Secrets of Inspired Marinades and Vinaigrettes

By Debra Daniels-Zeller

The secrets to perfect salads, grilled vegetables, and simple fruit desserts are marinades and vinaigrettes. For example, there is nothing more savory and flavorful than marinated mushrooms or vegetables. When the flavors are allowed to marry, cold marinated dishes taste even better the next day. A simple delicately flavored vinaigrette can add a gourmet touch to dishes with little effort. Marinades and vinaigrettes can also be heated and used to make vegetarian sauces that create exciting whole grain or bean entrées.

No one knows the exact origin, but marinades have been around for thousands of years. Chefs have often added them to a variety of foods to enhance flavors. Good marinades have a delicate balance of acid, oil, and flavorings. Time spent soaking in the marinade infuses flavors into ingredients.

Marinades are easy to make once you get the basics down, and the combinations you can create are as endless as your imagination. Consider using marinades for mushrooms, tempeh, tofu, vegetables, and fruits.

Like marinades, vinaigrettes have a tart edge. Flavors are determined by the quality of oil and vinegar used. Vinaigrettes bring together ingredients and add character to salads, vegetables, and fruit. Their versatility makes them a standout in any vegetarian kitchen.

You can vary the flavors of vinaigrettes in infinite ways. For example, capers, olives, miso, and tamari add salty tones. Green onions, garlic, and ginger add a pungent taste. Puréed fruit or frozen fruit concentrate will sweeten the flavor, and puréed vegetables lend a texture change. Not just for salads, use vinaigrettes to spice up pilaf, risotto, pasta, beans, vegetable dishes, and grains.


Five flavors: Combining the five flavors your tongue experiences, balances the taste of the vinaigrette or marinade and makes it satisfying and enticing. Sweet, sour, salty, pungent, and spicy combine in an oil base that carries and infuses the flavors throughout the marinade. Pungent is often the most difficult taste concept to grasp. Garlic, ginger, rosemary, citrus zest, wasabi or horseradish, cilantro, and onions can be described as pungent. First, pair up vinegar (or use lemon, lime, or orange juice) and oil. Then, choose a sweetener to cut the acidity. Add a salty ingredient, such as tamari or soy sauce, miso, or sea salt. Other ingredients, like fresh or dried herbs, salsa, tomato paste, lavender, or puréed fruit, give your marinade or vinaigrette distinction. Line up your choices and think about what you want to use before committing to the vinaigrette.

Acidic options: Select the best quality of vinegar and you won't be disappointed. Cheap balsamic vinegar can be used for cooking when large quantities are called for, but for vinaigrettes and marinades, nothing compares to traditionally made and aged balsamic vinegar with a deep smoky-sweet, complex flavor. Other vinegar selections include rice, wine, ume plum, and apple cider, and there are many new, interesting vinegars located on the pickle isle in grocery stores. Blood orange, raspberry-champagne, fig, and pear-infused white balsamic vinegar were some I found in a local grocery store. Citrus juice is an alternate acidic ingredient in vinaigrettes and marinades. Use orange, lemon, lime, or tangerine, or try a combination, such as balsamic vinegar and orange juice or rice vinegar and lime.

Oil: I don't believe in wasting money on cheap commercial vegetable oil. A good quality organic, extra-virgin olive oil is essential. For taste and nutritional content, I prefer expeller-pressed coconut, sesame, and hazelnut oils. I look for the best quality oils in local natural foods stores. The unrefined coconut oil I purchase lends a subtle flavor to everything it comes in contact with. Toasted oils, such as sesame, carry a strong flavor, so use them in very small amounts.

Sweeteners: Traditional vinaigrettes have an oil-to-acid ratio of 3:1. When you cut the oil measurement, the dressing will be quite acidic without adding a sweetener to balance it. Fruit sweetener, fruit juice concentrate, agave nectar (from the agave cactus), Sucanat (an organic sugar), and maple syrup are all good choices for adding a little sweetness. Fruit sweeteners taste like the fruit they come from. Fruit concentrates, such as raspberry juice or apple juice, have intense flavor and sweetness. Agave nectar is slightly sweeter tasting than sugar, and it has a fairly neutral flavor. Sucanat, maple syrup, and molasses have very distinct flavors. A little goes a long way for these additions.

Other ingredients: You can blend miso, tamari, olives, capers, vegetarian Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, sea vegetables, or pesto into your vinegar to stand in for some or all of the salt. Technically, a vinaigrette consists of oil, vinegar, salt, and herbs or spices, but you can enhance it with fruit, such as peaches, strawberries, or soaked, dried cherries puréed in for sweetness and texture changes. Fruit vinaigrettes are good on fruit salads, or try a raspberry vinaigrette tossed with bitter baby greens, such as chicory. You can purée in roasted peppers, raw cucumber, or spinach for color, flavor, and texture. Herbs, spices, hot peppers, capers, soaked and puréed nuts and seeds, coconut, dried fruit, salsa, nut butters, and tepanades are some of the many things you can find in your pantry to add to your marinade or vinaigrette masterpieces.


Marinate — Soaking foods in a seasoned acidic liquid to absorb flavors before or after cooking. Marinated fruits need not be cooked.

Macerate — Similar to marinating, macerating generally refers to sprinkling cut fruit, such as strawberries or peaches, with sugar to draw the liquid out. Alcohol is usually added, but you can sprinkle vinegar, such as balsamic vinegar, on macerated strawberries for a perfectly delicious sweet taste.

Marinating Tips at a Glance

Marinate in glass or stainless steel containers so the flavors of the marinade aren't altered. Plastic and aluminum can infuse ingredients with off-flavors.

Tofu should be drained and pressed before marinating. Place tofu on a plate and stack two or more plates on top of it to gently squeeze out excess water. For a more meaty and firm texture, cut tofu into slices and freeze solid. Defrost, then place tofu into the marinade. The longer tofu marinates, the more flavorful it becomes. Bake, pan-fry, or grill marinated tofu.

Steamed tempeh absorbs flavors of the marinade more easily. However, if you want tempeh slightly crispy, marinate and then sauté it. To absorb more flavors, cut the tempeh horizontally. The more sides exposed to the marinade the more flavorful it will become. Spoon some of the marinade over the tempeh after cooking. Unlike the dangers of reusing a meat marinade, vegetarian marinades can safely be used again if refrigerated promptly.

Cut, raw onions, beets, peppers, and eggplant absorb the marinade as they grill. Simply brush on the marinade as they cook. You can also roast or grill vegetables first, and then submerge them in marinade. Like tofu and tempeh, smaller pieces expose more sides to the marinade and therefore absorb more flavors.

Portobello and smaller mushrooms only need a brief soaking in a marinade before cooking. When grilling, continue to baste with the marinade for maximum flavor enhancement.


(Makes 1/2 cup, or four 2-Tablespoon servings)

Vinaigrettes and marinades are simply variations of this recipe. Keep a variety of vinegars, and you will never be at a loss for your creations. For example, in this recipe, you can use pear-infused champagne vinegar, orange juice, or hazelnut oil. Add a little rosemary or fresh basil, and use this as a tofu marinade or vinaigrette for a salad made with bitter greens. Or select another variety of vinegar and oil for your creation.

  • ¼ cup vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon citrus juice
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 2-3 Tablespoons oil
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon vegan sweetener (optional)
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper

Combine vinegar, juice, salt, and garlic. Allow ingredients to sit for 10 minutes before blending in oil, mustard, sweetener, and pepper. Whisk together, then toss with salad or use for a marinade.

Total calories per serving: 67 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 2 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 323 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram


(Serves 4)

Freezing and thawing makes the tofu more receptive to the marinade. Look for coconut oil and miso in the natural foods section of the grocery store.

  • 8 ounces extra firm tofu, drained and pressed
  • ¼ cup sherry vinegar or plain vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon unrefined whole cane sugar, such as Sucanat or Rapadura (available at natural foods stores)
  • 1 Tablespoon olive, hazelnut, or sesame oil
  • 1 Tablespoon white miso (available in the Asian or refrigerated sections of many markets)
  • Dash of cayenne
  • 1 or 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1 Tablespoon coconut oil (for baking dish)

Slice tofu into 1/2-inch slices. Freeze, then thaw to give the tofu a firmer texture.

Combine vinegar; sugar; olive, hazelnut, or sesame oil; miso; cayenne; and garlic. Pour marinade into a shallow glass dish. Cut tofu into small squares and soak in the marinade for at least 1 hour. Pour off marinade and reserve.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Oil a baking dish with coconut oil. Place tofu in the dish and bake for 30 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

Total calories per serving: 124 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 6 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 125 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

(Serves 6)

This dish is delicious when blended into 2 cups steamed basmati rice or millet. Add Tofu Croutons, and it's a refreshing meal. For convenience, you can skip the blanching and use frozen green beans instead. If you don't have a grill, you can sauté the eggplant and peppers with the onions, but the flavor isn't quite the same. Cook for 15 minutes if using a frying pan on the stove. If you want to let this set so the flavors marry, leave out the green beans until just before serving. Vinegar pulls green color from vegetables.

  • 2 cups green beans, cut into 1-inch segments
  • 1 large eggplant, sliced into ½-inch slices
  • 2 red peppers, cut in half and seeded
  • 3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 red onion, finely diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • Dash of hot sauce
  • 1 teaspoon Sucanat or agave nectar (available at natural foods stores)
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar or plain vinegar
  • ½ cup chopped fresh basil
  • ¼ cup sliced kalamata olives
  • Salt to taste (optional)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Blanch green beans for approximately 3 minutes or until bright green and just slightly fork-tender. Rinse in cold water.

Prepare grill. Brush eggplant slices and red pepper halves with olive oil. Grill for 15 minutes or until soft and slightly browned. Remove from grill and cut into bite-size pieces.

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add the remaining olive oil and onions. Stir and cook until onions are just beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and hot sauce. Blend in eggplant, peppers, and cut green beans.*

Combine Sucanat or agave nectar with vinegar, basil, remaining olive oil, and olives. Add to vegetable mixture and stir. Sprinkle with salt to taste.

*Note: If you are sautéing the eggplant and peppers, use a medium dice and sauté on low with the onions for about 15 minutes. Then, stir in green beans.

Total calories per serving: 124 Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 13 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 69 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams


(Serves 4)

The marinade in this recipe is also good on grilled eggplant, onions, peppers, or corn. Brush on continually as you grill.

If you want to roast instead of grill the peppers, chipotle chili powder is essential for a smoky flavor. You can find the powder and good quality coconut oil and sesame oil in natural foods stores. To roast, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Follow the directions for marinating, except lay the mushrooms gill-side-down in a shallow baking dish, cook for 20 minutes, turn, and cook until soft.

  • ¼ cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons orange juice
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 Tablespoon melted coconut oil* or untoasted or light sesame oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, pressed
  • ⅛ teaspoon chipotle chili powder (optional)
  • 4 portobello mushrooms
  • Salt to taste (optional)

In a bowl large enough for a mushroom, blend vinegar, orange juice, and salt together until salt dissolves. Stir in oil, garlic, and chipotle chili powder.

Remove stems and scrape the gills from the mushrooms. Dip mushrooms, one at a time, into marinade. Cover both sides, spooning the marinade over the mushrooms. Lay mushrooms, cut side down, on an oiled grill and cook for 3-5 minutes. Brush the marinade over the mushrooms once or twice. Turn the mushrooms over when the bottom gets slightly soft. Grill for another 5 minutes, until the caps are lightly browned and the mushroom juices are welling up inside the cap.

Remove to a cutting board and let the mushrooms sit for a few minutes to absorb remaining juices. Then, slice mushrooms thinly. Place on a serving platter and drizzle remaining marinade over mushrooms. Season to taste with salt, if desired.

*Note: Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, so it must melt to use in a marinade.

Total calories per serving: 73 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 8 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 10 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram


(Serves 5)

This salad is best if it sits overnight. Wasabi is similar to horseradish — sharp and pungent. Powdered wasabi is available in many natural foods stores and Asian markets. Use some horseradish mustard if you can't find wasabi. Both the canned beans and artichoke hearts contain salt, so you don't have to add salt to this dish.

  • 3 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons apple juice concentrate
  • ½ Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon powdered wasabi
  • 2 cups sliced, steamed beets
  • One 15-ounce can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
  • One 14-ounce can quartered artichoke hearts, drained
  • 2 Tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Combine vinegar, concentrate, oil, mustard, and wasabi. Let sit for about 10 minutes before pouring over beets and beans. Mix in artichoke hearts and serve garnished with parsley.

Total calories per serving: 161 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 29 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 570 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams


(Serves 4)

These tempeh strips are good with rice or roasted vegetables, in sandwiches, or for an afternoon snack. Tamari, unrefined whole cane sugar (such as Rapadura or Sucanat), and sesame oils are available in natural foods stores.

  • ¼ cup vegetable broth or stock
  • ¼ cup tamari or soy sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons unrefined whole cane sugar, such as Sucanat or Rapadura
  • 2 Tablespoons brown rice vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon light sesame or olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dark or toasted sesame oil
  • 2 cloves minced or crushed garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • One 8- or 10-ounce package tempeh, cut horizontally into ½-inch strips

In a frying pan large enough for the tempeh, combine broth, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, oils, garlic, bay leaf, and cayenne. Bring to a boil, add tempeh, and reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer for about 15 minutes, until liquid is absorbed. Remove lid and continue to cook until browned.

Note: These tempeh strips are also good sautéed in a little coconut oil until browned. Simply remove tempeh strips from pan after liquid is absorbed, add 1 Tablespoon coconut oil, heat, return strips to pan, and sauté.

Total calories per serving: 188 Fat: 11 grams
Carbohydrates: 13 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 1,042 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams


(Serves 6)

For this recipe, you can use fresh or thawed, frozen raspberries. A clean nylon stocking works wonderfully for squeezing the juice from the berries. Arrowroot can be found in Asian markets and in natural foods stores. Agave nectar is also available in a natural foods store. If you can't find it, use fruit sweetener.

  • ¾ cup raspberries
  • ½ teaspoon arrowroot
  • ½ cup regular or lite coconut milk
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
  • 1 Tablespoon agave nectar
  • Pinch of salt
  • Juice of ½ lime (about 2 Tablespoons)
  • 2 cups diced sweet-tart apples, such as Fuji or Jonagold
  • 2 cups diced ripe Bosc or Anjou pears
  • ½ cup dates, chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 Tablespoons grated coconut
  • Mint sprigs (optional)

Press raspberries through cheesecloth or a clean nylon stocking to extract the juice, which should produce approximately 1/4 cup juice. Combine juice with arrowroot, coconut milk, ginger, agave nectar, and salt in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil. Simmer for a few minutes. Remove from heat, stir in lime juice, and let vinaigrette cool.

Combine apples, pears, dates, and lemon juice. When vinaigrette cools, pour over apples and pears. Stir to combine. Serve immediately, or refrigerate and serve later. Just before serving, sprinkle with grated coconut and, if desired, garnish with mint sprigs.

Total calories per serving: 154 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 39 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 13 milligrams Fiber: 7 grams


(Serves 8)

This dish is sure to brighten your summer table.

You can find dried sour cherries in specialty stores or natural foods stores. If you can't find them, you can use dried sweet cherries, but the flavor isn't the same. Frozen cherry concentrate and champagne vinegar are also available in natural foods or specialty foods stores. Candied ginger is available in natural foods stores or Asian markets. If it isn't available, simply substitute additional dried sour cherries.

  • ½ cup cashews
  • 2 Tablespoons dried sour cherries
  • ½ cup water
  • Sprinkling of unrefined whole cane sugar
  • 4 cups sliced strawberries, raspberries, or blackberries
  • 2 Tablespoons frozen cherry concentrate
  • 3 Tablespoons champagne vinegar or white balsamic vinegar
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • 1-½ to 2 cups sliced bananas
  • ¼ cup chopped candied ginger

Soak cashews and cherries in water for a few hours or over-night. Sprinkle sugar over berries and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Combine cashews and cherries in a blender with cherry concentrate, vinegar, and salt. Purée until smooth and creamy.

Pour the cashew-sour cherry mixture over the berries. Gently blend in bananas and ginger.

Total calories per serving: 162 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 32 grams Protein: 2 grams
Sodium: 7 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams


(Serves 4)

This recipe is a perfect way to use up nutrient-dense parsley. Jasmine rice and fruit sweetener can be purchased in natural foods stores. Top this delicious rice with sliced marinated portobellos or add Tofu Croutons (See page 20.) to this dish for a complete dinner entrée.

  • ½ cup cashews
  • 2 Tablespoons dried sour cherries
  • ½ cup water
  • Sprinkling of unrefined whole cane sugar
  • 4 cups sliced strawberries, raspberries, or blackberries
  • 2 Tablespoons frozen cherry concentrate
  • 3 Tablespoons champagne vinegar or white balsamic vinegar
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • 1-½ to 2 cups sliced bananas
  • ¼ cup chopped candied ginger

Bring water to a boil. Add rice and a pinch of salt. Reduce heat and simmer until done, 45 minutes for brown rice or 15 minutes for white rice. Once water is absorbed, let rice sit for 5 minutes before fluffing with a fork.

While rice cooks, sauté scallions in olive oil. Blend lemon and lime juice with fruit sweetener and remaining salt. Combine with scallions and olive oil. Add cooked rice, black pepper, red peppers or pimentos, and parsley. Continue to cook until parsley is slightly wilted.

Total calories per serving: 256 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 44 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 304 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Debra Daniels-Zeller is a frequent contributor to Vegetarian Journal.