Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Dinner's Secret Weapon: The Make-Ahead Marinade

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

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

T. Susan Chang
T. Susan Chang regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for The Boston Globe, and the Washington Post. She's the author of A Spoonful of Promises: Recipes and Stories From a Well-Tempered Table (2011). She lives in western Massachusetts, where she also teaches food writing at Bay Path College and Smith College. She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.