If you’re looking for a surefire antidote to chicken boredom—and we’ve all been there—dunk that bird in a marinade for a flavor wake-up everyone at the table will appreciate. And if you find yourself hesitating, we’ve got all the details on how long to marinate chicken!
A marinade can be as simple (hello, store-bought friend in a bottle!) or as complex and homemade as you want it to be. Regardless of what you use, you’re nearly always guaranteed to enjoy a flavor payoff.
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What Makes a Marinade?
Typically, marinades are made up of three components: A fat or oil like canola, avocado or olive oil; an acid—think vinegar, wine, yogurt, buttermilk, wine or citrus juices; and seasonings—your go-to spices and herbs, plus other goodies like garlic and onion.
The oil in a marinade is a great conduit for flavor, as it keeps the chicken from drying out and can help neutralize or buffer the effects of the acid, which breaks down the proteins in the meat and tenderizes the chicken.
And when it comes to seasonings, there’s technically no limit—just keep in mind that using your entire spice rack might overwhelm the end result. Instead, be thoughtful with your selections. Try smoked paprika, thyme, freshly ground black pepper and smashed garlic cloves for chicken with full-bodied—not muddled—flavor.
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And we didn’t forget the salt—an undeniably important ingredient in a good marinade. Here’s the thing, though: Letting your chicken hang out for hours in a salty marinade can ultimately draw the moisture out of the chicken. So, if you’re marinating chicken for longer than an hour, add the salt or salty component (like soy sauce) right before cooking the meat.
OK, So How Long Should I Let Chicken Marinate?
The length of marinating time for chicken can vary, depending on the cut and the type of marinade you’re using, but there’s one cardinal rule of marinating that stands regardless of those factors: Don’t exceed 24 hours! And in most cases, you won’t need to marinate chicken for nearly that long. Exceeding a full day of marinating time can lead to a mushy, stringy chicken dish in the end, especially if the marinade includes citrus. Who wants that? Not us.
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Leaner cuts of chicken, like boneless, skinless chicken breasts need as little as 30 minutes to infuse with flavor, while dark meat chicken can go longer
Mark Jenner, grilling expert and founder of Food Fire Friends, recommends these marinating times for optimal results:
- Whole chicken: Minimum 4 to 12 hours
- Boneless, skinless chicken breasts: 30 minutes to 2 hours
- Boneless, skinless chicken thighs: 1 to 6 hours
- Skin-on, bone-in chicken breasts: 1 to 2 hours
- Chicken quarters, bone-in thighs and wings: 1 to 6 hours
Any Safety Considerations for Marinades?
Any time you work with raw meat, there are safety considerations to keep in mind. To marinate whole chicken or chicken parts safely, the USDA suggests completely immersing the chicken in the marinade in a food-safe plastic bag (three cheers for easy cleanup!) or a glass or plastic container. Metal containers are safe to use but can have a reactive quality that may interfere with the flavor of the chicken, depending on the ingredients in the marinade.
Poultry can technically safely be stored in a marinade, sealed or covered and refrigerated, for as long as two days; but after that long you’ll see diminishing returns in texture and flavor, as mentioned above. Bottom line: There’s never a compelling reason to marinate chicken for longer than a day.
Can I Re-use Marinade?
Actually, yes! Hold up. Don’t cringe. Here’s the catch:
In most cases, recipes will specify to discard used marinade. And while you should feel free to toss it if you like, the USDA confirms that you can boil the remaining mixture for five minutes to destroy any lingering bacteria. Boiling the marinade effectively reduces it and creates a glaze that can be brushed onto the chicken during the last few minutes of cooking for an extra hit of flavor.