While it’s not necessary to marinate chicken before cooking it, the step has undeniable benefits. In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at these benefits—as well as the drawbacks of marinating chicken too long.
Can Chicken Marinate Overnight?
Yes, chicken can marinate overnight, but you want to be careful if the mixture contains a lot of ingredients with high acidity. Otherwise, the meat could either turn to mush or become unpleasantly tough. Whole chickens and bone-in cuts can marinate longer than lean and tender cuts like boneless breast, which can marinate for just 30 minutes.
When you marinate a cut of meat, you have a few goals to keep in mind.
First of all, you want to give the dish a flavor boost. Although marinades don’t penetrate more than a few millimeters beneath the surface of the flesh, the difference is noticeable. You can experiment with different flavors to match the rest of your menu.
Marinades also help prevent the meat from drying out. All meat loses moisture when it’s exposed to heat, but you can keep it juicy by applying a marinade beforehand. This is important for all cuts, but since chicken is so lean, it can really use the extra help.
Finally—and most importantly—marinades promote tenderness. The recipe should include an acidic ingredient, such as vinegar or citrus juice. These allow the meat’s proteins to denature, making for a finished product that’s tender to the bite.
Alternatively, the recipe might call for an enzymatic component, like wine or buttermilk. These also make effective tenderizers, as they break down the muscle fibers and connective tissue in the meat.
Popular Marinade Ingredients
A good marinade consists of salt, fat, acid (or enzymes), and spices. Once you understand that basic template, you can experiment with various ingredients as desired.
For the salt, we recommend using a coarsely ground product, such as kosher or sea salt. Table salt will work in a pinch, but try not to use as much—the smaller crystals will give the marinade a much saltier flavor.
Neutral oils with a low smoke point, like canola or peanut oil, work well in marinades because they’ll reduce the risk of flare-ups. However, many recipes benefit from the heartier flavor of extra-virgin olive oil.
As far as acidic ingredients are concerned, you can choose from vinegar, lemon or lime juice, orange juice, apple juice or cider, or soy sauce. Enzyme-based options include yogurt, buttermilk, wine, pineapple, ginger, or guava.
There are numerous spices and seasonings to choose from. Add a few drops of Tabasco for a spicy kick, or a dose of Worcestershire to give the meat a boost in the umami department. Fresh herbs bring a lovely brightness to the dish, especially if vegetables are involved.
For sweetness, you can add white or brown sugar, honey, or agave to the mixture. Be careful not to use too much, though, as these can burn and give the meat a bitter flavor.
Can Chicken Marinate Overnight?
Yes, you can marinate chicken overnight—if you must. We would advise against doing so if you’re working with leaner cuts like chicken breast and tenderloin, though. Here’s why.
The longer the meat is exposed to the marinade, the more the proteins will break down. After a certain point, this ceases to be a good thing. When the proteins denature too much, the meat will turn to mush, even after it’s cooked.
Depending on which ingredients you use, over-marinating may have another unwanted effect: It can actually make the meat harder to chew. When the meat is exposed to acid for too long, the protein molecules will press in closer together, which will toughen it up.
Small, lean cuts will benefit from shorter marinating periods. While you can leave a steak in a marinade for a day or two, chicken flesh has a lower density. That means it will benefit from the process that much more quickly.
Aim for 2 to 4 hours for boneless breast and tenderloin. Even 30 minutes in the marinade will make a marked difference in the flavor and texture of these cuts. For bone-in chicken breasts with the skin on, make sure they sit in the marinade for at least 1 hour.
Whole chickens and dark meat cuts can withstand longer marinating times. Feel free to leave whole birds in the marinade for 8 to 12 hours, or overnight. It shouldn’t have an adverse effect on the texture, and the flavor will be excellent.
Bone-in chicken quarters, thighs, and wings should marinate for 2 to 6 hours. Boneless thighs don’t need quite as long, but try to aim for 2 to 4 hours for these.
Can You Marinate Chicken For Longer Than a Day?
Marinating periods of 24 to 48 hours are permissible only when the mixture contains ingredients with low acidity.
For example, if your marinade consists of a vinegar base, it’s best to limit the marinating time to 12 hours, as suggested above. Any longer, and the vinegar will break down the protein strands past the point of no return.
On the other hand, if you’re marinating the chicken in buttermilk, wine, or yogurt, the process will be much slower. You can get away with leaving the chicken in the marinade for up to 48 hours when these ingredients form the base of your recipe.
Can You Marinate Frozen Chicken?
Marinating chicken when it’s still frozen doesn’t pose a safety hazard, but it’s still not the best idea.
When meat is frozen, it doesn’t absorb moisture and flavor as well as it does when it’s fully thawed. What’s more, the mixture will become watered down as the chicken defrosts, which will further limit the effectiveness of the procedure.
If you have your heart set on using a certain marinade and don’t have time to defrost the meat, you can certainly put the chicken in the mixture while it’s still frozen. But the results might not be as impressive as you’d hoped.
The same rules apply if you used a cold water bath for defrosting. If you wait any longer to cook it off, hazardous bacteria might take up residence on the surface of the meat. It’s better to add frozen chicken to a marinade than to risk food poisoning.
In addition to the warnings regarding defrosting, there are a few other marinating safety tips you should be aware of.
First of all, make sure to wash your hands before and after handling raw poultry. Otherwise, you could be spreading bacteria to your utensils and all around the kitchen.
If the marinade has come into contact with raw meat, it needs to be discarded immediately after it’s served its purpose. Any potential bacteria on the meat could have been transferred to the mixture.
Some marinades can pull double duty as a sauce that can be brushed on during the last few minutes of cooking. Should your recipe call for this, set aside a small amount of the mixture before you add the raw chicken to the rest of it.
Marinate chicken in a sturdy zip-top bag or nonreactive container. Some types of metal, such as aluminum and cast iron, will react with the acid in the marinade and have a negative effect on the flavor.
Always marinate chicken in the refrigerator. The meat should stay at a temperature below 40 degrees Fahrenheit for as long as possible before you start to cook it.
Turn the chicken in the marinade at least once to ensure that the mixture is evenly distributed. Remember to wash your hands before and after you do this.
Don’t rinse the marinade off the chicken before cooking. While the mixture has already done its work, rinsing the meat could contaminate the sink and surrounding countertop. Instead of rinsing, pat the chicken dry with paper towels.
What If I Don’t Have Time To Marinate?
As we mentioned, marinades can work in as little as 30 minutes on leaner cuts. But if you don’t want to put the time or effort into marinating, try using a dry rub instead.
Dry rubs consist of various herbs and spices designed to promote flavor. If there’s enough salt in the mixture, it can even work as a dry brine, allowing the meat to retain more moisture during the cooking process.
Be sure to distribute the spice rub mixture evenly, massaging it into any crevices. You want to cover as much surface area as possible to ensure a bolder flavor.
The Bottom Line
When marinating chicken overnight, choose your cuts and ingredients wisely. A whole chicken can marinate in just about any mixture for up to 12 hours, but you’ll want to remove boneless chicken breasts from an acidic marinade after just an hour or two.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!