How to Marinate Chicken Right

Here's how to get the best results from your flavor-infusing chicken marinades, plus important safety tips for marinating chicken.

Grilled Marinated Greek Chicken
Grilled Greek Chicken . Photo: Chef John

When you marinate chicken, the meat is your blank canvas; the marinade, your palette with which you paint on the deliciousness. And there are so many options! Here's how to get the best results from your flavor-infusing ingredients.

Quick Tips to Marinate Chicken

The formula for a great marinade is simple: acid + fat + seasonings.

  • Combine an acid ingredient (i.e., vinegar or lemon and lime juices) with a fat ingredient (like vegetable, nut, or chile oils) plus additional seasonings, including spices, herbs, syrups, zests, and any secret ingredients that lend a signature something to the mix. The possible flavor combinations are practically endless.
  • You can also tenderize with enzymatic ingredients, like yogurt, milk, honey, or pineapple juice. Use them in place of, or in combination with, the acid ingredient. Chef John likes grilling with chicken marinated in a yogurt-based marinade: "It tenderizes slightly, without turning the meat into mush," he explains, "and imparts a tangy flavor that lifts all the other flavorings."

Blended is best.

  • For best results, give your marinade a quick whirl in a blender to emulsify the acids and fats into a smooth, luscious solution.
  • No blender, no problem. Simply shake the ingredients vigorously in a jar with a tightly sealed lid.

Time is on your side.

  • Tough cuts of beef may benefit from lengthy marinades, but chicken actually does best with short soaks. With chicken, two hours is usually plenty of time to infuse flavor. In fact, with too much soaking, some acidic marinades may do the opposite of what you want — they can actually toughen chicken, denature the proteins, and mess up the texture of the meat. The bottom line here, marinating chicken is a great idea even on busy days when you want extra flavorful chicken but don't have all day to wait around on a marinade.
  • Because chicken thigh meat is a little fattier than chicken breast meat, chicken thighs will stay moist and delicious even after a little extra time on the grill, time that might dry out chicken breasts. Thighs are also good for assertive marinades and sauces.

Safety Tips for Marinating Chicken

  • Use one cutting board exclusively for prepping chicken and another for prepping other ingredients. If you've cut chicken first, wash the knife thoroughly in hot soapy water before using it to prep other ingredients.
  • Place the marinade and chicken in a closed, non-reactive container (glass or ceramic dishes, and large resealable plastic bags). Don't use aluminum containers; they can create gross metallic flavors.
  • Marinate chicken in the refrigerator.
  • To use leftover marinade as a sauce, bring it to a simmer in a saucepan and cook it, at a boil, for at least three minutes. This will kill any bacteria that has built up.
  • The safe minimum internal temperature for cooked chicken is 165 degrees F (75 degrees C).

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