quickly solidify and form a crust, which defeats the marinating process.
Ghee and coconut are best used when cooking marinated food, such as frying, sauteing, and roasting.
Save the butter for basting your marinated fish or meat after you have seared it on both sides. Butter-basting gives food a caramelized and delicious nutty flavor.
Light, natural emulsifiers like olive oil, grapeseed oil, and vegetable oil are top choices for most marinades.
Even if you are counting calories, you might want to reconsider the notion of replacing oil with water in marinades. Fat is essential for liquid marinades since it emulsifies and transfers all the complex flavors in the mixture.
Water will not be as effective as oil in a marinade, diluting most of the flavor. For low-fat marinade options, try buttermilk or low-fat yogurt.
Fat helps retain moisture and enables the marinade to coat and cling to the marinated meat and vegetables.
4. Sugar Alternatives
While they are certainly sweet, sugar substitutes like stevia, xylitol, agave syrup, monk fruit, and molasses are not ideal for marinades. Firstly, these alternatives cannot replace sugar at a 1:1 ratio.
Their flavor profile is completely different (and often overpowering), and they don’t caramelize the same way sugar does.
Stick to table sugar, honey, maple syrup, or agave syrup for balanced flavor and perfect caramelization.
5. Coarse Salt Or Excess Salt
An incredible marinade is not complete without salt, but it’s important to use the right kind. Large, coarser varieties like Kosher and coarse Himalayan or coarse sea salt are not ideal for a marinade as the flakes tend to settle at the bottom of the bowl.
Fine-grained salt dissolves and blends easily into the marinade, providing maximum flavor.
Avoid a heavy hand with the salt, as an excessive amount will easily overpower the meal and draw out too much moisture from the meat.
See my post on when and when not to add salt to your marinades as it depends on how long you will let the meat soak.
Foods To Avoid Marinating
Just as anything can go into a marinade, you can marinate nearly everything!
Although most foods can benefit from a decadent soak, there are some exceptions where marinating might be counter-productive:
1. Frozen Meat
Although it is perfectly safe to marinate meat directly from frozen, it is not advisable. To ensure maximum flavor and results, defrost the meat prior to marinating to ensure efficient absorption of the marinade.
Similarly, avoid freezing meat with its marinade, as the lengthy exposure to acidic ingredients will affect the taste and texture.
2. Delicate Fish
Flaky, delicate fish like tilapia, cod, sole, snapper, and halibut can’t withstand prolonged exposure to the acids in a marinade. The acidity of vinegars and lemon juice will eventually ‘cook’ the fish, affecting its texture.
By seasoning fish after cooking with garlic butter, fresh lemon juice, and spices, you will be able to preserve the delicate texture and nature of the fish.
3. Top-Quality Meats
A prime cut of meat deserves respect and to be enjoyed in all its glory. Many grill masters agree that a marinade is unnecessary and, in some cases, even detrimental to high-quality meat, detracting from its natural flavor.
There is no need to marinate expensive cuts of meat like rib eye, tenderloin (filet mignon), and Strip steak, as they are already tender and full of flavor.
4. Different Types Of Meat
Marinating different meats (a mix of fish, poultry, and pork, for example) in the same container is always strongly discouraged, as this may lead to cross-contamination. In addition, the marinating times vary depending on the food and its texture.
What Should A Marinade Always Include?
The ultimate marinade is perfectly balanced and bursting with umami flavor. With the right ingredients, a marinade enhances the food’s taste, texture, and juiciness, giving you a sensational dining experience.
Remember these 5 marinade must-haves:
Salt improves the taste of most dishes and enhances the flavor of the other ingredients in the marinade. In addition to marinating, salt will ‘brine’ the meat, locking in moisture and all the flavor.
Fine-ground table or sea salt will do the trick. Try soy sauce, fish sauce, miso paste, or Worcestershire sauce for an incredible savory taste and depth of flavor.
Sweeteners like sugar, maple syrup, and honey help round out the marinade’s salty, tangy notes. When heated, these sugars caramelize and brown, giving the dish a complex, sweet and nutty flavor.
Fats such as oil combine all the flavors as it emulsifies and blends the ingredients into a smooth and seamless mixture. Oil-based marinades are effective because they easily coat the food to impart maximum flavor. They counterbalance the tart or tangy taste of acidic ingredients.
Furthermore, oil prevents moisture loss and helps the food withstand cooking at high temperatures.
Acidic components like vinegar, lemon juice, yogurt, buttermilk, and wine denature (weaken) the proteins in meat. This helps tenderize the meat, seal in moisture, and improve flavor absorption. Acids impart a tart, zingy taste and provide a fresh contrast to the richness of the oil in marinades. I did a post on 11 juices that tenderize meat in marinades.
Most acids contain antioxidants, which counteract the free radicals formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures.
Check out my post on what marinating meat in buttermilk does and how to do it.
Seasonings are the flavor boosters in a marinade. There are limitless possibilities of combinations that will create a unique flavor profile to suit every dish.
Aromatics: Fresh or ground garlic, ginger, and onion provide massive flavor and form the foundation of a marinade.
Herbs: Fragrant, flavorful, and loaded with goodness, fresh or dried herbs like oregano, cilantro, thyme, rosemary, and mint add complexity and a pop of color to any dish.
Spices: From Asia to the Middle East, Africa, and beyond – you can taste the world with the right blend of spices. Be adventurous and explore the vast array of spices guaranteed to enhance the flavor, aroma, and color of your meal.
Zests: Lemon, lime, and orange zest impart a vibrant citrus flavor without increasing the acid content.
This list should help you out when deciding what should and should not go in your marinades and also the things which just shouldn’t be marinated.
While everything and anything seems to go with marinades, there are a select few things that should be avoided. Stick to the well-known classics such as oils and acids with your favorite spices and aromatics and boost those bland cuts of meat to the next level.