How Long To Marinate Chicken For Tender, Juicy Results

Before adding chicken to the grill, it’s a good idea to put it in a marinade first. Marinating the meat adds flavor and helps to promote tenderness. Unfortunately, most people tend to marinate their chicken for too long, which is a mistake on several levels. If you want to know how long to marinate chicken without destroying your dinner, you’ve come to the right place.

About Marinade

The word marinade has been in use since the early 1600s, but its history is actually thought to be far more extensive.

Because the majority of marinades use salt as a tenderizer, the word was derived from the Latin mare, meaning the sea. The term first appeared in verb form in the 1600s, with the noun form arriving sometime during the next century.

Although these are the roots of the term as we understand it, the practice dates back further than that. In Asia, chefs have been using soy sauce and other salty ingredients to flavor and preserve their food for centuries. Likewise, ancient Egyptians may have used similar techniques, although it’s difficult to pinpoint which ingredients they used.

Today, marinades tend to reflect the region in which they’re prepared. Asian cuisine still makes heavy use of soy and fish sauces, while many Mexican dishes call for papaya or citrus juice as a tenderizer. As you might expect, the US is a melting pot, utilizing everything from Worcestershire sauce to apple cider.

Why It’s Important

It’s not necessary to marinate any meat before cooking, not even chicken. You can use a spice rub, a simple blend of herbs, or just salt and pepper for seasoning. For some cuts, such as beef tenderloin, these methods are preferable.

However, marinating does more than just contribute a welcome burst of flavor. The moisture also keeps the meat from drying out when it’s exposed to the high heat of the grill.

In addition, the enzymes in the acidic active ingredients cause the meat’s connective tissues to break down, which promotes tenderness. When it’s used correctly, this method results in a finished product that’s mouthwateringly tasty.

However, these same enzymes will block the meat’s ability to retain moisture. Therefore, when the meat is left in the marinade too long, it may turn out too dry. When it comes to chicken in particular, the results might be stringy or mushy—problems that are even more difficult to correct.

How It Works

The ideal marinade will contain a blend of oil, spices, salt, and acidic ingredients (see Common Marinade Components,  below). Here’s what happens when the meat is exposed to this combination of elements.

First, the salt draws the moisture from the surface of the meat, allowing the resulting brine to be absorbed by the muscle fibers. Any water-soluble ingredients, such as garlic, will also be absorbed. Meanwhile, the oils will draw any fat-soluble flavors onto the surface of the meat.

Is Marinade Unhealthy?

As long as you prepare your own marinade using fresh ingredients, it shouldn’t pose too much of a health risk. Commercially prepared marinades tend to be overly high in sugar and sodium in order to preserve the rest of the ingredients. When you make your own, you know exactly what you’re getting.

If you’re concerned about excess sodium, substitute fresh citrus juices for soy and Worcestershire sauces whenever possible. You can also reduce or eliminate any additional salt from a recipe.

Marinade also has a little-known health benefit: It may cut back on the amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) that can result when meat is grilled at high temperatures. The marinade ingredients form a natural barrier between the meat and the fire, thereby reducing this health risk.

Common Marinade Components

If you’re planning on making your own marinade, here are a list of ingredients to keep on hand. Bear in mind that you won’t be using all of them every time—this is just to give you an idea of what you can work with.

Fat

  • Olive oil
  • Canola or other neutral cooking oil
  • Sour cream
  • Sesame oil
  • Mayonnaise
  • Tahini (pureed sesame seeds)

Sodium

  • Salt
  • Miso
  • Soy sauce
  • Fish sauce
  • Worcestershire sauce

Acid

  • Lemon, lime, or orange juice
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Buttermilk
  • Yogurt

Seasoning

  • Black pepper
  • Chili powder
  • Ground ginger
  • Garlic (cloves or powder)
  • Curry paste
  • Mustard (dry or prepared)
  • Crushed red pepper flakes
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Herbs (parsley, thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary, tarragon, or chives)

Sweetener

  • Honey
  • Brown sugar
  • White sugar
  • Ketchup
  • Agave
  • Molasses

Tip: If you add a sweetener to your marinade, use it sparingly. Otherwise, the sugary ingredients will burn when the meat is added to the grill, resulting in a bitter flavor.

Tools and Equipment

In addition to these ingredients, you should also keep the following kitchen supplies on hand.

  • Whisk (preferably made of stainless steel)
  • Nonreactive bowls of various sizes, for mixing ingredients
  • Glass roasting pan to hold the meat as it marinates
  • Skewers (either stainless steel or bamboo)

Note that if you use bamboo skewers, they should be soaked in water for at least 20 minutes before use. Otherwise, they might catch fire when you add them to the grill.

If you’re wondering why zip-top bags are missing from this list, it’s because we prefer to use a nonreactive bowl or baking dish for marinating. See What Should You Use For a Marinating Dish?, below, to find out why.

Why People Tend To Overdo It

Some chefs—particularly newbies—will boast about how long their meat has been left in the marinade. It’s especially common to marinate hearty steaks, like ribeye or hanger steak, for several days on end.

The thought process behind this behavior is simple: People believe that the longer the meat marinates, the more flavorful it will be. That’s actually not the case. Here’s why.

Marinades aren’t actually designed to penetrate to the center of the raw meat. While some of the acidic ingredients might seep past the exterior, the majority of the seasonings will remain on the outside. The idea is for the sugar, salt and acid in the mixture to caramelize when it’s exposed to high heat, forming a crust that will seal in the meat’s natural juices. This process, known as the Maillard reaction, is what provides the ultimate boost of flavor.

This is why the marinating process is so well-suited to meat that’s been sliced or cut into cubes beforehand. The mixture will still only penetrate so far, but more surface area is exposed to the ingredients.

How Long To Marinate Chicken

First and foremost, don’t ever marinate your chicken for longer than 24 hours. Chicken meat is naturally less dense than beef or pork, with a more delicate cellular structure. As such, the fibers will break down more quickly if they’re left in the marinade for too long.

In general, you should keep the total marinating time under 4 hours whenever possible, especially if we’re talking about boneless and skinless chicken breasts. Bone-in pieces won’t suffer as greatly from the long exposure (see A Word About Boneless vs. Bone-In, below), but it’s better to pull them from the marinade after 6 hours, just the same.

As a caveat, it’s fine to leave a whole chicken in marinade for up to 12 hours. For more information on marinating times, see the table below.

You might think this doesn’t sound like enough time for the meat to gain any benefit from the marinade. On the contrary, delicate meats like chicken and fish will pick up a noticeable difference in as little as 30 minutes.

In short, it doesn’t matter if you hold off on marinating the chicken until you light the grill. Go ahead and let the meat sit in the marinade for about half an hour. Even a short amount of time is better than nothing.

Safety Precautions

Always marinate meat in the refrigerator. Dangerous bacteria can form on chicken that’s left at room temperature for longer than two hours. For best results, refrigerate the chicken as soon as you’ve added it to the marinade.

On a similar note, don’t reuse a marinade that’s already been exposed to raw meat. If you want to use the marinade to baste the chicken while it’s cooking, or if you’d like extra to serve with the main course, set a portion aside before adding the meat. Used marinade may contain lingering bacteria that will contaminate the cooked chicken, making it unsafe for consumption.

A Word about Boneless vs. Bone-In

As we mentioned earlier, boneless chicken doesn’t take as long to marinate as the bone-in variety. However, I personally prefer to work with bone-in chicken because the meat will be more flavorful overall. It’s also more forgiving in terms of cooking time and temperature. If you enjoy the taste of chicken that hasn’t been overwhelmed by seasonings, opt for bone-in over boneless when grilling.

To help you make sense of the process, here’s a guide to various chicken parts and their minimum and maximum cooking times.

PartWhole ChickenBone-in BreastsBoneless Skinless BreastsBone-in ThighsWingsDrumsticks
Minimum Marinating Time4 hrs30 mins30 mins2 hrs2 hrs2 hrs
Maximum Marinating Time12 hrs6 hrs4 hrs6 hrs6 hrs6 hrs

Note: The table above refers to chicken that has had a chance to thaw completely. Marinating frozen chicken won’t work—the mixture won’t be able to penetrate the surface, so it will be labor wasted.

Take a look at this video tutorial to learn more about how to safely thaw frozen chicken.

A Flavor Breakdown

Should you use the same marinade for each part of the chicken? If you’re cooking all the pieces at once, sure. This will lend consistency to the meal and make your prep tasks that much easier.

If you’re only preparing the breasts, however, our recommendation is to keep it light. Use a blend of freshly squeezed lemon juice, a clove or two of pressed garlic, kosher salt, and black pepper. Then whisk in extra-virgin olive oil in a steady stream until the mixture emulsifies. These ingredients work well for bone-in and boneless chicken breasts alike.

On the other hand, dark meat calls for greater intensity on the flavor scale. Whisk together a blend of Worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, and a hint of sesame oil. Add brown sugar, pressed garlic, and black pepper, then whisk in a good supply of extra-virgin olive oil. This is a BBQ-style marinade that will complement the natural flavor of the wing and thigh meat.

What Should You Use For a Marinating Dish?

Some individuals swear by heavy-duty zip-top bags for marinating. They claim that it allows the marinade to do its work faster, because there’s minimal air exposure.

While the technique does promote a higher moisture content, it’s only suitable for lighter marinades. Otherwise, the flavor of the chicken itself can be overwhelmed. The point of a marinade is to accent the ingredients, not drown them out.

Also, don’t be tempted to use aluminum or ceramic containers to hold the marinade. The acid will react with these materials, giving the marinade an off taste. Use a non-reactive glass bowl or baking dish instead.

Recipe For Grilled Marinated Chicken Breast

Now that you know the method behind the madness, let’s put those newfound skills to work. This is one of my favorite ways to prepare grilled boneless skinless chicken breasts. It’s easy enough for a quick weeknight supper, but the results are also sufficiently impressive to serve as the centerpiece when you’re expecting guests.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed and pounded to 1/4″ thick
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 3 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • Canola or other vegetable oil, for the grill grates

Serves: 6

Instructions

1. In a nonreactive bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, garlic, salt, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Slowly drizzle in the olive oil, whisking constantly.

2. Place the prepared chicken breasts in a shallow glass baking dish and pour the marinade over them. Turn the chicken so that each breast is fully coated in marinade. Set the dish in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours.

3. When you’re ready to start cooking, build a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill, or preheat a gas grill to medium-high. For pellet grills, set the temperature to 400 degrees. Lightly oil the cooking grates.

4. Remove the chicken from the marinade, allowing any excess to drip back into the pan. Discard the marinade and pat the chicken dry with paper towels.

5. Grill the chicken breasts in a single layer, making sure they’re spaced at least 1/2 inch apart. Cook for 4 minutes per side, or until they register 165 degrees Fahrenheit on an instant-read thermometer. The meat should be nicely browned, with grill marks on either side.

6. Remove the chicken from the grill and let it rest on a clean platter for 5 minutes. Serve while hot.

Tip: You can substitute chicken tenderloin for the chicken breast in this recipe. Just be sure to keep the marinating time under 1 hour, and reduce the grilling time to 2-3 minutes per side.

Final Thoughts

Once you know how long to marinate chicken without overdoing it, the process is simple. It can actually save you time when you’re planning your meal—there’s no need to keep the meat soaking in the marinade for days on end. A few hours is all you need to yield deliciously tender meat that will have you returning to the grill again and again.

Best of luck, and happy grilling!

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