All marinades have the same three basic ingredients: acid, fat, and seasonings. The acid tenderizes the meat and inhibits the formation of carcinogenic properties when you use high temperature cooking methods like grilling. The fat adds moisture, and acts as the carrier for flavors of seasonings.
Acids include all types of wine (not “cooking” wine), vinegars plain and flavored, citrus juices, and enzymatic fruits (think papaya or pineapple). Surprisingly, buttermilk is an acid, too. Fats include oils (olive, sesame, for example), yogurt, poultry fat, and coconut milk. Seasonings are limitless – fresh/dried herbs, spices, and “aromatics” (vegetables such as onions, garlic, celery, etc.). Some culinary authorities suggest using acid-based marinades only briefly, saying that they make the meat mushy and don’t penetrate enough to tenderize. I haven’t found this to be true; I suggest you experiment and decide for yourself.
Here are some marinade suggestions:
- Generic Asian: rice vinegar, sesame seed oil (preferably toasted), minced ginger, minced garlic, and perhaps hoisin sauce or black soy sauce for a touch of sweetness
- Generic Middle Eastern: olive oil, lemon juice, cardamom/fenugreek/cinnamon, honey or pomegranate molasses for sweetness
- Japanese: yuzu, sake or mirin, minced ginger, soaked shiitakes (or wood ears, for a milder flavor)
Mexican: lime, garlic, cilantro (use the stems in marinade), cumin or achiote powder
- Thai: canned or reconstituted coconut milk, grated ginger or galangal, lemongrass (white part only), holy basil, chiles
- Vietnamese: fish sauce, rice vinegar, sriracha, green peppercorns or anise seed
- Indian: yogurt, Persian or key lime juice, turmeric, or garam masala