When people hear about marinades, they might automatically think of grilling but marinades should be an integral part of vegan cooking, indoors or out, any time of the year, no matter what cooking method is being used. While marinades are used as a way to tenderize meat, they are essential in plant-based cooking for adding flavor. Any food tastes better after it’s taken a long soak in a tub of aromatics and flavorful ingredients. For some foods which can absorb liquids, such as tofu, even a quick marinade can bump up the flavor of your dish considerably.
Making your own marinades is fun, quick and easy. There are many benefits to making your own marinades: it is less expensive than store-bought ones, you choose the ingredients, you choose the amount of salt and sugar, there are no preservatives, it’s a great way to experiment with flavors, and it gives you a reason to use all those spices that may be collecting dust in your cabinet. There is no wrong or right, no ingredient amounts you must stick to and no hard and fast rules; just a few guidelines that offer you flexibility and let your creativity go wild.
Here is the ultimate guide to making flavor-packed marinades for your plant-based dishes:
Technically, you can marinate any foods you like but those than can absorb liquids are at the top of the list. Tofu should be marinated after it’s been pressed and drained. You need to get all the water out so the marinade can go in. Tofu can be marinated whole or cut up in slices or cubes as in my Sesame Tofu. Tempeh absorbs marinades well, again whole or in slices. Try this Soy Maple Tempeh Bowl which has a quick marinade or this yummy Tempeh Reuben. Seitan usually gets its flavors from the liquids and spices used when making it but sliced seitan can also be marinated for more flavor and/or specific recipes. All vegetables can be marinated. Those with mild flavors such as zucchini, cauliflower, and potatoes take especially well to being marinated. Try this Raw Vegan Curry With Marinated Mushrooms and Onions. Fruits can also be marinated which is especially good if you are going to grill them like these Grilled Fruit Kebabs.
Depending upon the ingredient, recipe and the amount of time you have available, food can be marinated anywhere from 15 minutes to overnight. Soft vegetables should only be marinated for about 15 minutes or they will become too soggy. Harder veggies like potatoes and carrots can be marinated for half an hour. Tofu, tempeh and seitan can be marinated for longer periods, even overnight, but if you’re in a rush, even 15 minutes in a marinade will make a big difference. A good example of a fast marinade is this Raw Lasagna With Cilantro Pesto, Sun-Dried Tomatoes, and Marinated Veggies.
Be careful, however, not to over-marinate foods. Too long sitting in the acid can turn foods mushy. As a rule, the stronger the acid in a marinade, the less time the food needs to marinate.
As mentioned before, there are no strict rules about marinades but there are guidelines. Marinades need to have liquids and at least one of those liquids should be acidic or enzymatic such as vinegar, citrus juice, pineapple or papaya juice, beer, vegan buttermilk or wine. Other liquids that are added for flavor may include soy sauce or tamari, vegan Worcestershire sauce, fruit juices, vegetable broth, oils and water. Some kind of fat such as oil or non-dairy yogurt can add succulence to the flavors. Combine liquids and taste the marinade. It should taste like salad dressing but lighter.
Add aromatics such as chili peppers and fresh grated ginger and garlic. Even if you put these items into the marinade whole, they will impart flavor and you can just remove them later. Add roughly chopped fresh herbs such as basil, parsley, cilantro, mint or thyme. If you don’t have fresh herbs, you can use dried herbs. If you want heat, add red pepper flakes, hot sauce, harissa, chili oil, mustard or Sriracha. If you want sweet, add brown sugar, agave, molasses, or maple syrup.
Add salt according to your own tastes. If you are using a salty liquid like soy sauce, you most likely don’t need to add any other salt. Saltiness can also be added in the form of capers or olives, tamarind or miso paste. Keep tasting to make sure the flavors of the marinade are balanced. If you’re trying to cut back on salt, see Trying to Skip Salt? Here’s What to Use Instead for alternatives.
Put the food in a storage container, deep baking dish or large plastic storage bag. Cover the food with the marinade, making sure all of the food is in the liquid. Toss the food around or turn the covered container upside-down to make sure all surfaces of the food are covered. Place in the fridge to marinate. If the marinade does not cover the food, add water or broth. Try this Raw Vegan Pizza With Spinach, Pesto, and Marinated Vegetables.
Marinades should be room temperature or cold but not hot. Hot marinades could start to cook the food placed in them. Some marinades are cooked to develop flavor but they should be brought to room temperature or cooled before placing food into them.
Most foods sitting in marinades should be placed in the fridge, especially if you are going to marinate them for a long time. Be sure to bring the food back to room temperature before cooking. If a food only needs to marinate 10 or 15 minutes, you can leave it on the counter so long as it’s not too hot in the kitchen.
After the food has marinated, remove it from the liquid and pat it totally dry before cooking. If the food is still wet, it will not get a crispy crust and will just boil and be mushy.
Unlike with meat, marinades used for plant-based food can be reused if desired. Keep the remaining marinade in the fridge for 2 or 3 days if you plan to use it again.
Marinades are useful even once the cooking has begun. I often reserve the marinade and then use it near the end of cooking to create a sauce for my dish. When grilling, it is good practice to brush the marinade onto the food at intervals during the cooking and at the end. I do this with my Tandoori Tofu.
If a marinade contains sweeteners like sugar, agave, or molasses, it will burn quicker so you have to watch the food more closely to prevent it from burning. This can be seen in the recipe for Chicken-Free Satay With Peanut Dipping Sauce.
Marinades can be made up of whatever flavors you like and you can get as creative as you want. Here are 10 of my favorite marinades to get you started. Adjust the amounts depending on how much marinade you need.
Simple Asian Marinade – when I want to make a simple marinade for an Asian dish or stir-fry, I combine 1/3 cup tamari, 1/3 cup brown rice vinegar, 1-inch fresh grated ginger, 3 or 4 minced garlic cloves and ½ tsp. Chinese 5-Spice Powder. If I want it sweeter, I add 1 tsp. agave nectar and for heat, 1 tsp. Sriracha hot sauce.
Simple Thai Marinade – for the distinct flavors of Thai cuisine, combine 2 Tbs. tamari mixed with 1 tsp. kelp flakes or 2 Tbs. vegan “fish” sauce with 2 Tbs. fresh lime juice, 2 Tbs. grapeseed oil, 4 minced garlic cloves, 1-inch fresh grated ginger, 2 Tbs. sugar, 1 seeded and minced Thai chile, 1 tsp. dried coriander, ½ tsp. black pepper and ½ cup fresh mint leaves.
Simple Mediterranean Marinade – for Greek or other Mediterranean dishes, combine 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice, 3 minced garlic cloves, 1 tsp. dried oregano, ½ tsp. black pepper and salt to taste.
Simple Italian Marinade – a simple Italian marinade is perfect for tofu or veggies. In a blender, combine 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar, 3 or 4 minced garlic cloves, ½ tsp. black pepper and 12 fresh basil leaves. Blend until smooth and add salt to taste.
Spicy Balsamic Marinade – when I make tofu veggie kabobs, this is my go-to marinade. It’s rich from the balsamic vinegar and just a little spicy. In a bowl, combine ¼ cup low-sodium vegetable broth, 2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar, 2 Tbs. tamari, 1 Tbs. vegetable oil, 1 tsp. kosher salt, 1 tsp. dried basil, 1 tsp. dried oregano, 1 tsp. dried thyme, 1 tsp. paprika, ½ tsp. ground black pepper, ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes and 2 minced garlic cloves.
Jerk Marinade – this is the marinade I use when I made Jerk “Chicken” with tofu or other vegan meats. Combine ¼ cup tamari, ¼ cup apple cider vinegar, ¼ cup fresh lime juice, 2 Tbs. vegan Worcestershire sauce, 2 tsp. hot sauce, 2 minced garlic cloves, 1 minced chile pepper, 1-inch grated fresh ginger, 3 Tbs. brown sugar, 2 tsp. ground allspice, 2 tsp. dried thyme, 1 tsp. kosher salt, 1 tsp. onion powder, 1 tsp. ground cinnamon, ½ tsp. ground nutmeg, ½ tsp. cayenne pepper and ¼ tsp. ground cloves.
Pineapple Island Marinade – this is a sweet and spicy blend of orange juice, garlic, and ginger. Use this for tofu or veggies but also try grilling pineapple for an added tangy tropical flavor to any dish. When the pineapple is grilled, it becomes a whole new thing. So delicious! Combine ½ cup fresh orange juice, ¼ cup agave nectar, 1 Tbs. tamari, 1 Tbs. brown rice vinegar, 3 sliced scallions, 1 Tbs. fresh grated ginger and 3 minced garlic cloves.
Spanish Chile Marinade – this marinade is actually a thick paste that I use to cover tofu and onions in one of my favorite Spanish recipes. It’s really fast and easy to make and it adds bold flavors to anything you put it on. This recipe makes enough to easily cover one block of tofu. In a food processor, add ½ an onion that is chopped into large pieces. Add 4 cloves of garlic to the food processor along with 1 Tbs. chile powder, 1 tsp. ground cumin, 1 tsp. ground oregano, ½ tsp. kosher salt and ¼ tsp. ground cloves. Add 1/3 cup of water and process into a smooth paste. Place the tofu or whatever you are marinating in a shallow bowl or dish and pour the marinade over it. Use a pastry brush to make sure the food is evenly covered with the chile paste on both sides. Let marinate for 30 minutes before cooking.
Creamy Yogurt Marinade – in a bowl, mix 8 oz. of plain, non-dairy yogurt, the zest and juice of one lime, 2 tsp. vegan Worcestershire sauce, 1 tsp. apple cider vinegar, 1 tsp. soy sauce, 2 tsp. brown sugar, 1 tsp. ground allspice, 1 tsp. dried thyme, 1 tsp. chile powder, ½ tsp. onion powder, ½ tsp. garlic powder, ½ tsp. kosher salt, ¼ tsp. ground ginger, ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper, 1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon, 1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg and 1/8 tsp. ground cloves.
Indian Tandoori Marinade – this marinade is also a thick paste that I use when I make Tandoori Tofu or other Indian dishes. Combine 2 Tbs. non-dairy yogurt, 1 Tbs. grapeseed oil, ½ red onion, 3 garlic cloves, 4 tsp. tomato paste, 1 Tbs. fresh grated ginger, 2 tsp. ground coriander, 2 tsp. ground cumin, 2 tsp. smoked paprika, 1 tsp. turmeric, ½ tsp. dried cardamom, ½ tsp. kosher salt and a pinch of cayenne pepper into a food processor and process until you have a smooth, thick paste. Pour the marinade over the tofu and/or veggies and with a pastry brush, make sure the food is covered with marinade on both sides. Let it sit for at least 15 minutes.
Once you experience the flavor that it brings to dishes, you will always want to use marinades in your cooking. It really doesn’t take any extra time if you spend the 15 minutes chopping or prepping something else but the investment in time will surely pay off in taste.
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Lead Image Photo: Vegan Sesame Tofu
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