Marvelous Marinades

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by Nancy Gerlach, Food Editor Emeritus

Nancy Gerlach


  • Baja Ceviche Tostadas

  • Pungent Pork Vindaloo

  • Marinated Grilled Vegetables

  • Grilled Steak Carbonnade Kebabs

  • Carnitas Caliente


In the past, marinades were most often used to tenderize tough meats and/or to act as a preservative. Today, however, their role is more to add flavoring and replace rich sauces and gravies. Marinades can either be liquid or dry, and can even be used to “cook” the food.

A liquid marinade consists of seasonings such as herbs and spices–including chile–for flavor, an oil, and an acid like wine, beer, vinegar, citrus juice, or yogurt. The acid/oil combination has a two-fold purpose. First, the acid breaks down connective tissues of meat or poultry which has a tenderizing effect, and secondly the oil keeps the food from drying out and spreads the flavor throughout the dish.

These marinades can be cooked or not, although those that are add the most flavor to dishes that are to be marinated for long time. If you are using a cooked one, just be sure to allow it to cool before adding it to the food to be marinated. There are a few things to remember when using any liquid marinade. Always prepare it ahead of time to allow the flavors to blend and allow one-half cup of liquid per pound of meat or other food. The marinade only needs to come half way up the food, and you do not have to drown the food in the liquid. Before cooking, remove the food from the marinade, drain, and reserve the liquid if you want to serve it with the food. If you are going to serve it with the food, be sure to cook the sauce thoroughly before serving.

Dry marinades are a mixture of salt, pepper, herbs, spices and/or chiles, and are usually used with meats or fish. Sometimes the dry marinade is mixed with a liquid to form a paste, or if used dry, the food is lightly oiled so that the marinade will stick. Allow 1 to 2 tablespoons of the marinade per pound of food and allow the food to marinate for at least an hour before cooking. The preferred methods of cooking with a dry rub are grilling, smoking, barbecuing, or roasting. Dry marinades are often left on the food during cooking to create a tasty, spicy crust on the outside while the meat remains tender and moist on the inside.

There are a couple of basics that need to be addressed no matter what type of marinade used. In the first place, because of the high acid content, always use glass, stainless steel, plastic, or enamel bowls or containers; NEVER use aluminum! Secondly, use a container that will hold the food in a single layer (a self-sealing plastic bag is perfect.) In addition, if marinating meats or fish for longer than 20 to 30 minutes, keep them in the refrigerator. And finally, always bring the food to room temperature before cooking.

Marinating is an easy way of preparing delicious, healthy foods. In the following recipes I have attempted to provide a variety of ways that marinades can be utilized. You can also take the basic concepts and let your imagination run free,to create your own fiery marinades.

Note: These recipes required advance preparation/marinating time.

Baja Ceviche Tostadas

Marinades can also be used for cooking without the use of heat such as in ceviche. They work by breaking down the tough connective tissues and firming the protein, the same effect that heat has. Foods without resistant connective tissues, such as fish, can be “cooked,” or technically pickled, in this way. Only buy the freshest of fish for ceviche and I always freeze the fish overnight before thawing and using, just to be on the safe side.

  • 1 pound firm white fish, such as sole, bluefish, snapper, or bass, diced

  • 4 serrano chiles, minced

  • ½ cup diced onion

  • 6 to 8 limes, Mexican preferred

  • 1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1 small tomato, diced

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

  • Coarsely ground black pepper

  • 1 small avocado, diced

  • 6 corn tostadas shells or chips

  • Garnish: Chopped fresh cilantro

  • Mexican hot sauce

Combine the fish, chiles, and onion in a non-reactive bowl. Squeeze the lime juice over the top and toss the mixture until well coated. The juice should cover the fish. Marinate the mixture for 2 to 3 hours or until the seafood is opaque and appears cooked through. Drain the mixture and place in a clean bowl.

Combine the oil, tomato, cumin, and black pepper and toss to mix. Add the fish mixture to the salsa, mix, and allow to sit for 30 minutes before serving.

To serve: Drain the ceviche, toss with avocados, place in a serving bowl. Garnish with the cilantro, serve with the tostadas and accompanied with your favorite Mexican hot sauce.

Yield: 6 tostadas

Heat Scale: Medium Hot

Pungent Pork Vindaloo

Vindaloo describes a style of Indian cooking whereby the meat or fish is marinated in a vinegar- based sauce and then cooked in that marinade. This recipe can also be used for beef or lamb and, like a pasta sauce, is best if prepared a day in advance and reheated. Add ground cayenne if more heat is desired.

  • ½ cup cider vinegar

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 2 teaspoons crushed red chile

  • 2 teaspoons minced ginger

  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom

  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves

  • ½ teaspoon ground turmeric

  • Crushed black pepper

  • 1 ½ pounds pork, cut in 1-inch cubes

  • 1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 1 medium onion, chopped

  • 1 medium potato, cubed

  • 2 cups chicken broth

  • 2 cups cooked rice

To make the marinade, combine the vinegar, oil, chile, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, and black pepper in a non-reactive bowl. Add the pork and toss the pork in the mixture until well coated. Cover and marinate the pork for 2 to 3 hours or overnight in the refrigerator. Remove the pork, drain, and reserve the marinade.

Heat a little of the remaining oil in a heavy skillet, add the pork and brown. Add more oil if needed to keep the meat from burning. Add the onions and potato and continue to saute the mixture until the onions are soft and the potatoes are browned.

Add the reserved marinade and the broth to the pork, bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer until the meat is very tender and the sauce is thickened, around 30 minutes. Add more broth if needed

Serve the vindaloo over a platter of hot rice.

Yield: 4 servings

Heat Scale: Hot

Marinated Grilled Vegetables

Serve these spicy vegetables as a side dish to just about any grilled meat or fish. If using bamboo skewers, soak them in water for 20 minutes to prevent them from burning. From The Habanero Cookbook, by Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach, Ten Speed Press, 1995.


  • 8 cherry tomatoes

  • 1 green bell pepper, seeds, ribs, and stem removed, cut lengthwise into wedges

  • 8 large button mushrooms

  • 1 onion, cut into wedges and separated

  • 1 zucchini, scored with a fork and cut into ½-inch slices


  • 6 green onions, minced

  • 1 Scotch bonnet chile, seeds and stem removed, minced

  • ½ cup soy sauce

  • ½ cup malt vinegar

  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves

  • ½ teaspoon ground allspice

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

To prepare the vegetables, thread them onto skewers, alternating colors and shapes, and place the skewers in a non-reactive baking dish.

To make the marinade, combine all the ingredients in a bowl and pour over the vegetables. Marinate for 2 to 3 hours, spooning the marinade over the vegetables occasionally.

Brush a grill rack with vegetable oil. Grill the vegetables for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the vegetables are cooked but still crisp, basting frequently with the marinade.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Medium

Grilled Steak Carbonnade Kebabs

Beer is frequently used as the tenderizing ingredient in marinades as it is in this recipe. Carbonnade refers to a type of French or Belgian beef stew made with beer and a little sugar. I’ve not only highjacked the title, but have spiced up my version of the recipe by adding chiles, our favorite ingredient, and cooking it on the grill, rather than the stove as a stew.

  • 1 12-ounce can beer, dark preferred

  • 2 tablespoons sugar

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 teaspoon ground cayenne chile

  • 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar

  • 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

  • 1 to 1 ½-pounds beef, such as sirloin, filet, or top round steak, cut in 1-inch cubes

  • 12 to 18 pearl onions

  • 1 green bell pepper, seeds, ribs, stem removed, cut lengthwise into wedges

To make the marinade, combine the beer, sugar, oil, soy sauce, garlic, cayenne, vinegar, and black pepper in a non-reactive bowl. Add the beef, cover, and marinate the beef in the refrigerator overnight. Remove the beef and drain, reserving the marinade.

Put the reserved marinade in a small saucepan and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.

Thread the beef, onions, and bell pepper on skewers. Brush the onions and peppers with oil and sprinkle with some additional chile. Grill the kebabs over a medium-hot fire for about 4 minutes on each side, until the beef is done. Cut a piece of meat to check for doneness.

To serve, place the kebabs on a serving platter or individual plates. Pour the cooked marinade over the kebabs and serve.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Heat Scale: Mild

Carnitas Caliente

Carnitas are “little pieces of meat,” usually pork, that are often served as a breakfast side dish in Mexico or wrapped in a tortilla and eaten as a burrito or soft taco. In addition I also like to serve them as an appetizer with a selection of salsas for dipping. Carnitas are an example of how a dry rub marinade can form a tasty crust on the meat, while the inside remains tender and moist.

  • 3 tablespoons ground ancho chile

  • 1 tablespoon ground chipotle chile

  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder

  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 3/4 teaspoon salt

  • 1 to 1 ½ pounds boneless pork, trimmed of the fat and cut into 1-inch cubes.


  • Guacamole

  • Tomato-based Mexican salsa

  • Tomatillo-based salsa

  • Sour cream

Combine all the spices and cilantro together in a bowl and mix well. Rub the pork cubes with the mixture and marinate the meat at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Place the pork cubes on a rack over a baking sheet and bake in the oven for 1 ½ hours or until the meat is quite crisp. Pour off any fat as it accumulates.

To serve as an appetizer place in a chafing dish along with toothpicks and accompanied with your choice of salsas, guacamole, and/or sour cream for dipping.

Yield: 6 servings as an appetizer

Heat Scale: Medium

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