Grilled meat or chicken is fine, but when you want a juicy, tender bite that’s infused with exotic, mouth-watering flavors — it’s time to pull out an Asian-inspired marinade.
Options abound on the condiments aisle — thick and sweet, thin and salty, and everything in between. A sweep of local stores turned up a promising sampling of marinades inspired by the cuisines of Korea, China, the Philippines, Thailand and the Caribbean. (We’ll save the powerful flavors of teriyaki for another day.)
A great marinade offers a perfect balance: a punch of flavor, the right dash of salt and enough acid to tenderize the meat without turning it into protein mush. The worst of the bunch are salt bombs — or marinade-sauces with identity issues. Is it sauce or is it marinade? Sauce tastes great straight from the bottle; marinade typically does not. A blend that does both jobs well is uncommon.
To find out which marinades are up to the task of improving protein, we dumped each into a zip-top bag with protein and let it marinate for 4 hours. Recommended marinating times vary from 1 to 12+ hours; 4 worked well for many of these, but was inadequate for a few.
Here’s the scoop on the best of the bottles, and those that are better left on the shelf. Nutrition details refer to a tablespoon of marinade.
Whole Foods Organic Caribbean Jerk Sauce & Marinade
Pour this perfectly balanced marinade on protein for an ultra-tender, super-spicy kick. It has a nice burst of acidity and lots of herbs. 10 calories, 400 mg sodium, 1 g sugar. $3.99 for 13.8 ounces. (4 stars)
Soy Vay Hoisin Garlic Marinade & Sauce
Garlic fans will enjoy the bold soy and spice of this kitchen workhorse. It has deep flavors and great balance. “Sauce” may be in the name, but this gets poor marks as a sauce. As a marinade, though, it’s great. 50 calories, 420 mg sodium, 9 g sugar. $5.79 for 22 ounces at Whole Foods. Widely available. (3½ stars)
Lee Kum Kee Marinade for Drunken Chicken
The light-colored liquid in this bottle doesn’t look promising — it’s watery thin — but it seeps well into proteins, tenderizing and delivering umami flavors of fermented soybean with just a touch of sugar. This one is a big kid-pleaser. 5 calories, 450 mg sodium, 1 g sugar. contains msg. $3.29 for 14 ounces at Marina Market. (3½ stars)
Amoy Chu Hou Marinade
Despite the massive hit of salt, this thick marinade delivers a sweet, earthy punch of hoisin flavor. Less salt and more tenderizing action would push it to the top. Note that this is tasty as a sauce, as well. 35 calories, 850 mg sodium, 6 g sugar. $3.59 for 15.2 ounces at Marina Market. (3 stars)
Soy Vay Filipino Adobo Marinade & Sauce
A squeeze of lime and a touch of pepper make for classic adobo notes that flavor protein in short order. 25 calories, 450 mg sodium, 5 g sugar. $5.99 for 14.5 ounces at Whole Foods. (3 stars)
San-J Thai Peanut Mildly Spicy Marinade & Dipping
The flavor of peanut butter shines through in this thick, rich marinade, but it doesn’t work as a straight marinade. You’ll need to baste with it, as well. 80 calories, 750 mg sodium, 8 g sugar. $3.99 for 10 ounces at Whole Foods. Widely available. (2½ stars)
Kikkoman Toasted Sesame Quick & Easy Marinade
Too much garlic and salt in this marinade overshadow the flavor of sesame. Because it’s so thick, the sugars quickly char on the grill. 40 calories, 600 mg sodium, 5 g sugar. $3.59 for 14 ounces at Marina Market. (1½ stars)
We Rub You Original Korean BBQ Marinade
This pricey marinade shows promise, but 4 hours marinating time resulted in far too little flavor transfer. A longer marinating time might help. It is, however a sweet, boldly flavored sauce. 30 calories, 430 mg sodium, 5 g sugar. $5.99 for 15 ounces at Whole Foods. (1½ stars)
Coconut Secret Soy Free Garlic Sauce & Marinade
The thin consistency of this soy-free marinade made from coconut tree sap helps the flavors penetrate the protein, but the marinade is just too garlicky. 10 calories, 60 mg sodium, 2 g sugar. $7.99 for 10 ounces at Whole Foods. (1 star)
Original J E S Yakitori Marinade & Sauce
This one-note, very sugary marinade turns chicken pleasantly sweet, but it also makes for a burned mess on the grill. 35 calories, 350 mg sodium, 8 g sugar. $2.49 for 15.6 ounces at Marina Foods. (½ a star)
Bibigo Korean BBQ Marinade & Cooking Sauce
Pouring this on protein is like pouring money down the drain. As a marinade, it fails to add more than a hint of flavor. As a sauce, however, it’s tasty. 20 calories, 290 mg sodium, 5 g sugar. A 16.9-ounce jar at $5.49 at Safeway. (½ a star)
Reviews are based on product samples purchased by this newspaper or provided by manufacturers. Contact Jolene Thym at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more Taste-off columns at www.mercurynews.com/tag/taste-off.