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DIY Homemade Concoctions: How to Make Great, Cheap Marinades

By Vicki McClure Davidson


Index of Contents

Key Ingredients for a Marinade to "Do Its Thing"
Oil + Acid = Great Marinade
Dangers of Leftover Marinade
My Top Favorite Cheap Marinade for Chicken


Store-bought meat or vegetable marinades are pricey, but you can quickly make your own without artificial ingredients that are adapted to your own personal tastes and diet restrictions, for just a fraction of the cost. And it's so easy. You just blend a few ingredients together, soak the meat in it, and a cheap cut of meat will be flavored and tenderized beyond belief.

Here are a few suggestions on how to make your own marinade:

To cut costs, make your own marinades, using an acid, an oil, and some herbs. | Photo credit: iStock
To cut costs, make your own marinades, using an acid, an oil, and some herbs. | Photo credit: iStock

Key Ingredients for a Marinade to "Do Its Thing"

In any marinade, there needs to be the inclusion of one or more kinds of acid, This is what gives the marinade its ability to break down the proteins and absorb into the meat. Acids include red wine, balsamic vinegar, cider vinegar, rice vinegar, soy sauce, orange juice, fresh pineapple juice, papaya juice, lemon juice, lime juice, vodka, tequila, yogurt (especially in Indian cuisine), beer, or brine. White distilled vinegar can be used, but because it is so strong, it's usually better to use less of it or a less overwhelming vinegar instead.

The marinade liquid used in bottles of marinated artichoke hearts, pepperocini, olives, or similar items can also be used. However, use these sparingly and taste-test them as you go along. They may impart strong absorbed flavors to your meat that you don't want and some are high in sodium. I've also heard that the caramel-colored sodas are good as marinades for beef, although I've not tried it.

The acid in the marinade tenderizes the meat by relaxing the amino acids. When amino acids are heated, they can become tougher. For meats such as chicken, turkey, or pork, that isn't much of a problem. The marinade is used primarily for flavor for them.

However, for cheaper cuts of beef, it is an imperative. In addition to marinading, to further prevent inexpensive cuts of beef from toughening up like shoe leather, cook it longer and at a lower temperature. Slow cookers do a terrific job of this, but you can also use your oven, provided you set the temperature around 180 to 200 degrees F and cook it covered for several hours.

Marinades made with lemon or lime juice should be used for no longer than 30 minutes because of their strong acids. Be careful to not leave either on fish for too long.

You can experiment with so many different flavor combinations with a few ingredients you likely already have in your cupboards or pantry.

In this cooking video below, Chef Jason Hill of shared his chicken marinade recipe. This zesty marinade for chicken is ideal for boneless chicken breasts or chicken pieces.

All you need are a few simple ingredients to make this marinade, as is demonstrated in the video. This easy marinade recipe gets its flavor from fresh limes or lemons, cilantro, garlic, and other spices. A great choice when making Mexican dishes or BBQ grilling.

Chicken Marinade Recipe


Another marinade how-to video from Chef Jason Hill — this recipe is for fajitas and is easy to make yourself.

Fajita Marinade


Oil + Acid = Great Marinade

Additionally, there is often a splash or two of oil or a big dollop of honey—or up to a half cup—added to a marinade. The oil or honey helps the marinade cling to the meat and reduces charring if you're planning to grill the meat. When making your own marinade, try to use a healthful oil such as olive oil, soybean oil, canola oil, or sesame oil. Use sesame oil sparingly, since it has a distinctively strong flavor. Oil won't marinade the meat, but it helps keep it adhered to the meat and adds flavor to the marinade. Honey will make the marinade sweeter and can counter-balance the vinegar flavor. It also can add a sheen to the finished meat.

If you find bottled vinaigrette or Italian salad dressing on sale, these are good to have on hand as emergency marinades. While making it yourself is always cheaper, having a bottle of salad dressing in the cupboard can be a blessing for those nights that you need to save time pulling dinner together. Just be aware that any bottled concoction labeled "marinade" will cost much more than simple bottled salad dressing.

Mix up your marinade, cover the meat with it, then cover the meat and place it in the refrigerator for 1 to 3 hours. DO NOT marinade at room temperature. Every 20 or 30 minutes, mix the meat and marinade around a bit to ensure that coverage is complete. Fish should be marinaded for only 30 minutes, or it will toughen it. Beef can be marinaded for up to 24 hours without becoming mushy.


Dangers of Leftover Marinade

Don't save uncooked leftover marinade. Germs from the raw meat will have transferred to it and will multiply, which can lead to food poisoning. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends discarding used marinade that has been applied to raw meats. Meats, such as red meat, fish, and chicken, may contain unhealthful substances which may enter the marinade.

If you want to use the leftover marinade as a sauce or gravy to be served with the meat, be sure to heat it to a boil for several minutes to thoroughly kill all bacteria. If you ever use a bottled salad dressing or marinade, don't pour the leftovers back into the bottle (again, contamination from the bacteria on the meat). The unhealthful substances in the marinade are neutralized in the cooking process, but using the same marinade later, in raw form without boiling it, is extremely risky.


My Top Favorite Cheap Marinade for Chicken

One of my favorite ways to marinate a whole, washed chicken is to plop it into a roasting pan, pour a half a can of beer all over it, drizzle the juice of one lemon over the beer, then sprinkle lots of chopped garlic, chopped white onion, paprika, and black pepper all over the chicken, cover it, and cook it for 1-1/2 hours at 350 degrees F. That's all there is to it. No marinading time in the fridge is necessary.

The beer makes the chicken so juicy and unbelievably delicious (trust me in that the alcohol in the beer cooks away and there is no residual, harsh "beer-y" flavor). Not only is it a fast and frugal marinade to make, but our family loves it.


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American Institute for Cancer Research, "Good Food/Good Health" (2007-06-11). website, (,1-0,how_to_make_marinade,FF.html).
How to Break an Egg, (by the editors, contributors, and readers of Fine Cooking Magazine), The Taunton Press, Newtown, CT, 2005.
The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook: Featuring More Than 1,200 Kitchen-Tested Recipes, America's Test Kitchen, 2005.
Wikipedia website, (