By Marie Rama, Bryan Miller

A common misperception is that marinades tenderize meat. They don’t. A marinade barely penetrates the outer 1⁄8 inch of the surface of meat, poultry, or game. What a marinade can do is add flavor to the surface.

Most marinades involve an acidic ingredient (vinegar, lemon, or some kinds of wine), oil, herbs, and perhaps a base flavor ingredient (beef or chicken stock, for example). You want to end up with a marinade that’s well balanced and flavorful.

Consider this example: You have a chuck shoulder steak. Ask yourself whether you want to add a hot, medium, or sweet flavor. Your answer depends largely on the main ingredient. You may not want a sweet flavor on fish, for example. With pork, though, you may.

Say for now that you want a hot marinade for the steak. Start with red chile flakes (carefully!). Then what? You need a liquid that goes with beef as well as chiles. You can use beef stock (homemade or canned beef broth) or red wine. To that, think of what goes well with hot things. Minced garlic and black peppercorns maybe. Chopped cilantro adds flavor, too.

As you begin to cook, you’ll discover more about ingredients in the supermarket and how to blend them. Depending on your taste, you may want to add a little dried cumin or coriander seed. Then, at the end, add 2 to 3 tablespoons of good olive oil, salt, and black pepper.

So there you have your basic hot marinade for steak, which you can vary as you go along to make it hotter, milder, or whatever. Now you try!

Put your meat into a Ziploc bag or shallow pan and cover it with the marinade. Turn it once to coat the meat, and let it soak up the flavor for at least one hour — or even overnight in the refrigerator. Remove it from the marinade, pat it dry, and grill as you like.

Be sure to marinate meats, fish, poultry, and vegetables in the refrigerator. Bacteria forms on the surface of room-temperature food very quickly.

A marinade can be turned into a good finishing sauce but only if it’s been kept constantly refrigerated. Bring it to a full boil to destroy any harmful bacteria from raw poultry, fish, or meat juices before you pour it over cooked food.