Healthy Grilling Marinades


What does the term marinade mean? Let’s answer that question first. Marinating is a technique that’s been around at least since the Renaissance, when acidic mixtures were commonly used to help preserve foods. The first known marinade originally came from the use of seawater to preserve meat. The roots of the word are derived from the Latin word for sea (mare). In general, the term marinade refers to soaking food in a flavorful liquid. This liquid consists of an acid, oil, and some spices and/or herbs. A good marinade will add flavor to your favorite meat and/or vegetable dish all while helping to prevent that food item from drying out during the cooking process.

Making a marinade is a simple and cost effective method that adds flavor to any dish. All you need is three basic components. The first is an acid such as lemon juice, vinegar, yogurt, or wine. The acid is important as it breaks down the surface of the meat and helps to open up the meat so the oil and flavors used can penetrate the meat. The second is oil. The oil protects and preserves the food while it is marinating and when it’s being cooked. The third is any herb and/or spice. This is what gives a marinade its unique flavor and zest. I love to experiment by grouping one or more ingredients from each component.


Marinating Tips/Guidelines

  • Meat and poultry are generally marinated for 2 hours up to 2 days.
  • Seafood and fish should be marinated for no longer than one hour.
  • Use a nonreactive container – steer clear of aluminum, copper, or cast iron.
  • Wait for your marinade to cool down before pouring over the meat/vegetable of your choice.
  • Always refrigerate your meat while it’s marinating.
  • Never reuse marinades!


Are certain cuts of meat and or vegetables better for marinating?

The answer is yes! Small or thin cuts of meat and poultry generally make the best options for marinades as they offer the most surface area to meat ratio for that marinade to penetrate the whole piece of meat. An example of this would be flank steak (my favorite). Larger cuts of meats such as roast have a smaller surface area to meat ratio, so the marinade won’t have as big of an effect on the cooking process. Tender vegetables, such as mushrooms, zucchini, yellow squash, and eggplant, absorb flavor from marinades and taste great grilled.

The science behind marinades.

Let’s cut right to the chase, meat is a tough product to deal with as our human mouths have teeth designed for chewing and grinding more than ripping and tearing food apart. Lucky for us, we have taken to the art of developing our culinary skills. Meat is made up of collagen fibers (tough) and they must be broken down through a cooking process (usually braising for hours) at a low temperature until that collagen is broken down into gelatin which provides that silky falling apart oh-so-good feel we associate meat with.

Marinades were introduced to shorten the cooking time, help with the tenderization of the meat, and prevent the meat from drying out at the higher cooking temperatures associated with grilling over an open flame. The acid in the marinade is used to breakdown the tough collagen proteins within the piece of meat. This is known as acidic margination. When using a dominant acidic marinade, it is important to marinade for a shorter amount of time as the exposure to acid over time can cause a loss of water content within the meat and for that meat to become tough.

Another type of marinade technique is that using enzymes from certain food items such as ginger (protease enzyme), pineapple (bromelain enzyme), papaya (papain enzyme), and figs (ficin enzyme). These enzymes increase the rate at which cellular reactions occur (collagen breakdown), and certain enzymes help attack the protein networks of tough meat. In fact, natives of pre-Columbian Mexico used to wrap their meat in papaya leaves before cooking since they found that it increased tenderness. However, be sure to monitor the time, as the enzymes can completely digest meats if they sit for too long.


Tools of the trade

Most marinades are acidic, so it’s best to soak the food item of your choice in a nonreactive container like those made of glass, ceramic, plastic, or stainless steel. Reactive metals such as aluminum or copper will respond to acids by discoloring the food and giving it a metallic taste. My favorite vessel is the one of a kind zip-top plastic bag as it allows the marinade to cover all sides of the food item and allows for easy cleanup. Simply throw the bag away!


In the Tub – Soak Time

The length of time you marinate food depends on both the food and the type of marinade. Delicate fish, shellfish, and fruit usually soak for a shorter period of time (from 20 minutes to a few hours) due to the enzymes involved from above and the lower amount of collagen fibers found in fish, while meats can go longer (up to a day or two). If, however, meat is soaking in a highly acidic marinade, its texture may turn grainy if soaked too long (more than a couple of hours, in most cases). Here is a tip that I use every time I marinade a piece of food, set a timer!


Here is a list of some marinades that are easy to put together and offer great variety.


  • Greek – olive oil, lemon, and herbs
  • Teriyaki – soy sauce, ginger, and a vinegar (rice or white)
  • Coffee – coffee grounds, mustard, garlic, and a balsamic vinegar
  • Jerk – onions, soy sauce, peppers, and spices such as cinnamon and all-spice


  • Asian – soy sauce, red wine vinegar, ginger, and sesame oil
  • Lemon & Garlic – olive oil, lemon juice and zest, garlic, salt and pepper
  • Mediterranean – olive oil, thyme, rosemary, lemon, and salt and pepper


Try these recipes

Jerk Marinade

Jerk Marinade

You Jerk

This Jerk marinade gets that great flavor deep into the meat. This recipe works well on any meat and most vegetables. This recipe makes about 1 – ¼ cup of marinade.   Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. Depending on size of blender, this process might need to be done in batches. Use right away or if making ahead, simply store in an air tight container and keep in the refrigerator for up to 7 days. For chicken, marinate 2-4 hours. For pork marinate for 2-8 hours.


  • 1 medium onion finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup scallions, finely chopped
  • 1 hot pepper finely chopped (jalapeno or habanero)
  • 3 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 tablespoon cider or white vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt, (kosher or sea salt is preferable)
  • 1 teaspoon Allspice, ground
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper, ground
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, ground
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, ground


Coffee Marinade

Coffee Marinade

Buzz Off

Don’t throw away that half empty pot of coffee! Instead use it as a marinade. You can marinate pork chops, chicken, steak, or any game meat in coffee. Generally, I let the meat stand for one to three hours in your favorite cup of Joe. The coffee will give the meat a lovely smoky taste, but remember to use cold coffee. Hot coffee will cook the meat!


Combine all the ingredients and, before adding the meat, separate ¼ of the marinade to use later for basting. Next, add the meat. Let it stand in the refrigerator for at least two hours and up to 24 hours. When grilling, use the spare marinade for basting.



  • 1 cup strong brewed black coffee or espresso
  • 1 ½ tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • About 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus a little more for rubbing on the steak
  • 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¾ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 ½ to 2 pounds’ flank steak


Greek Marinade

Greek Marinade

Let’s Go Greek

This authentic, tasty Greek marinade is a must for any backyard griller. The lemon helps to break down those tough collagen fibers and provides a touch of sourness. The Oregano helps to bring out some natural sweetness from the meat. The marinate suits any meat and is probably best suited to lamb or chicken.



  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons finely shredded lemon peel
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper


Vegetable marinades

When it comes to marinades, meat isn’t the only food item that deserves our attention. Here are 4 quick and easy vegetable marinades that offer a variety of flavors depending on your mood and taste. First, mix the marinade up and let your vegetables marinate in a shallow dish from between 30 minutes to an hour before grilling. For larger quantities you can just double the ingredients and amounts listed below. Have fun!


Lemon & Garlic

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1 teaspoon minced garlic

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


Spicy Orange & Cilantro

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon orange juice

1 tablespoon orange marmalade

1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes


Brown Sugar & Bourbon

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons bourbon

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper



2 tablespoons light soy sauce

2 tablespoons seasoned rice wine vinegar

2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger

1 teaspoon sesame oil


Marinating is a great way to experiment with new flavors and new recipes. Please try one of the recipes mentioned above and tell us what you think! If you would like more information about how to organize a meal plan during the summer months or looking to adopt a healthier lifestyle overall through nutrition and fitness schedule a FREE NO OBLIGATION CONSULTATION with one of our registered dietitians at Elite Nutrition and performance.

Sean Vander Veer Elite Nutrition and Performance RD

Sean Vander Veer RD, LD, CPT



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