Buttermilk makes a superb marinade ingredient for several reasons. If you decide to use it, how long can you marinate chicken in buttermilk? Let’s take a look.
How Long Can You Marinate Chicken in Buttermilk?
You can leave chicken marinating in buttermilk for up to 48 hours without ill effect. After that, it’s best to remove it from the mixture, lest the meat turn stringy when it’s cooked. If the marinade incorporates acidic ingredients like citrus juice or vinegar, you’ll have even less time before the texture of the chicken will be negatively affected.
What’s the point of a marinade? In fact, the process has several benefits.
First of all, it imparts flavor to the meat. With lean cuts like chicken, this is especially important. As a rule, the leaner the meat is, the less flavor it has. That means that the right marinade can make or break your results.
Marinades also promote tenderness. Most of the time, you’ll be using an acidic or enzymatic ingredient in the recipe, which is part of what we’re here to discuss. This breaks down the meat’s proteins, giving the finished product a softer texture.
A good marinade can help the meat retain moisture. This is particularly beneficial for cuts like chicken breast, which are prone to drying out when cooked over high heat.
Speaking of which, you may have heard that grilling meat at high temperatures can create carcinogenic compounds on the surface. When you use a marinade, those effects are counteracted, so the process creates a healthier product as well.
You should always marinate meat in a nonreactive container or a zip-top plastic bag. The acidic ingredients can leach chemicals out of certain materials, thereby posing a health risk.
Popular Marinade Ingredients
In order to be successful, a marinade should include the following components:
- Sweetener (optional)
The oil pulls any fat-soluble flavors to the meat’s surface, while the salt draws out moisture and allows the meat’s fibers to absorb the other ingredients. The acid promotes tenderness and the seasonings provide a flavor boost of their own.
If you opt to use a sweetener, add it in small increments. Too much sugar will cause the marinade to burn, and burnt meat has an acrid flavor.
For your oil-based ingredient, try olive oil, canola oil, sour cream, mayonnaise, sesame oil, or tahini. You can get a salty kick from soy sauce, Worcestershire, miso, or just plain salt.
Acidic or enzymatic ingredients include vinegar, citrus juice, yogurt, pineapple juice, and, of course, buttermilk. When it comes to seasoning, the sky is the limit. Use your judgement based on the other components of your marinade—and the meal itself.
For a sweetener, try adding a bit of brown or white sugar to the mixture. Honey, agave, and molasses are other popular additions. You can even use ketchup, particularly if you’re planning on applying a barbecue sauce later on.
Do You Have to Marinate Chicken?
It’s not necessary to marinate chicken—or any meat, for that matter. Though the process has numerous benefits, you can absolutely get away with grilling chicken without marinating it first.
If you skip the marinade, make sure to season the meat using bold ingredients. Otherwise, it will taste too bland. Kosher salt and black pepper will work, but try experimenting with other spices such as smoked paprika, chili powder, cumin, and dry mustard.
You can also add a sauce to the chicken during the final stage of the cook. Don’t brush it on too soon, though—most sauces contain a lot of sugar, which means they’ll burn when exposed to direct heat for too long.
Is Marinating the Same as Brining?
Not exactly. While both can promote tenderness and boost flavor, there are a few notable differences.
First of all, brine mixtures tend to be less complex than marinades. Although it’s permissible to add other ingredients, a brine essentially consists of salt and water.
More importantly, the primary objective of brining is to help the meat retain moisture. The process does have some effect on the flavor, but it’s no substitute for proper seasoning.
Marinades, on the other hand, are meant to improve the flavor and texture of the meat. Moisture retention plays a small role—it’s just not at the top of the list.
Brining and marinating do have one more important element in common: If the meat stays in the solution too long, the protein strands will denature past the point of mere tenderness. The result? Meat that’s either gummy, spongy, or mushy to the bite.
How Long Can You Marinate Chicken in Buttermilk?
Let’s say you’ve chosen buttermilk as the base for your marinade. How long can you leave the chicken in there before the texture starts to suffer as a result?
Our recommendation would be to plan on a marinating period of 12 to 24 hours. That way, you can make the marinade and add the chicken the day before you plan to cook it.
Marinating the chicken in buttermilk for up to a day will give it a juicy texture and a slightly tangy flavor. Yogurt has a similar effect, which is why it’s such a popular choice when making tandoori chicken.
It’s fine to leave chicken in a buttermilk marinade for up to 48 hours. After that, though, you’ll want to remove it from the mixture. The chicken will have an unpleasantly stringy texture if it’s exposed to the enzymes any longer.
How Long Can You Marinate Chicken in an Acidic Marinade?
You’ll have an even shorter window when dealing with acid-based marinades. If you’re marinating the chicken in lemon juice or vinegar, try to limit the process to 2 to 12 hours.
The leaner the cut, the less time it needs to spend in the marinade. Chicken breasts and tenderloins, for example, should only marinate for 2 to 4 hours. Whole chickens and dark meat cuts like legs and thighs can take up to 12 hours in the marinade.
When in doubt, marinate the chicken for less time than you think it will need. Even a 30-minute stint in the mixture can improve the taste and texture. On the other hand, if you overdo it, there’s no way to repair the damage.
How Long Does Chicken Last in the Fridge?
There’s another important reason why you should resist the urge to marinate chicken too long: It doesn’t last that long in the fridge in the first place.
It’s best to cook off chicken 1 to 2 days after you buy it. That’s true even if you apply a marinade to the meat.
The acidic and enzymatic compounds in the marinade will stave off bacterial growth, but they won’t stop it entirely. Therefore, it’s possible for the chicken to spoil while it’s still in the marinade.
For optimal results, make the marinade and add the chicken to the mixture on the same day that you’ve bought it. If that doesn’t work with your plans, you’ll have just a day or two to start the process.
You should be able to tell if the chicken has spoiled by testing the smell and the texture, as well as the color. Rancid chicken has a specifically nasty odor reminiscent of rotten eggs. If you detect a whiff of sulfur, it’s time to discard the meat.
Chicken that’s gone bad may also feel slimy to the touch, or have patches of discoloration. Any green, gray, yellow, or moldy patches indicate spoilage. Toss the chicken and the marinade if you notice any of these signs when you open the container.
The Bottom Line
It’s important to note the distinction between marinades that use enzymatic compounds and ones that involve acidic ingredients. You can leave the chicken in a buttermilk mixture longer than you can leave it soaking in vinegar, but there’s still a time limit involved.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!