Why You Should Marinate Your Meat in Yogurt, According to Science

A quick science lesson from some experts, and a detour to an MRI machine, explain the secrets of this probiotic powerhouse.

Saffron chicken pieces marinating in yogurt mixture

The Spruce Eats / Maxwell Cozzi

Before you toss that chicken on the grill, consider giving it a soak in a yogurt marinade. Experts—and even an MRI machine—suggest that this dairy-based bath penetrates deeply into the meat, making it all the more tender.

Why Yogurt?

Let’s first take a look at how marinades work. Marinating meat introduces enzymes and acids to the connective tissues and fibers of the meat, which can help those tough elements become more tender (and tastier). Marinades  can also help the meat retain moisture as it cooks, so you end up with a  juicier steak or piece of chicken

Yogurt is a successful marinade because it works slowly and adds flavor.

“[Yogurt] slowly and gently tenderizes meat relative to [other] acid-based marinades. Yogurt is slightly acidic with a pH of around 4-5 (compared to vinegar that has a pH of 2-3),” says registered dietitian Whitney Linsenmeyer, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University.  “This acidic environment gently weakens the collagen and meat proteins near the surface of the cut.” 

Because of yogurt’s slight acidity, it tenderizes meat slowly and creates a desirable texture, says  Gunvantsinh Rathod, PhD, a member of the Institute of Food Technologist’s dairy foods division and a senior scientist with Idaho Milk Products. “Additionally, the presence of yogurt bacteria won’t allow pathogens to grow.”

Yogurt also creates a tasty crust around the meat. You can flavor the yogurt with herbs and spices, such as cayenne, paprika, or garlic. “ When cooked, the lactose sugar in the yogurt caramelizes to impart a slight sweetness,” Linsenmeyer says.

Marinating Tip

To have an impact, the marinade must actually make contact with the meat. For that reason, it can be smart to marinade meat in a zippered plastic bag with the air squeezed out, so the marinade can soak all sides.

Authentic Turkish chicken kebab recipe

The Spruce/Julia Hartbeck

Yogurt vs. Other Marinades

Yogurt tenderizes meat more slowly compared to other acids such as citrus juice or vinegar, which are common marinade ingredients. “Because of this, yogurt is much more forgiving compared to other marinades, and cooks can worry less about over-marinating the meat,” says Linsenmeyer.

You can marinate chicken and other meats overnight in yogurt, or as long as 12 hours, because the tenderizing happens so gradually. However, acid-based marinades usually can only be used for a few hours.

“When left too long, an acid-based marinade [such as those containing lemon or vinegar] turns the outermost layer of the meat mushy as the proteins on the surface of the meat are weakened,” Linsenmeyer explains..   

A Chef and an MRI Machine

Several years ago, British chef Heston Blumenthal wanted to examine the science behind chicken marinades. He took two pieces of chicken—one in a yogurt-based marinade with ginger and garlic and one with just ginger and garlic—and had them scanned in an MRI machine for five hours as the marinades took effect. Blumenthal wanted to see if the marinades actually do anything and whether the yogurt makes any difference.

The scans showed that both marinades affected the chicken, but the yogurt-based marinade had more of an impact, appearing to penetrate further into the meat. Blumenthal wasn’t sure why yogurt made such an impact, but the culinary results were clear.

The Dairy Farmers of Canada weigh in, saying that it’s believed that the calcium in yogurt interacts with the proteins in the meat in such a way that causes it to become more tender.

Using Yogurt as a Marinade

Yogurt works as a good marinade for chicken, as well as beef, lamb, and pork. Although yogurt-based marinades may have more of an impact on meat compared to other marinades, it’s still a good idea to use thinner cuts like chicken breasts, pork chops, or steak cutlets so the yogurt has the best chance of making a difference to every bit of the meat.

Yogurt saffron chicken kebabs

The Spruce Eats / Maxwell Cozzi

3 Yogurt-Marinated Recipes to Try

  • Joojeh Kabob: These traditional Turkish chicken kebabs are first marinated in a saffron mixture, then yogurt, onions, and lime juice are added to the mix. 
  • Tavuk Şiş: The key to these authentic Turkish kebabs is good-quality meat soaked in a marinade made from plain yogurt, onion, garlic, and spices.
  • Tandoori Style Cod: Cod takes a dip in a cumin, coriander, and turmeric yogurt bath before hitting the grill to cook in under 15 minutes.