With Memorial Day weekend right around the corner, many Americans will be firing up their backyard grills for the first time this year.

But after you marinate your meat, should you use the marinade as a sauce?

Not so fast, say food-safety experts. 

There are plenty of good reasons to marinate your main course before grilling it. Acids, oils, herbs, and spices in your favorite marinades lend delicious flavors to meat, fish, and poultry. Marinades also make meat more tender because they typically contain acids from vinegar, citrus, tomato juice, beer, or wine, which unwind tightly coiled animal protein fibers.

Plus, while heavily charred meat, fish, and poultry can expose you to potentially cancer-causing compounds such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs), some evidence suggests that using a marinade can reduce the risk.

However, marinating itself can also pose some food-safety risks if not done properly. Here's what you need to know to reap the benefits of marinades—and make sure you serve up safe food.

Tips for Safe and Flavorful Marinades

  • Mix it. "The basic ingredients of a marinade are oil, acid—vinegar or lemon juice, for example—and additional seasonings," says Amy Keating, one of Consumer Reports' registered dietitians. Start with three parts oil to one part acid, add salt and pepper, and then experiment with extras such as onions, shallots, garlic, parsley, and thyme, Keating suggests. "A dash of sweetness from sugar or honey can also add a depth of flavor," she says. "And you can experiment with soy, mustard, and more."
  • Refrigerate it. Never marinate fish, meat, or poultry at room temperature, cautions the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Instead, marinate proteins in a covered container in the refrigerator. "For easy cleanup, use food-safe plastic bags during storage, and discard the bags after marinating," suggests Diane Van, deputy director of food-safety education at the Department of Agriculture, in a blog post
  • Time it. Marinate dense meat such as steak for up to 24 hours, poultry for 2 to 24 hours, and seafood for just 15 to 60 minutes. Don’t go too long; over-marinated animal proteins may become mushy or tough.
  • Plate it. After grilling, place cooked meats on a clean plate, not the container you used for marinating, advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (And don’t reuse containers or utensils that have touched raw meat before washing them carefully first.)
  • Trash it. A marinade that has been in contact with raw animal proteins may contain harmful bacteria. Only reuse it as a sauce if you boil it first to kill off the bacteria, according to the USDA. To be totally safe, it's best to prepare some extra marinade and set it aside to use as a sauce—and throw away any marinade that's had contact with uncooked meat.