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Anyone who's read our Wok Skills 101 Guide knows that with a stir-fry, having all of your ingredients prepped and ready to go is of the utmost importance. Meat should be sliced, vegetables chopped, sauces mixed, and aromatics minced, all before you turn up that heat.
But there's another secret that will improve both the flavor and the texture of your proteins: proper marinating. When done right, a marinade is more than just a flavoring agent. It can help tenderize meat and alter its proteins so that it retains more moisture. It can improve the browning characteristics that is the goal of high-heat cooking. It can also help it absorb other flavors more easily.
Whether it's chicken, pork, or beef, the basics of marinating are the same. Here's what we do.
While you can add as many aromatics to a marinade as you'd like, there are a few ingredients that serve as far more than just aromas—they actually physically alter the way meat cooks, aiding in flavoring, tenderizing, and browning.
When I construct a marinade, I like to add my dry ingredients first (salt, sugar, pepper), followed by my wet ingredients (Shaoxing wine, soy sauce), then the oil, and finally some cornstarch.
How do each of these ingredients function?
- Salt: Both a flavor and a texture enhancer, salt is essential in all marinades. It brings out meat's natural flavors and also tenderizes it by breaking down myosin, a tough protein found in meat, just like in a good brine. Tenderized proteins also contract less during cooking, which means better moisture retention.
- Sugar: A flavor enhancer like salt, it also aids in both caramelization and the Maillard browning process. Sugar speeds up browning and creates more depth of flavor. It also provides a balance to the saltiness of salt and soy sauce.
- Soy Sauce: Essential in stir-fry dishes, a dash of it makes a big difference. Just like salt, soy sauce is a flavor enhancer and builder. It is rich in glutamates, which makes meat taste more savory and improves juiciness.
- Oil: It helps distribute cornstarch, seasonings, and fat-soluble flavors evenly when mixing the marinade with the meat. You want to use an oil that has a high smoke point, which should be the same oil you will be using when you are stir-frying. Peanut oil is a popular and traditional choice, but you can also use corn oil, refined light olive oil, vegetable oil, or canola oil.
- Cornstarch: When added to marinades, cornstarch provides a light coating to meat that protects it slightly from the intense heat of the wok. This helps prevent overcooking and toughening of the outer layers of meat. The starch also acts as a binder and helps liquid ingredients, like soy sauce and shaoxing wine, come together and bind to the meat. The results are more flavorful, tender, and evenly cooked pieces of meat.
Along with those functional ingredients, I usually include the following aromatics:
- Pepper (white or black): Spicy and pungent, a little goes a long way. Since black pepper tends to be more aromatic, I usually add white pepper in stir-fry dishes when I'm going for a more subtle flavor profile. But black pepper is great when I want something bold and robust.
- Shaoxing Wine: Slightly nutty tasting, this flavor builder adds an unmistakable aroma to any stir-fry dish. Dry sherry can be substituted for Shaoxing wine, but do try to find it if you can. Any well-stocked Chinese or Southeast Asian market will carry it.
The Dos and Don'ts of Marinating
Before you begin to marinate, keep these tips in mind.
DO make sure your meat is dry before slicing and marinating. If you wash your meat before cooking, make sure to blot it with paper towels until dry. Water is not a flavor enhancer and will only serve to dilute flavor and make browning more difficult.
DO marinate your meat in a bowl that's big enough for mixing. You don't want a bowl that just perfectly holds your sliced protein. You'll be mixing ingredients around, so make sure you have room for the meat to move.
DON'T add minced aromatics to your marinade, like garlic, ginger, or scallions. Stir-frying is high heat cooking, and those minced aromatics rapidly burn. Instead, add them toward the end of the stir-fry. Alternatively, you can slice them into big pieces and fry them in oil for about 30 seconds. Once you remove the aromatics, you can use cook with that infused oil.
DON'T drown your protein in your marinade. Remember, you're marinating for a stir-fry. Too much liquid as you stir-fry your protein results in steaming, and nobody likes steamed meat, right?
DO make sure to give your protein enough time to marinate. For this marinade, it only takes 30 minutes. Each ingredient in the marinade needs to have enough time to do what it has to do. This window gives you plenty of time to get your other ingredients ready.
Of course, the idea is that once you have a good basic marinade, it becomes a building block for constructing stir fries on your own, but check out the recipes below if you want some ideas to get you started.
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