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Marinades: Taking a Quick Dip

June 25, 1992|FAYE LEVY

There is nothing mysterious about marinades. Basically, they are flavoring mixtures in which food is placed before being cooked. Marinades enhance grilled fish, chicken and meat, making them well-seasoned, juicy and irresistible even without a sauce.

Yet marinade myths abound. The most common one is that meats need many hours of marinating. This was true long ago when meats were often tough, but today the many tender meats available--beef rib eye and tenderloin steaks, lamb chops, chicken pieces, fish steaks--make it possible to have succulent grilled meat in no time.

Brief marinating is enough for these meats, because the primary purpose is flavoring, not tenderizing. When I'm in a hurry, I'll marinate meat while the coals are heating, which takes about 30 minutes.

Another myth is that marinades must contain acid ingredients such as vinegar, lemon juice or wine. But again, their slight tenderizing effect is not needed for already-tender meats. Many superb Middle Eastern marinades are made of spiced oil and contain no acid, or just a touch for a pleasant tang.

Still another misconception is that meats must be drenched in marinade. This is true for stews where the marinade becomes the cooking liquid. But for grilling, a small amount goes a long way. Just turn the meat a few times, so all its surfaces come in contact with the marinade.

For fish and lean meats such as chicken breasts, marinades have a second goal--to moisten the flesh and help protect it from becoming too dry in the searing heat of the coals. Oil in marinades fulfills this function. Fortunately, the oil doesn't contribute much to the dish's fat content, because the food is removed from the marinade before grilling and some of the residual fat burns off.

According to USDA food safety guidelines, fish, poultry and meat should be marinated in the refrigerator. If you want to use the extra marinade for basting, set some aside and do not place the meat in it--marinades in which uncooked meat was soaked might contain bacteria. For the same reason, marinades should not be reused. (One option: Boil the marinade after the meat has soaked, then use it as a sauce.)

Nothing is easier to prepare than a marinade--you simply mix the ingredients together. If adding acidic ingredients such as citrus juice, vinegar, wine or yogurt, marinate the food in a glass or plastic dish--the acids might react with a metal container.

For quick marinades, assertive flavors are best. Mediterranean and French chefs prepare savory marinades of olive oil, garlic and herbs that complement all kinds of meats and fish. Dried thyme and oregano work well, and rosemary is effective either fresh or dried, but fresh basil, tarragon and parsley are too delicate.

Other excellent seasonings are ginger, orange or lemon peel, red pepper flakes, cumin, coriander, turmeric, pepper, cayenne and soy sauce. Homemade marinades taste more natural than bottled mixtures and can be made without salt or sugar.

Marinades are a boon to light cooking. Use them for Fourth of July barbecues and for fast, effortless meals throughout the summer.

A tangy eastern Mediterranean marinade gives a fine flavor to delicate chicken breasts and fish. For a stronger taste, you can marinate fish up to two hours and chicken overnight. Barbecue some corn, red and green peppers and large mushroom caps alongside the chicken and serve them as accompaniments.


6 chicken breast halves with skin and bone, about 3 pounds

1/4 cup olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons strained lemon juice

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin, optional

1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste, optional

Place chicken in shallow dish. Combine olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, pepper and cumin in small bowl. Pour evenly over both sides of chicken. Cover and refrigerate, turning pieces occasionally while heating coals, or longer if desired.

Remove chicken from marinade and sprinkle lightly to taste with salt. Set chicken on oiled rack 5 or 6 inches above glowing coals or on broiler rack in broiler. Grill, covered, or broil about 10 minutes per side, or until thickest part of meat near bone is no longer pink when cut. Serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.

Variation: Garlic-Herb Marinade for Chicken or Fish:

Prepare marinade as above, omitting cumin and using only 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Add 1 teaspoon dried leaf thyme or 1 teaspoon oregano and 1/2 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary.

Onion, coriander and cumin lend character to this Middle Eastern marinade, which is also perfect for steaks and the dark meat of chicken. Grilled eggplant slices, rice pilaf and a salad of diced tomato, cucumber and green onion are my favorite accompaniments.


12 loin or rib lamb chops, about 1 1/2 inches thick

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons grated onion

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon salt or to taste, optional

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