Dinner's Secret Weapon: The Make-Ahead Marinade

Pieces of marinated chicken meat sizzle on the grill i i

This sizzling weeknight meal started with fresh chicken and a bag of frozen marinade. T. Susan Chang for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption T. Susan Chang for NPR
Pieces of marinated chicken meat sizzle on the grill

This sizzling weeknight meal started with fresh chicken and a bag of frozen marinade.

T. Susan Chang for NPR

About The Author

T. Susan Chang is a New England-based freelance writer and a former Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also is the Boston Globe's regular cookbook reviewer, and her articles on cooking, gardening and nutrition appear in a variety of national and regional publications. You can find more information at her Web site, tsusanchang.com.

Ingredients for a marinade: lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce, sugar and a zip-top freezer bag i i

The fixings for an Asian-inspired marinade include lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce, sugar — and the all-important zip-top freezer bag. T. Susan Chang for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption T. Susan Chang for NPR
Ingredients for a marinade: lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce, sugar and a zip-top freezer bag

The fixings for an Asian-inspired marinade include lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce, sugar — and the all-important zip-top freezer bag.

T. Susan Chang for NPR

I have to confess: I've never been much good at planning ahead for meals. I long to be one of those people with a freezer full of easy weeknight meals — frozen soups or pre-chopped vegetables for stir-fry, nothing demanding more than a minute of the microwave's time or dirtying more than one pot. Yet somehow, late afternoon rolls around each day, and I'm dreaming up dinner from scratch again, one dumb chopped onion at a time.

A couple of years ago, though, shortly after we got our first Weber, I discovered the miracle of make-ahead grill marinades. It was mostly accidental. I'd wander around the pantry looking for things that might taste good with meat and throw them in the blender, hoping for the best. Six hours later, after a long soak and a quick baptism by fire, a heap of gnawed bones would bear witness to the success of this utterly haphazard approach. Of course I never wrote down the ingredients. Once in a while I'd make too much marinade and freeze the extra in a plastic bag. Then I would take a moment to gloat over the completely labor-free, towering masterpiece of deliciousness I would get to enjoy tomorrow or the next day.

I am embarrassed to say it took several months before I realized I could do this on purpose. But once I did, there was no stopping. I would make four or eight batches at a time, impersonating the superhero known as Type A Champion Planner until I finished washing the blender, at which time I reverted to my mild-mannered alter ego, World's Laziest Summer Cook.

Making marinades is messy, but after you've portioned out the fascinating-smelling slurry into heavy-duty gallon zipper storage bags and thrown them smugly into the freezer, you're done. Thereafter, preparing for dinner consists of taking out a bag of frozen marinade and dropping some meat into it. That's it. After you've spent the rest of the day doing something you love that isn't cooking, you come home, fire up the grill and cook that baby up. Everybody gawks at your prowess. You are the acknowledged sovereign in the kingdom of meat.

If you're cooking red meat, choose thin, porous cuts of meat for the most delectable results. Flanken-cut beef short rib (short rib cut across the bone into half-inch thick strips — you may need to ask your butcher to do this) is a wonder, but hangar steak, skirt steak, even flank steak (marinated overnight) will work well too. Sear them smartly and serve them rare.

For pork, baby back ribs take up marinade very well and cook in an instant. The meatier, fattier belly cuts — spare ribs and St. Louis-style ribs — also will do, if you have a bit more time. Pork sirloin chops, bone-in or boneless, cut a half-inch thick or less, work great and cook in a flash (be careful not to overcook.)

For chicken, skin-on thighs with or without the bone are ideal for marinades, but you can use the whole bird, cut up, if you prefer. You can use breast meat, but the more flavorful dark meat will do better justice to your secret sauce.

Of course, mastering the art of pre-made marinades creates problems of its own, as your family starts clamoring daily for the magic of grilled meat. You may find yourself hoarding your stash of frozen marinades, or making new batches so often that it starts to seem like work again. You may start to ask yourself: Is it really worth it? Am I wasting my time? To this I can only give my standard reply: Folks, you only get 80,000 meals — maybe — in a lifetime. A good meal is never, ever wasted.

The Secret SAUSS

There is no reason to be as hopelessly unsystematic about ingredients as I first was. It's easy to build a great marinade, if you remember the 4 S's: salt, sour, savory and sweet. Then there's the optional fifth S, spicy. S-S-S-S-S. If you're one of those smart people who calls sour "acid" and savory "umami," that gives you S-A-U-S-S. I'm really not sure what it means, but it does sound like "sauce." I've chosen four recipes that I love, but why stop there? Make your own marinades with your own S's, and you, too, can strut about the grill making coy references to your "secret sauce."

Salt. While there are many ways for arriving at the other flavors in your marinade, salt is basically salt. Even better than salt are the salty solutions of Asia, soy sauce and fish sauce (or tamari sauce). In addition to their powerful salt flavor, these solutions have undertones of savory fermented flavor. They have the effect of amplifying everything else in the marinade, giving it roundedness and dimension.

Sour (Or Acid). Here the choices are legion. You can use any vinegar, from the tangy cider and wine vinegars to the mellow balsamic, or alcohols like rice wine or beer. You can use any citrus juice: orange, lemon, lime, and tamarind pulp or concentrate has an orangey, mouth-puckering flavor that does beautifully in marinades. Sour tropical fruits such as green papayas or unripe mangoes have the added effect of tenderizing meat. Acidic-tasting botanicals such as ginger, lemongrass or coriander root offer aroma as well as taste.

Sweet. Salt may be salt, but sweet isn't just sugar. It can be cane sugar, palm sugar, brown sugar, pomegranate molasses, maple syrup, coconut milk, hoisin sauce and so on. Best of all is honey, which helps impart a gorgeous color to pork and chicken when they grill, and a sticky, addictive lacquer.

Savory (Or Umami). It doesn't take much, but it makes all the difference. It's not for nothing that umami means "deliciousness" in Japanese. Soy or fish sauce might set the stage for that savory flavor, but you have umpteen wildly different roads you can take from there: garlic in any form (crushed, roasted, even powdered); tomato paste or ketchup; black bean or anchovy paste; Worcestershire sauce, or even ground-up dried wild mushrooms.

Spicy. Spicy flavors do more than add heat — they sound a wake-up call that makes the rest of the marinade sit up and take notice. It could be as little as a dab of mustard or as much as 3 tablespoons of chili paste. It could be an ancho or chipotle chile, rehydrated and pureed into the marinade, or a couple of small green bird chilies. It could be a simple but generous dose of fresh black pepper, as in the Thai classic gai yang.

Oh — And Don't Forget The Oil. You've heard the chef's saying: "Fat carries flavor"? Every marinade needs a little oil — a tablespoon or so — to help carry the flavor, especially if you don't have a lot of time to let it sit. Coconut milk comes with its own fat, so you don't need to add any if you're using it. You can skip it with some of the fattier meats, too. It's easy to get so caught up in the creative frenzy of marinade-making that you forget the oil, but don't sweat it if you do. I routinely forget to add the oil. It makes a difference, but not a deal-breaking one.

The Proportions. My friend Sue's kal bi recipe uses one-third each of salt, sour and sweet — in that case, soy sauce, beer or rice wine, and sugar. That's living large, but when you taste the results, you just can't argue with it. In my own recipes, I tend to start with a generous quantity of salt, then proceed in gradually decreasing order through sour, sweet, savory and spicy (it would be so much more helpful if they went in alphabetical order, wouldn't it?). If you try 1/2 cup salt (meaning a salty solution like soy, not actual salt), 1/3 cup sour, 1/4 cup sweet, 2 tablespoons savory and 1 tablespoon spicy, I'm pretty sure you'll be happy with the results. But go ahead and taste it. Make up your mind that it's perfect before you add the raw meat, because once you do, no more tasting.

I-Slaved-For-Hours Marinade For Chicken

I-Slaved-For-Hours Marinade For Chicken i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
I-Slaved-For-Hours Marinade For Chicken
T. Susan Chang for NPR

This is the most ridiculously easy marinade ever. The idea is this: If something as simple as salad dressing makes an effective marinade for chicken (and it does, by the way), why can't you make a four-ingredient soy dressing and use that? Well, you can. We were making margaritas one afternoon, which meant we had extra lime juice and little motivation to cook. You be the judge.

Makes enough for 2 marinades, 4 to 6 servings each. Use one and freeze the other for next time. Feel free to double, triple, etc.

1/2 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 tablespoons honey

Zest and juice of 1 lime

2 teaspoons garlic powder

8 bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

Whisk together the first 5 ingredients and divide between 2 gallon-size zip-top freezer bags. Freeze one of the bags for future use. Drop the chicken thighs in the other bag and zip it shut, squeezing out as much air as possible. Massage the bag briefly to distribute the marinade evenly over the meat. Marinate for 90 minutes or up to 2 days in the refrigerator.

Preheat the grill until very hot. If using gas, heat only one side of the burners. If using charcoal, place the charcoals all to one side.

When the grill is hot, lift the thighs out of the marinade and place them skin side down on the unheated side. Baste with half the leftover marinade. Close the grill cover, but leave the vents wide open.

After 15 minutes, flip the chicken over so the skin side is up and re-baste. Continue cooking, covered, another 10 to 20 minutes until nearly done. Remove the lid. If the skin doesn't have a rich, golden color, sear the thighs skin-side down over the hot side of the grill for several seconds. If the flames flare up, move the meat immediately so they don't blacken the skin.

Serve hot or at room temperature.

My Friend Sue's Famous Easy 'Kal Bi'

Easy 'Kal Bi' marinated beef short ribs i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Easy 'Kal Bi' marinated beef short ribs
T. Susan Chang for NPR

This is adapted freely from Sue's recipe. Any errors or disappointing results are my fault alone. Sue serves it with an array of delicious sides traditionally used with kal bi, which simply means "ribs" in Korean. I'm usually so desperate to gobble down the meat that I just serve some rice and the easiest green vegetable I can find.

Makes 1 marinade for 4 to 6 servings. Can be doubled, tripled, etc.

3 cloves garlic, peeled

1 3-inch knob ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped

1/3 cup rice wine or light beer

1/3 cup soy sauce

1/3 cup sugar

2 to 3 tablespoons sesame oil

3 pounds beef short ribs, cut a half-inch thick across the bone ("flanken-cut")

Drop the garlic and ginger into a food processor and pulse briefly with the rice wine or beer until it's coarsely pureed. Add the soy sauce, sugar and sesame oil and blend briefly again. Pour the marinade into a gallon-size zip-top freezer bag, add the meat and zip the bag shut, squeezing out as much air as possible. Massage the bag briefly to distribute the marinade evenly over the meat. Marinate at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days in the refrigerator.

Preheat the grill until very hot. If using gas, heat only one side of the burners. If using charcoal, place the charcoals all to one side. When the grill is hot, start grilling the meat in batches over the hottest part of the grill. Sear the meat until nicely browned on both sides, but don't let the flames flare up and char the meat. When the meat is browned, move it to the unheated side of the grill. (Keep it on the far side of the grill if you just want to keep it warm; move it to the center if you'd like it a little less rare.)

Idle-Weekday Tamarind Marinade For Pork

Idle-Weekday Tamarind Marinade For Pork i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Idle-Weekday Tamarind Marinade For Pork
T. Susan Chang for NPR

You don't have to use the chile, but it's so good. Ancho or pasilla chiles also work well. If you have tamarind paste instead of tamarind concentrate, soak a 1-inch-square chunk of paste in enough boiling water to cover. After it has softened (about 15 minutes), massage the paste with your fingers and discard the hard, wood-like seeds. Use the remaining pulp. If it has dissolved into a thick liquid, just discard the seeds and use the liquid.

Makes 4 to 6 servings, 1 recipe's worth of marinade. Can be doubled, tripled, etc.

3 cloves garlic, peeled

2-inch knob ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 dried chipotle chile, or 1 canned chipotle en adobo

1/3 cup lime juice

1/3 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons tamarind concentrate

3 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons ketchup

2 racks baby back ribs, each cut in half

If using the dried chipotle, soak in very hot or boiling water for 15 minutes. Chop off and discard the stem end, discard the soaking water and rinse out any seeds.

Drop the garlic, ginger and chipotle into the jar of a blender or the bowl of a food processor. Add the lime juice and blend until you have a loose paste. Add the remaining ingredients and blend briefly. Place the marinade into a gallon-size, zip-top freezer bag, and then add the meat. (You should just be able to fit the 4 half-racks of ribs in the bag.)

Zip it shut, squeezing out as much air as possible. Massage the bag briefly to distribute the marinade evenly over the meat. Marinate at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days in the refrigerator.

Preheat the grill until very hot. If using gas, heat only one side of the burners. If using charcoal, place the charcoals all to one side. Lift the slabs of ribs out of the marinade and place them on the unheated side of the grill. Cover, with the lid vent one-quarter of the way open, and cook for 10 minutes. Baste, turn and cook, covered, for another 10 minutes.

Remove grill cover, baste again and start searing one or two slabs at a time on the hot side of the grill, turning and basting periodically. (Leave the slabs you're not working with on the unheated side of the grill.) If flames start to flare up, pull the ribs back to the unheated side of the grill to keep them from blackening. You should be able to achieve a nice crust on all 4 slabs within about 10 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Note: If you use spare ribs or St.-Louis-style (trimmed spare ribs), double the covered cooking time.

Garlic Lemongrass Marinade For Pork

Garlic Lemongrass Marinade For Pork i i
T. Susan Chang for NPR
Garlic Lemongrass Marinade For Pork
T. Susan Chang for NPR

I think the ideal cut for this is thin-cut pork chops with the bone in, but if they're not available, you can use boneless chops. If you can only get thick cuts, no need to worry — just slice them sideways into thin cuts with your knife. (This is easier if they're slightly frozen. It's impossible, of course, if they're bone-in.) The marinade is adapted from Corinne Trang's Essentials of Asian Cuisine (Simon & Schuster 2003).

Makes 4 to 6 servings, 1 recipe's worth of marinade. Can be doubled, tripled, etc.

2 tablespoons granulated sugar

1/3 cup fish sauce

2 lemongrass stalks, root ends trimmed, outer leaves and tough green tops removed, and 6-inch-long inner bulbs finely ground

2 large garlic cloves, crushed, peeled and minced

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 to 3 pounds thin-cut (1/2-inch or less) pork chops, center-cut or sirloin, bone-in or boneless

Whisk together the sugar and fish sauce in a bowl until well combined. Stir in the lemongrass, garlic and oil until evenly distributed.

Use only the inner part of the lemongrass stalk, which is usually soft enough to grate. If even that is too tough to work with, you have a couple of options: 1. Chop it up coarsely with the garlic and put in the plastic bag, then crush with the flat side of a meat mallet until they release their aroma, or 2. Chop it coarsely and place in a blender with the garlic and the fish sauce, and pulse until it's just short of a paste.

Place the marinade into a gallon-size zip-top freezer bag and then add the chops. Zip it shut, squeezing out as much air as possible. Massage the bag briefly to distribute the marinade evenly over the meat. Marinate at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days in the refrigerator.

Preheat the grill until very hot. If using gas, heat only one side of the burners. If using charcoal, place the charcoals all to one side. When the grill is hot, start grilling the meat in batches over the hottest part of the grill. Sear the meat until nicely browned on both sides, but don't let the flames flare up and char the meat. When the meat is browned, move it to the unheated side of the grill until you're ready to serve.

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