Raw Pork Cut Steaks That are Marinated Sitting on A Wooden Cutting Board

How to Choose The Best Grilling Sauces, Seasonings and Marinades

When it comes to grilling meat, technique is important. But half the fun of a meal is not just in the technique, but the special flavors you choose to incorporate as well. In order to bring those flavors in, you’ll need a marinade, seasoning, or glaze to bring your grilling game into legendary status. Here are some tips, tricks and recipes for seasoning, marinating and glazing your meat for the grill.

Marinades

The first step in imparting good texture into your meal is marinating the meat overnight. Making your own marinade is an easy way to start your meal off right! Though the marinade is important when establishing the flavor profile of your meal, it’s even more important for making sure the meat is tender, which is why most marinades include acidic ingredients like vinegar or wine in addition to oil, herbs, and spices.

Oil is arguably least important for a red meat like steak because the cut often contains enough fat on its own. Not all cuts of red meat require an overnight marinade: many chefs will tell you that it’s most useful for the tougher cuts of beef that need a little help to break down connective tissue. If you’re in search of a good marinade for a flank steak or other cut of beef, consider this Big Hoss Flank Steak recipe, which contains tasty ingredients like balsamic vinegar, worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, basil and white pepper.

There are also plenty of good fish marinades for grilling. When marinating fish, it’s important to keep acid low, as it can cook the fish if you’re not careful. It’s also not always necessary to marinate fish overnight, and a few hours will do (though if you’re prepping the night before, just make sure to wait to add your acids.)

Salmon with a teriyaki marinade that is tasty and has sesame seeds in it and is plated next to fresh veggies.

One common marinade associated with fish is a savory teriyaki sauce. Though Westerners may have a particular sauce in mind when they hear the Japanese word, “teriyaki” is directly translated to teri: luster or shine and yaki: grilled, broiled, or pan-fried. According to Just One Cookbook, which specializes in Japanese recipes, a classic Japanese teriyaki sauce would include soy sauce, sake, mirin, and a bit of sugar. You can also add ginger and/or garlic to add more of an American flavor.

Chicken, and chicken breasts in particular, really benefit from a flavorful marinade because it helps add moisture and flavor to the end product. Chefs use a variety of marinades for chicken, everything from buttermilk to pickle juice to pineapple. With a chicken marinade, your oil to acid ratio should be 1:1. It’s important to remember when marinating chicken overnight to avoid metal containers, as these can impart metallic flavors and potentially stain the container.
Acid can also have an effect on chicken, so if you’re choosing a recipe that’s acid-heavy, be sure to cook after five or six hours at maximum. If you’re looking for good marinades for kebabs, consider a chicken satay or souvlaki, or consider a fruity recipe like this orange-tarragon marinade for breasts or thighs.

Seasoning

Seasoning your meat before grilling can be simple: a coating of salt alone helps facilitate the kind of chemical reactions that give your meat a sear and preserve flavor. But spices and herbs can also be added to the equation to kick your recipes up a notch when you’re looking for some more complex flavors.

Raw steak covered in salt and pepper and other herbs on a wooden cutting board next to some small containers and a pin roller.

When it comes to steak, you should at a minimum be seasoning with salt and pepper. The two table ingredients combine to add the perfect flavor and crust to a tasty bone-in ribeye, strip steak, or any cut you’ve got.

But when should you add the salt? According to Serious Eats, you’ve got two options: right before you throw the steak on the heat or at least 40 minutes beforehand. Doing so ensures that the steak takes on a tasty sear while concentrating the flavors of the meat.

Poultry can also be seasoned with salt right before grilling, and the effects will be similar to that of a steak. But if you’re looking to impart flavor, consider crushing fresh herbs and thoroughly rubbing the chicken with them in order to ensure their oils really get into the chicken, similar to how you would marinate the meat.

Salmon covered in a spice blend on a black surface next to some tomatoes and other fresh produce.

Fish can also benefit from complex seasoning. If you’re going for a spice blend, consider adding celery salt instead of regular salt, which is often used in grocery store blends like Old Bay because it adds a slight extra savory touch. Spice blends are often used for white fish fillets or other common fish like salmon or trout, but if you’re cooking a tuna steak, consider giving it a coating of salt like you would beef steak before cooking it.

Glazes

The best grilling sauces bring the final oomph of flavor to your meal and are often one of the chief differences that distinguish one style of barbecue from the next. For this reason, it’s important to choose one that works well for your meal.

For fish, glazing is simple: you want something thick and tasty that will coat the fish and your plate once it’s time to sit down and eat. You can glaze a fish with the aforementioned teriyaki sauce, but consider other sweet glazes like this honey garlic glaze. Just remember that searing your fish takes just a few minutes on each side and you’re off and running. 

Grilled chicken covered in a glaze on a black surface next to some grapes

There are two types of glazes to keep in mind when barbecuing: mop sauces and finishing sauces. Mop sauces are most important when you’re cooking meat low and slow, usually by smoking it, and they’re an important meat glazing technique. So before you tuck into a finishing sauce, you may need to prepare a basic mop sauce. 

Most mop sauces are based on nothing more than a liquid like water or lemon juice, salt and butter. From there, you can add any number of seasonings or ingredients: onion, garlic, or peppers. Carolina barbecue, which is typically centered around pork, will more often use a vinegar base instead of water. Expect ingredients like brown sugar, apple juice, and cayenne or paprika to also make an appearance. 

Beef ribs and brisket, which are more common in Texas barbecue, benefit plenty from a mop sauce because they absorb flavor and can use the added moisture. If you’re worried about burning your meats, consider this hillbilly mop sauce, which contains little sugar in order to avoid burning.

Poultry can be glazed too, especially if it’s a larger cut. For your mop sauce, you’ll likely want a light vinegar-based sauce, as they help keep the meat tender and juicy. Keep that bird cooking on indirect heat to avoid scorching, and wait to apply your sugary barbecue finishing sauce at the end to avoid burning. Grillmaster Steven Raichlen has a good guide to get you started.

Sauce in a cup on a wooden board with a brush next to it and the end covered in some of the sauce.

Be sure not to overdo it when you’re mopping your meat. How long you smoke the meat depends on what kind, what temperature, what equipment, and how much time you have, but you only want to mop on a sauce when the meat begins to look dry, roughly once an hour.

A finishing sauce is often very similar to the mop sauce, with the exception that the texture is more table-ready. This is also the right time to add in the brown sugar, honey or other sweet ingredients that work so well at balancing out the smokiness of your freshly-grilled meat. Feel free to add in your favorite store-bought or homemade classic barbecue sauce right as your meat finishes cooking, and keep some more at hand if you need it. All that’s left to do then is enjoy!

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