Essential Tips for Marinating Chicken

Get a Flavorful, Juicy, and Tender Bird With a Simple Marinade

Honey-marinated chicken
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Chicken, especially boneless, skinless chicken breasts, typically tastes better and has a better texture if you marinate it before cooking. While marinades are easy to mix up, a few tips on recipes, times, and cooking will help ensure your chicken is as delicious as possible.

Choose Your Marinade

Marinades combine an acid, like lemon juice, yogurt, or vinegar, with oil and flavoring ingredients like salt, pepper, herbs, fruits, and mustard. There are many recipes available for marinades and you'll find that most are very easy to mix up.

You can also experiment on your own by mixing 1 part lemon juice with 1 part olive oil, adding some mustard, salt, pepper, and fresh or dried herbs. There's really no way to go wrong with this process. Have fun with it.

Perfecting Your Marinade Recipe

While you can play around with marinade recipes, there are a couple key tips you'll want to keep in mind.

  • To increase the flavor of your marinade, keep the amount of oil you add in check. The best marinade (unlike the best salad dressing) is about half oil and half acid.
  • Use fresh herbs whenever possible. If you are using dried herbs, crush them between your fingers to release the aromatic oils before adding them to the marinade.

Marinade Mixing

It's much easier to mix your marinade directly in a heavy-duty zipper food storage bag than in a bowl or other container. Simply add the chicken, seal the bag, squish a bit to mix everything up, then refrigerate.

This trick also makes clean up a breeze because you can simply throw the bag away when you're done marinating. Do not reuse a bag that has contained raw chicken.

  • Place the bag of marinating chicken on a pan or in a bowl to prevent leakage in the refrigerator. Cross-contamination from raw chicken juices can contaminate other foods, so be extra careful with this step.

Marinating Times

How long should you marinade your chicken? This is one of the most common questions and the answer varies. It is always best to marinate no longer than called for in the recipe.

If you don't have a recipe, two hours is usually a good marinating time, though you may want to go shorter or longer than that. A lot of it is going to depend on the intensity of flavors in your marinade.

The USDA says that chicken can be marinated for up to two days. However, you should be cautious about extended times like that. Chicken can become mushy if it's marinated too long because the acid will begin to break down the flesh. This acidic reaction is actually what makes the chicken tender, but too much of a good thing can produce undesirable effects as well.

  • If your marinating time is shorter than one hour, it's not necessary to place the chicken in the refrigerator. However, it's not a bad idea anyway, especially if your kitchen's a little warm.

Cooking Marinated Chicken

Once your marinated chicken is ready, you can cook it using your preferred method. While it's easy, you need to continue to follow good food safety practices so your family doesn't get sick.

  • To cook marinated chicken, lift it out of the marinade and place it on the grill or in a pan. Don't rinse it or dry it with paper towels, you want to retain as much flavor and liquid as possible.
  • You can brush some of the marinade on the chicken as it cooks. For food safety reasons, stop adding uncooked marinade 3 to 5 minutes before the cooking time ends. The marinade should "cook off" for a few minutes before you serve the chicken.
  • Always cook chicken to an internal temperature of at least 160 F. It's easy to test with a food thermometer.
  • Discard any remaining marinade. You can place it in a small saucepan and boil for 2 to 3 minutes, then serve it as a sauce for the chicken. Never serve uncooked or undercooked marinade because it has been in contact with raw chicken.

Try a Dry Rub

Dry marinades, or dry rubs, are a great alternative to liquid marinades and there are many great recipes available for poultry. A rub is usually a mixture of salt, pepper, sugar, herbs, and spices that is rubbed directly on the flesh of the chicken. Refrigerate the chicken for a few hours to let it absorb the flavors.

Brining Is Different

Brining is not marinating. A brine is an intense concentration of salt and sugar in water that forces ions into the chicken so the meat is flavored and becomes tender. The main objective with a brine is to hold moisture inside the meat so it doesn't dry out while cooking.


Food Safety and Inspection Service. Poultry Basting, Brining, and Marinating. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). 2013.