Marinades: Extra Tasty Grilling

Summertime means enjoying the outdoors, when temperatures rise and we have heady choices about whether to swim, garden, or simply soak up some rays. For many of us, it also means grilling. The grill is a social hub, where families and friends gather to sip cool drinks and enjoy backyard favorites in the open air. Firing up that grill can keep the house cooler, too, since you don’t have to turn on the oven or stove.

What to marinate and for how long

If you haven’t explored the world of marinades, they're easy to make, can amp up the flavor on your grill and don't require much advance prep time. Most often an hour is plenty of time for a chicken breast to sit in a marinade. In fact, food scientists have proven that most cuts of meat are barely penetrated by marinades, no matter how long they soak. The meat fibers are already full of liquids, and do not take up more. Brining, or soaking meat in a salty water bath, does cause the meat to expel some moisture and soak up the salt and other flavors of the brine, so if you want a two-day project, try brining your poultry for the grill.

Methods for infusing extra flavor

Methods that will get more flavor into a cut of meat like a chicken breast or pork tenderloin include slashing across the grain to open up more surface area, and cutting slits to insert garlic, herbs or chilies. Slashes also make meat cook faster, and make a dramatic presentation. Tandoori chicken is a great example of this, in which a spiced yogurt marinade tenderizes and flavors deeply slashed chicken. Kebabs, where ingredients are cubed and speared for grilling, are a perfect way to get lots of marinated surface area.

Marinades for fish and seafood

Fish and seafood are in their own category for marinades, and their delicate flesh should not be soaked for more than an hour to avoid pickling them. Cedar planks are a great way to cook fish and avoid the tragedy of it sticking to the grill, just smear a tasty topping on fish and close the lid. (Note: be sure to select untreated cedar; soak plank in water for at least one hour before using; have a spray bottle with water available to mist the plank if it starts to burn.)

The basic elements of a marinade

A good marinade consists of oil, a sour element, and salt and seasoning. The sour element, or acids, like vinegar, citrus and buttermilk or yogurt tenderize the exterior and help create a tasty crust. While most marinades are simple to make, if you're in a rush, bottled vinaigrettes can be used as quick and easy marinades.

There is a big, wide world of marinades out there, since just about every culinary tradition has some favorite ways to season food to cook over fire. The closer you go to the equator, the more there are, from the spicy, citrusy soy sauce marinades of Asia to the tropical jerk spices of the Islands. Try mixing one part canola oil, one part soy sauce, one part lime and adding a pinch of sugar and some chilies for a Thai style marinade, or a soak of two parts coconut milk, one part white vinegar, salt, chilies and thyme for a simple Island flavor. A Mediterranean theme would be olive oil, balsamic vinegar and rosemary, or olive oil, lemon and oregano.

Beyond meat: veggies, tofu and tempeh are great for grilling

Of course, tofu and tempeh, or even halloumi cheese can be marinated and grilled, as kebabs or in slabs. Chunks of onion, sweet peppers, zucchini and fat scallions are great grilled on skewers. If you have not tried a grill wok yet, they can be handy addition for keeping veggies from falling into the fire. There are all sorts of grill trays, mats and cages for containing everything from veggies to whole fish that can make grilling easier, especially if you're a frequent griller.

With a repertoire of easy marinades, you can grill an amazing variety of delicious, healthy meals all summer long.