Fast-tracking your way to tender and juicy barbecued meats is just one technique away: learning to make BBQ marinades, and you’ll be able to whip up uniquely delicious meals in no time.
But what, exactly, makes for a good barbecue marinade? Should you use different marinades for each type of meat? In this barbecue marinades guide, we’ll explore those questions and many more, giving you the ins and outs of marinades and foolproof techniques for getting your best BBQ results.
Before we get into the techniques and recipes for BBQ marinades, we have to answer an important question: Why should you marinate your meat in the first place?
A good barbecue marinade does three things for meat:
Combined, these three elements can turn even an ordinary cut of meat into a mouthwatering masterpiece of barbecue perfection.
Without a marinade, almost any cut of meat can end up dry, tough, and lacking in flavor. This is especially true if you’re cooking quickly or over high heat — both places where a marinade will protect the flavor and tenderness of your meat.
You may not need the full hydration of a long marinade when you’re cooking low and slow, like on one of our Traeger Pro Series grills with built-in temperature controls.
Instead, this is where a BBQ rub would work best. Both wet and dry rubs add flavor and seasoning to the surface of your meat because cooking low and slow will keep all of a cut of meat’s natural moisture locked inside.
BBQ rubs are a deep topic in their own right; if you’re interested in learning more about them, please check out our complete Barbecue Rubs Guide for more information.
To best understand which barbecue marinade to pair with each type of meat, first you’ll need to know a little bit more about what goes into a marinade.
Every marinade has some combination of these elements:
Within each of those categories, there’s a vast range of ingredients that can fit the bill.
Water is the most common liquid base, but some inventive grillmasters use orange juice, Coca-Cola, or other ready-made beverages.
Salt can come from the typical granular stuff on the dinner table or salty and savory sauces like soy sauce.
You’ll find the signature flavor of a lot of BBQ marinades in herbs and spices since there is such a wide variety of available flavorings. Classic choices include onions and garlic, while spicier BBQ styles often feature an abundance of chili peppers.
Adding an acid to a marinade greatly aids in achieving deep penetration into the meat. While tomatoes and vinegar are the go-to acidic ingredients, fruit juices are occasionally used in this context.
Lastly, to achieve a well-balanced and flavorful marinade, some sort of sweetness is added. Even a small amount can greatly enhance the deliciousness of a cut of meat, elevating its flavor profile to new heights.
Our hard-working recipe creators have been perfecting a range of sauces and marinades for decades now, and we’re proud of the work that they do. Each of our Traeger sauces can be used as an additional, after-cooking flavoring and sauce — but almost all of them also make for excellent BBQ marinades.
Let’s take a look at what makes each of them unique.
The sauce that started it all, our original Traeger ‘Que is a classic combination of hickory smoke, brown sugar, and tangy vinegar. It’s a real all-rounder of a sauce and pairs well with everything from chicken to pork, salmon, and more. It’s thick enough to stick to ribs and give a good crust but just thin enough to marinate chicken breasts with, too.
Our take on a Carolina-style, mustard-based barbecue sauce, Traeger’s Liquid Gold is tangy and powerfully flavorful. Apple cider vinegar, sugar, and mustard seeds all play together to create a balanced but punchy flavor — and the extra vinegar in here makes Liquid Gold a real star for marinating and tenderizing tough cuts of meat.
Our Traeger Show Me the Honey is an especially balanced and versatile sauce that is sweet, savory, and bursting with Asian-inspired flavors. Chicken, beef, and pork all benefit greatly from a little drizzling of Show Me the Honey, but this one’s generally not used as a marinade.
Peppery heat is the name of the game for our Traeger Texas Spicy Sauce, where chili peppers are backed up with just enough salt, sweetness, and vinegar for a balanced flavor. The thinner consistency of our Texas Spicy Sauce makes it a perfect match for BBQ marinating right out of the bottle.
Some fruits — like apricots — have special enzymes that help them break down proteins and tenderize meat. That makes our Traeger Apricot BBQ Sauce an excellent choice for marinating almost any cut of meat, where its sweet, tangy, and slightly spicy character will add tons of flavor.
Mix half of our Texas Spicy Sauce and half of our Apricot BBQ Sauce, and you get the perfect balance of fruity sweetness and peppery spice. That’s our Traeger Sweet & Heat BBQ Sauce in a nutshell, and it’s one of the best marinades around for any cut of chicken or pork.
The flavors and textures of different meats each call for a different sort of marinade to pair them with. And while there are no hard and fast rules for exactly which marinade to match with which meat — your personal preferences are the most important! — the following suggestions come from our decades of experience on the grill.
The best way to marinate any cut of meat is to seal it in a plastic bag, put it on a plate to catch any drips and leave it in your refrigerator.
The plastic bag helps you get maximum contact between the marinade and the meat without wasting any of your sauce.
The plate is there just in case there’s a small leak from the bag, so you won’t have to scrub out your refrigerator later.
And the refrigerator is essential for marinating, too, because leaving raw meat out at room temperature is a serious health hazard.
Beef runs the gamut in toughness and flavor, from the ultra-tough chuck, round, and shank to the aptly named tenderloin.
Therefore, the general rule in marinating beef is that the tougher the cut, the stronger and longer the marinade.
Our Traeger ‘Que and Show Me the Honey sauces are especially good for marinating beef, as their sweetness and balanced flavor really accentuate beef’s savoriness.
Chicken breasts, thighs, and wings are the most popular barbecue cuts—and each can benefit from a good marinade.
Breasts, because they don’t have much fat, are the chicken cuts most likely to dry out on the grill. Go for a thick and rich sauce like our Traeger ‘Que or Sweet & Heat, and they’ll stay moist and tender.
Thighs and wings have more fat on them, so they’re not as likely to dry out on a barbecue. But they’re still a good candidate for the added flavor a marinade can bring — try our Texas Heat Sauce for a spicy kick that pairs perfectly with a cup of ranch dressing to dip in.
Pork chops, pork ribs, and pork loins are all good candidates for a marinade. Pork is one of the fattier types of meat you can barbecue, so going for zippy, vinegar-based sauces is always a good match.
Our Traeger Liquid Gold Sauce, a Carolina-style sauce with plenty of vinegar, is a match made in heaven for pork. But be sure to try our Apricot BBQ Sauce, too, as its fruity sweetness pairs naturally with any cut of pork.
Fish isn’t the most common type of meat to marinate. Why? Because it’s often fairly delicate and can fall apart more quickly than pork, beef, or chicken.
If you’d like to marinate a fish cut to add flavor, it’s best to do it for just a few hours. A filet of salmon marinated in our Traeger ‘Que or Show Me the Honey Sauce is a special treat, especially if you quickly cook it inside a foil wrap on the grill.
Curious to try your hand at making your own BBQ marinade recipe? Our very own Amanda Haas will take you through the process of building a BBQ marinade from the ground up, piece by piece. Watch her video tutorial here:
And before we go, here are the answers to the most common questions people have asked about BBQ marinades.
Can I Marinate in Metal or Plastic Containers?
You can marinate meat in any non-reactive container, including metal and plastic. Just keep in mind that if you’re using a plastic container, it will likely get stained and retain a little bit of a scent from the marinade (no matter how well you wash it).
How Long Can I Keep a Marinade in the Refrigerator?
If you haven’t started soaking meat in your marinade, it will be good in the refrigerator for up to six months.
As soon as you start marinating, though, the clock is ticking. The longer meat sits in a marinade, the more the proteins will break down. It will turn into mush after more than a couple of days, and you’ll have to throw the whole thing out.
Can I Apply Marinade While Grilling?
Thicker marinades can also provide a final flavor boost while you’re grilling. But always keep in mind that you shouldn’t use a marinade that had raw meat soaking in it! Toss that soaking marinade after removing the meat from it, and use a fresh batch for the final application.
How Much Marinade Should I Use?
You always want to use enough marinade to completely cover whatever cuts of meat you’ll be cooking later. That’s why we often suggest marinating in plastic bags: You can seal them up, press the air out, and maximize the amount of marinade contact your meat gets, all without using up too much of your sauce.
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