How Long to Marinate Chicken for Ideal Flavor

Chicken is one of the most versatile of all meats that you will ever cook with. It has a natural flavor which makes it tasty and is enhanced with any additional characters you choose to add. The most used method is using a rub or a marinade. If you are still a novice to marinating, chicken is the best meat to try your hand. With its flavor, smooth surface, texture, and tenderness it is easier to work. No matter how tasty the chicken is on its own a flavorful rub or a marinade can do wonders and elevate the taste to turn it into something out of a professional kitchen. All you got to do is know how long to marinate the chicken and let the marinade do the rest.

All about marinades

For a lot us the marinate brings to mind a liquid that is used to make the meat tender and flavorful before you cook or grill it. Well, it is not just a flavored liquid, but anything you rub on or inject into the meat is a marinade. Yes, brine is a marinade too. Every marinade has three essential ingredients salt, something acidic and flavor enhancers. The salt and sugar help tenderize the meat. Salt due to its structure can penetrate the meat and thus tenderizes it. Sugar helps in caramelizing and giving a great color to the outer skin. The acidic element in your marinate could be anything from vinegar, fruit juice, yogurt to buttermilk. These elements break down the proteins on the outer layer. Thus preparing them well for seasoning and cooking. But some of these ingredients especially fruit based ones have enzymes that break down the proteins pretty fast. So go a little easy on the acidic element and keep it proportionally lower than the rest of your ingredients. When making a marinade for a chicken, the choice you have for selecting the flavor profile of marinade are endless. Chicken works exceptionally well with most of them. Right from garlic, cumin, thyme, bay leaves, cloves, the list goes on. Oil is also used as it helps in blending all the ingredients and to helps them stick to the meat. There are a lot of recipes and flavor combinations you can try. Marinating is perfect for chicken; it is a thin cut and has just the right texture for the marinade to lend its flavor.

How long should chicken marinate

We tend to believe that the longer you marinate the meat, the more flavor will be induced. This is a myth as no marinade will ever penetrate the skin. While you can go big on characters with a marinade, it will never reach the center of the meat. At best it will penetrate about 1/4 to 1/8 of an inch only. The role of the marinade is to impart flavor and be the first thing that gets cooked when the meat touches the heat. The characters from the marinade develop when in contact with heat, and it imparts a caramelized crust. So while it is safe to let the chicken marinate in the fridge for two days as per USDA, doesn’t mean that you should make it. With tender meat like chicken you always run the risk of marinating the chicken too long. When figuring out how long can you marinate chicken do not ever think of your marinade as something to tenderize the meat. Just let it do the job of enhancing the flavor. While we go on discussing how long should you marinate chicken it is critical to know the following safety tips.

  1. Always marinate in a refrigerator. It keeps the meat out of the danger zone of 40°F to 140°F, the temperature at which bacteria tend to develop. Marinating at room temperature will only let the bacteria grow and spread contaminating your chicken.
  2. Use a non-reactive container for your marinade. Stay away from metal containers, though stainless steel should be okay. The acidity in the marinade may react with metals like aluminum, cast iron or copper and spoil the flavor. A glass container or food grade plastic containers work well. I prefer using leak-proof zip-lock bags.

  1. You can store left-over marinade in the fridge for use during cooking. Make sure that any marinade that has come in contact with the raw chicken has to be thrown away. If you want to keep it at all, you will need to boil it to ensure that there is no bacteria contamination.

You are now coming to how long to marinate chicken. A chicken depending on the cut or whole can marinate for 30 minutes to a few hours. The reduction of the meat always impacts the time needed to marinate it. If you are wondering if you could over marinate the chicken, then the answer is yes. It takes way less time to marinate than tougher cuts and can even work with 20 minutes of marinating. Here’s a handy guide for you to refer.

  1. Whole chicken – 4 hours up to a maximum of  12 hours
  2. Wings (skin-on) – 2 hours
  3. Legs (skin-on) – 2 hours
  4. Breasts (skin-on) – 2 hours
  5. Thighs (bone-in) – 1-2 hours
  6. Breasts (skinless, boneless) – 30 minute up to a maximum of 2 hours

You will see a lot of cooks recommended a longer marinating time. I don’t believe it will make much difference. You can always change the ratio of ingredients to get the desired flavor rather than keeping chicken marinating for too long. It can lead to a texture that is too mushy to enjoy.

A few quick tips to bring out the best flavor in the marinated chicken

  1. Instead of piercing the chicken, pound it a little. It will distribute the flavor and cook evenly.
  2. Keep turning the chicken in the marinade within the container or the ziplock bag.
  3. Keep the quantity of oil in the marinade low.
  4. The best marinade recipe that works every time for me is a mixture of dry rub (using fresh herbs and crushed spices) in yogurt.