The best 3-ingredient steak marinade recipe

Over the years, we've received a lot of advice when it comes to cooking steak. Some people say that steaks don't need much seasoning to make them great and require only a brushing of olive oil, salt, and pepper. And while some will advise salting a steak up to 24 hours in advance, others recommend waiting until just before the steak hits the grill to season it with coarse kosher salt. 

On the other hand, some chefs recommend marinating steak in a flavorful liquid. This is a great way to break down tougher steaks like flank or skirt steak, and it's a sure-fire way to enhance the flavor of a less-expensive cut of meat.

While we sometimes opt to keep our steak seasoning simple, we often like the boost of flavor that comes with marinating steak. The marinade coats the outside of the steak with herbs and spices while keeping the meat juicy and tender as it cooks. Some marinades can get downright complicated, so we wanted to come up with a 3-ingredient steak marinade recipe that used simple ingredients that we almost always have in our pantry. The result is one of the simplest, easiest, and most delicious steak marinades we've ever made. But don't take our word for it: Give it a try and see for yourself!

Gather the ingredients for this 3-ingredient steak marinade

You can make a complicated steak marinade with dozens of ingredients, including a ton of spices and herbs. For this 3-ingredient steak marinade recipe, however, we wanted to keep things simple and give you options for expanding if you like. The base steak marinade recipe has only three ingredients: soy sauce, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. It might seem too simple, but these ingredients contain everything you need in a good marinade, including salt, acid, and fat. Simply whisk them together in a small bowl and pour them over the steak. You'll need about a tablespoon of each for a single steak, and you can double or triple the recipe if you have additional meat.

From here, you can feel free to add any number of flavoring ingredients. Onion and garlic — either in fresh, minced form or in powdered spice form — and fresh herbs are a great way to add flavor to the outside of the steak. You can also look to dried spices, like black pepper or ground mustard, or liquid condiments like Worcestershire. This fermented condiment contains vinegar and several bold flavorings, adding a savory, umami-forward flavor to your steak.

For the full list of ingredients, including optional additions and step-by-step instructions, scroll to the bottom of this article.

Do you have to use soy sauce to make a 3-ingredient steak marinade?

One of the major ingredients in our 3-ingredient steak marinade recipe is soy sauce. This salty liquid is made from fermented soybeans and wheat, adding both savory flavor and salt to season the steak. But, because it's made with wheat, it's off-limits to anyone following a gluten-free diet.

If you want to skip the soy sauce, you can use several other ingredients that make a good substitution. The easiest one to use is tamari, a Japanese version of soy sauce that is often made without wheat. Be sure to double-check the bottle to ensure that it is actually gluten-free, as some versions of tamari contain trace amounts of wheat. You could also use coconut aminos or liquid aminos. Coconut aminos is made from fermented coconut sap, and liquid aminos is made from non-fermented soybeans. Both of these products are naturally gluten-free, but they're sweeter and less salty than soy sauce.

A third option is to skip the soy sauce altogether. You can simply use the other two ingredients with a pinch of salt, but you'll need to increase the oil and balsamic by a half-tablespoon each to make up the difference in liquid content.

What are the basic ingredients for a good 3-ingredient steak marinade?

A good marinade has three components: salt, acid, and fat. Salt starts things off by seasoning the meat, giving it flavor in conjunction with other seasoning ingredients. Fine Cooking explains that salt can also enter meat cells, denaturing the protein cells and helping the meat retain more moisture as it cooks. Some marinades contain pure salt while others (like ours) use salty liquids like soy sauce.

Another crucial marinade component is acid, which is seen in our recipe in the form of balsamic vinegar. The acidic ingredients help slightly tenderize the meat by breaking down tough muscle fibers and connective tissues on the meat's surface. They also add a lightness that can balance out the meat's heavy flavor. Finally, fat coats the meat to help the marinade stick to its surface. It also helps transfer any fat-soluble flavors into the meat, and it protects it from drying out as it cooks.

Many marinades also contain additional seasoning, including aromatic ingredients like garlic or onion, as well as spices and herbs. These additions can add extra flavor to the meat, but they're not strictly required for our 3-ingredient steak marinade.

What type of steak should you use for this 3-ingredient steak marinade?

When it comes to choosing the best steak for grilling, look for a tender cut of beef. The most tender cut is beef tenderloin, also called filet mignon. The filet comes from an underused muscle in the beef, so it has very little fat or connective tissue. It cooks up very quickly, and it takes well to marinades. Another grilling favorite is the ribeye steak. This steak has plenty of fat and marbling, which protects it from drying out as it cooks.

You don't have to go with an expensive steak, either. Top sirloin — the steak we cooked to test this 3-ingredient steak marinade recipe — is inexpensive and it has a great, beef-forward flavor. Other steaks that take well to acidic marinades like this one include flank steak and skirt steak. These steaks have more connective tissue than traditional grilling steaks, but they cook up quickly and become tender when marinated for up to 12 hours.

How long should you marinate steak with this 3-ingredient marinade?

You don't need to marinate a steak for as long as you might think. In our first 3-ingredient steak marinade test batch, our top sirloin steak was in the marinade for only 30 minutes before cooking it. Was it long enough? You bet! The flavor coated the exterior of the steak, seasoning each slice to the perfect amount of flavor. The flavors were stronger when we extended the marinade time to four hours but not necessarily any better or worse than our 30-minute marinade.

You certainly don't want to marinate the steak for longer than 24 hours. The acidic component of the marinade will work overtime. Instead of tenderizing the outside of the meat, it will turn it to mush. That's not exactly the texture we're hoping to use to describe our steak. The salt in the marinade can also become too intense over time, so try to keep your marinade time between 30 minutes and 12 hours for the best results.

How long should you cook the steaks on each side?

Every steak is different, which means each steak's cook time will differ slightly. The timing also depends on how well-done you like your steak. Omaha Steaks recommends cooking times based on the thickness of the steak. For a one-inch-thick steak, they suggest cooking it over high heat for four to five minutes per side for medium-rare (or five to six minutes per side for medium, and seven to eight minutes per side for well-done steak).

Of course, the best way to know — not guess — when your steak is done cooking is to use an instant-read digital meat thermometer. When the thermometer hits 135 degrees Fahrenheit, your steak has reached medium-rare. Keep going to 145 degrees for medium, or 160 for well-done.

If you're cooking a very thick steak, you'll have to do things differently. Instead of cooking it over high-heat temperatures, start it over indirect heat on the grill instead. When the steak is within 10 degrees of the desired temperature, move it to the direct heat side of the grill and sear it for a few minutes on both sides to give it a caramelized, golden-brown finish.

Should you let your steak rest?

Always, always, always let the meat rest before slicing it. You see, all the juices inside the meat are driven to the steak's center as it cooks. Those juices need time to redistribute within the meat, making sure every bite is as juicy as the next. If you were to slice it right away, those juices would spill out onto the cutting board, making some of the steak taste dry. After going through so much trouble to infuse the meat with those 3-ingredient marinade flavors and cook it to the perfect temperature, it would be a shame to end up with a less-than-perfect steak.

Instead, let the steak rest for at least three minutes (or as long as seven minutes). Then, grab a sharp carving knife and slice away. Some juices will still come out as you slice, so it's best to use a cutting board with a deep groove around the outside to catch the excess liquid.

What to serve with this 3-ingredient steak marinade?

This 3-ingredient steak marinade is very all-purpose, so you can serve it with any number of sides. For a steak-and-potatoes vibe, there are a number of great ways to cook potatoes and we recommend a loaded baked potato, mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes, or roasted potatoes. Steak also pairs exceptionally well with roasted vegetables like broccoli or Brussels sprouts, creamed spinach, sauteed green beans or asparagus, or a salad.

If you want to serve the steak with a sauce, you can't go wrong with a rich sauce like compound butter or mushrooms Bordelaise, a gravy-like sauce that features softened mushrooms. Our go-to sauce these days is chimichurri made with fresh herbs or hearty greens like kale. It's bright, spicy, salty, and herbaceous, making it a perfect complement to this marinated steak's bold flavors.

Of course, you can always go a different route and use your marinated steak in sandwiches or wraps. This is an especially good option if you end up with leftovers. Simply plop it on a bun or roll it in a tortilla with your favorite condiments, cheese, or lettuce and call it lunch.

How did our 3-ingredient steak marinade taste?

We had absolutely no complaints about this 3-ingredient steak marinade. The soy sauce brought the perfect level of saltiness, accentuating the steak's beefy flavor without overpowering it. The balsamic vinegar was not only tangy, but it also brought a subtle sweetness to the steak that we found quite enjoyable. And while we didn't exactly notice the flavor of the olive oil, we know it was there because the other components were able to shine through.

The steak became even more flavorful when we added the optional marinade ingredients (like Worcestershire, garlic or onion powder, fresh herbs, ground mustard, or black pepper). We recommend limiting these additions to one or two so the flavor doesn't become too intense or confusing. After all, the marinade's purpose is to enhance the steak's flavor and keep it juicy and moist as it cooks. If you add too many things, you may only be able to taste the marinade, not beefy steak itself.

Directions for the best 3-ingredient steak marinade

Prep time for 3-ingredient steak marinade: 30 minutes to 12 hours

Cook time: 4 to 8 minutes a side, depending on thickness and level of doneness

Serves: Enough marinade for one to two steaks (double or triple the recipe as needed)

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 1-inch thick steak (such as filet mignon, ribeye, New York strip, top sirloin, flank, or skirt steak)

Optional additions (choose one or two)

  • 1-1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic, or 1/3 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon minced shallots, or 1/3 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh herbs, like rosemary, thyme, or oregano
  • Pinch of ground mustard
  • Pinch of black pepper

Directions:

  1. In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Add any optional additions, if using.
  2. Pour the marinade over the steak in a large bowl or airtight bag. Let the steak sit on the marinade for 30 minutes to 12 hours. If you're marinating the steak for longer than 30 minutes, store it in the refrigerator and flip the steak over at least once halfway through the marinade time. The olive oil may solidify in the refrigerator, but it will not harm the steak. Remove the steak from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking.
  3. Preheat a cast-iron skillet over high heat, or preheat a gas or charcoal grill for direct, high-temperature heat.
  4. Cook the steak for 4 to 5 minutes per side for medium-rare (135 degrees Fahrenheit), 5 to 6 minutes per side for medium (145 degrees), or 7 to 8 minutes per side for well-done (160 degrees).
  5. Let the steak rest for at least 3 minutes (or as long as 7 minutes) before slicing.
  6. Serve the steak with the sides and sauces of your choice.