Picking your protein is only half the battle. After settling on beef, fish, poultry or portobello mushrooms, you have to select the herbs, sauces and spices that will bring your dish to life. From savory-sweet teriyaki to spicy tandoori, there are nearly endless ways to season your meats. Before firing up your barbecue for the grilling season, brush up on how to make a killer marinade or herb rub.
Salt gets a bad rap, but it's essential to a good marinade or herb rub. Not only is it a flavor enhancer on its own, but salt actually pulls other flavors into the meat, making marinades and rubs more potent.
Brush oil on your fish, steak, poultry or vegetables to prevent them from sticking on the grill, and to give them that browned, slightly crispy exterior. Oil is also integral to marinades and rubs because some spices aren't water soluble and need the oil to release their aromas.
Acids like vinegar work to break down protein, a process called denaturing, which tenderizes the meat. Balsamic vinegar, sherry vinegar, red wine vinegar and cider vinegar all work well in marinades.
Before grilling chicken, rub it down with a couple tablespoons of curry powder. Curry powder is traditionally made from a base of coriander, cumin, turmeric and fenugreek, with various additions of garlic, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and a variety of other spices. Pre-made seasoning packets are available in the spice aisle if you're not feeling up to making your own.
Jamaican jerk spice was traditionally used with pork and chicken, but it's now used to season everything from fish steaks to tofu. The two main ingredients in the rub are allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers (shown), one of the world's hottest peppers.
In Japan, teriyaki sauce is used mostly on fish, while the West puts it on chicken, pork, lamb and beef, in addition to fish. Teriyaki is, at its simplest, a mixture of soy sauce mirin (or honey), ginger and garlic.
Basic barbecue sauce can be made with ingredients you probably already have on hand: ketchup, red wine, wine vinegar, soy sauce, chili powder, garlic, onion, salt and pepper. There are endless tweaks to this recipe: replace the wine with bourbon or stout beer for a woody backyard barbecue taste, add horseradish for a kick or sub out the ketchup for vegetable stock if you want something less viscous. Be courageous and play around with different ingredients.
Lemons, limes and oranges are also acidic and can be used in place of vinegar in marinades. In the same way that vinegar breaks down proteins, citrus tenderizes and flavors at the same time. Outside of marinades, lemon is great squeezed over grilled fish and seafood. Lime pairs well with soy sauce to make a soy-lime marinade, and with ginger and sesame seeds to give it an Asian flavor. Oranges, orange juice and orange zest also work well in marinades.
Rosemary gives grilled vegetables, lamb and meats a sweet, pine flavor. You can also use the branches as skewers for kebobs. If you can't get a fresh sprig, dried rosemary is just fine.
To give your meat a little kick without accidentally fumigating your guests, add mustard. Its spice is strong, but the heat dissipates quickly. Use about the same amount as you would in a vinaigrette.
Rub your chicken down with a combination of honey, Dijon mustard and fresh thyme for a sweet and savory coating. Honey is also a great addition to marinades; just be sure to keep an eye on your grill, as honey makes it easier to burn the meat.
Onion, garlic and ginger combined with cumin, coriander, cayenne and yogurt makes tandoori. Blend all of the spices together and marinate your chicken in the seasoning for up to a day.
Don't want to make a marinade from scratch? Salad dressing is a great shortcut. It already contains oil, vinegar, salt and herbs, so all you have to do is the pouring.