There’s something about marinades that feels very 2005. Maybe that’s because when I think of a “marinade,” I picture my mother pouring an entire bottle of pre-made Italian dressing over chicken breasts, smothering it with so much artificial garlic and red wine vinegar it was practically unrecognizable. But because all things early aughts are back, and like most trends, are deeply misunderstood, I figured it was worth giving the humble marinade a second look.
With the help of The Federalist Wines, we tapped three barbecue experts from around the country to share some of their best tips for bringing marinades into 2022, especially with the help of a few bottles of cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay. While most people might reach for a beer while they’re grilling, wines can add more complexity to what you’d typically find at a cookout — both on the grill and in your glass. Plus, experts agree: with some thought, careful timing, and elevated ingredients, wine marinades most certainly have a place at your barbecue this season.
Select the right cuts
No matter how balanced or nuanced your marinade is, it’s not going to do much to better a poor cut of meat — especially steaks on the grill. “It’s all about the meat,” Kevin Bludso, owner of LA’s Bludso Bar and Que, says. No matter what cut you’re purchasing, he recommends making sure it has a fair amount of marbling. Prime cuts are best, even if they’re more expensive, but at the very least, Angus or choice cust will work great. “You’ve got to pay a little bit extra to make the cook a little easier,” he explains. “If you get a cheap steak, no matter what you do to it, you’re going to mess it up.”
However, this isn’t the time to spring or a super premium steak cut (think rib eyes or filets), says Jess Pyrles, a live fire cooking expert and author of Hardcore Carnivore. That’s because these cuts typically do better on the grill when they’re dry and simply seasoned in order to get a good sear. She recommends grabbing a cut with a pronounced grain, like a skirt or flank steak, if you’re looking to mix up a marinade with a bold wine, like The Federalist. “Skirt steaks have lots of nooks and crannies and crevices for that marinade to distribute,” she explains. Poultry and even fish can benefit from a dip into a marinade too, albeit for shorter times than red meats.
Go for flavor over texture
There’s a common misconception that marinades are just as much for tenderizing meat as they are for imparting flavor, and that’s simply not the case — especially if you’re using a wine as the base of your marinade. While wine does have enough acid to create an enzymatic effect (more on that in a bit), giving your meat a long dunk in it is not nearly as effective at tenderizing meat as other methods. If you are looking to tenderize poultry, you’ll need to brine with salt instead, or, for large cuts of red meat or pork (i.e. brisket), inject brines and flavors directly. Both methods are used by Shalamar Lane, pitmaster of My Father’s Barbecue in Carson, California. Marinades, to Lane, are a vehicle for imparting flavor into the dish. When making a marinade with wine, she reaches for bottles she likes to drink — then adds herbs and aromatics to match the meat, like garlic, onions, thyme, and rosemary.
“Look, if you like drinking it, you’ll probably like eating it,” she says. “If it’s a good wine, go ahead and use it in your food.”
Pyrles recommends leaning into similar flavors she would use in a braise, but reaches for varietals that are a little brighter for summer grilling. The Federalist Lodi Zinfandel variety, for example, features strawberry notes with a hint of black pepper, and the Cabernet Sauvignon is also fruit forward with blackberry flavors. “The wine is acidic and can often be bright, just like citrus. So it makes sense that you would use it for those beautiful, bright summer flavors,” she says.
Ultimately, if you’re marinating with wine, you’ll want to lean into red varieties for red meat, because the full body can stand up to beefy flavors. Whites, like the Federalist Chardonnay, will be better for pork cuts and poultry — besides being the traditional pairing, white wines won’t change the color of these meats while marinating.
Timing is everything
Most marinade recipes will call for you to leave meat in them for about 12 hours, or overnight, in an effort to get the most flavor imparted into the cut. That’s likely far too long for an acidic marinade, like those made with wine. As Pyrles explains, the acidity can start to change the texture of steaks when left for too long, and not for the better. For her, four hours is the sweet spot for wine-based marinades over red meat: it’s enough to let the marinade soak into the outside of the meat, but won’t lead to any mushy textures.
How to know if your meat is ready to come out of the marinade? Use your sense of smell: If it starts to make you feel hungry, or reminds you of the last time you made the dish, that’s an easy tell that it’s time to grill.
And if you totally forget to marinade your meat (been there) and try to toss it in for 15 minutes before your gathering? Sorry to say, you likely won’t see much of a benefit when it comes to flavor. That doesn’t mean you’re completely out of luck: Lane suggests getting the meat to room temp, then vacuum sealing it with the marinade to speed things up. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, getting all the air out of a plastic bag will do in a pinch, too. But most importantly: Don’t ever drizzle marinades on top of meat as a sauce without first boiling them and reducing them down into a true sauce, it’s a food safety issue. (Food poisoning at the barbecue? No thank you.)
Fire up the grill
Finally, you’re at the finish line. But be mindful about your grill before you get started, Bludso says. Unlike a long braise, your grill will lend even more flavor to whatever you’ve marinated, so be conscious of the flavor of your wood chips or charcoal when concocting your marinade. “If you’re doing charcoal and wood, you’re enhancing [the meat] with that, and that’s going to be overpowering too,” he explains. All three experts recommend charcoal over propane, as it’s easier to control the heat, smoke levels, and avoid flare ups (especially when cooking with alcohol.) Flare ups, for example, will char your meat and give it a burnt flavor, rather than the traditional smokiness of a barbecue. You’ll want to dry your meat before it hits the grill too, otherwise you won’t get a sear on it. (Moisture is the enemy to the maillard reaction, which makes a good sear, Pyles explains.)
Of course, you should also make sure to keep a few bottles of wine on hand to pair with your finished dish, too. If you’re worried about losing the intricate flavors of wine in a marinade, Pyrles has a simple suggestion: enjoy it in a glass with your meal instead.
Red Wine and Gochujang Marinated Flank Steak
1 cup soy sauce
1 cup white sugar
1 cup water
2 cups Federalist Cabernet Sauvignon
½ cup gochujang
2 1⁄2 pounds flank steak
Salt and pepper
3 green onions, sliced thinly (reserve some of the green parts for garnish)
Toasted sesame seeds for garnish
1. In a small saucepan, whisk together soy sauce, sugar, and water. Heat the mixture over medium high heat, bring to a boil, remove from heat, cool, mix with gochujang, and set aside.
2. In a separate small sauce pot, heat the red wine over medium high heat until reduced to ¼ cup. This should to 20 minutes or so. Next, add the reduced wine to the soy sauce mixture you set aside earlier and mix well. Let the marinade cool, then pour over the flank steak in a resealable plastic bag, and most of the sliced green onions, and refrigerate overnight.
3. Pull the flank steak out of the marinade and let come to room temperature as you get the grill ready. Setup your grill for 2-zone cooking i.e., direct side and indirect side then preheat to 500°F. Sear the flank steak on the direct side for 4 minutes each side. Move to the indirect side to finish cooking. Once your steak reaches 125°F pull and let rest 10-20 minutes before slicing and serving.
4. Slice against the grain and serve with toasted sesame seeds and green onion on top.
Grilled Stuffed Florentine Chicken Breasts
makes 4 servings
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 1 1⁄2 pounds)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly cracked pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon paprika
For the Florentine stuffing
6 ounces cream cheese, softened
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
¼ cup Federalist Chardonnay
2 garlic cloves, minced
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
2 cups baby spinach leaves, chopped
½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese
½ cup shredded parmesan cheese
1. Preheat grill to 400°F setup for 2-zone grilling i.e., direct side and an indirect side. While the grill is preheating, make the Florentine stuffing by combining all the ingredients in a bowl.
2. Next, make a slice on the side of each chicken breast and fold open creating a pocket. Divide the Florentine stuffing in to 4 equal portions. Now gently stuff each chicken breast with the Florentine stuffing. Use wooden toothpicks to close and seal the pockets. Season the outside of the chicken with the mix of seasonings above. Let sit at room temperature until your grill is ready for you.
3. Place each breast on the indirect side of the grill for 25 minutes. Start checking the internal temperature of the chicken with an instant read thermometer after 15 minutes of indirect cooking. When the chicken measures 140°F move them to the direct side of the grill and cook for 4 minutes, flip and cook another 3-4 minutes or until the internal temperature measures 165°F. Remove the chicken, rest for 10 minutes, slice and serve.