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 marinades, plus tons of recipes -- with exciting flavor combinations you'll love.
Quick Tips for How to Marinate Chicken
The formula for a great marinade is simple: An acid ingredient (i.e., vinegars or lemon and lime juices) combines with a fat ingredient (like vegetable, nut, or chile oils) plus additional seasonings, including spices and 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 the acid ingredient or in combination with them. 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."
For best results, give your marinade a quick whirl in a blender to emulsify the acids and fats into a smooth, luscious solution -- or make it a quick workout, and shake 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, denaturing proteins and messing up the texture of the meat. 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.
Bonus tip: 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.
Tips for How to Safely Marinate 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 3 minutes. This will kill any bacteria that's built up.
12 Amazing Chicken Marinades
There are so many tasty ways to marinade chicken, here are some of our top-rated favorites.
Jennifer says, this olive oil and red wine vinegar chicken marinade is "simply the best chicken marinade for grilling -- or any occasion. It works wonderfully on top of a salad."
Believe it. This apple-cider vinegar and olive oil chicken marinade makes the most of cider vinegar, mustard, garlic, lime juice, lemon juice, and brown sugar. "This unusual combination of common ingredients is fabulous," says LETSGGGO.
Red wine vinegar and lemon juice add tang while tenderizing the chicken. Vegetable oil is the featured fat here, and soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, mustard powder, and parsley provide additional flavorings. Bev raves, "I loved this marinade. I used boneless chicken breasts and marinated them for about 4 hours. The flavor was excellent and the chicken was very moist and delicious."
This honey chicken marinade is always a sweet success. You'll cube the chicken and combine it with vegetable oil, honey, soy sauce, and pepper. So simple. After a quick soak, string up your kabobs and toss them on the grill or make them in the broiler. "So simple, and sooo delicious," raves Elizabeth.
This garlic chicken marinade is "a nice alternative to bottle dressings for marinade," says Denyse. Garlic gets it done with Italian and poultry seasonings and vinegar tempered with vegetable oil. It's a terrific Mediterranean marinade for chicken.
Here's an Asian marinade for chicken thighs that's garlicky, sweet, and spicy. Asian chile pepper sauce, soy sauce, and rice vinegar combine with mayonnaise and maple syrup. Chef John describes the delicious results, "No one flavor dominates this beautifully balanced, all-purpose grilled chicken marinade. I call it 'rusty chicken' to celebrate the color of the marinade and meat."
This marinade brings the sweet heat, combining hot chile paste, ground ginger, and onion powder with sugar and soy sauce. "This sauce is from the very popular 'chicken bowls' in my hometown," says SASEIGEL. "It's very tasty! Use it as a marinade for chicken, or to baste chicken while grilling. Increase the hot chile paste as desired. Four tablespoons is usually as much as anyone can take!"
With this marinade, Chef John combines yogurt with lemon juice to create a tenderizing double-whammy. "There is something special about what yogurt does to chicken in its smoky, sizzling time over charcoal," says Chef John. "It grills to a caramelized dark brown without tasting burnt."
This delicious teriyaki marinade for chicken takes just 15 minutes to prep and about 30 minutes to marinate. You'll simmer a mixture of soy sauce, sake, mirin, brown sugar, green onions, ginger, and a touch of vegetable oil, just long enough to dissolve the brown sugar and meld flavors. Cook your marinated chicken thighs under the broiler until they're a gorgeous, shiny mahogany color.
Here's a marinade for grilled chicken fajitas. Lime juice and honey combine with vegetable oil and spices -- chili powder, garlic powder, paprika, and black pepper. Marinate srips of skinless chicken breast in a large resealable plastic bag before hitting the grill. Terri says, "It seriously doesn't get any easier than this! And, to top things off, I had all the items in my cupboard."
11. Key West Chicken
Here's a lime chicken marinade straight from the Florida Keys. "This recipe is the best chicken marinade," says TINA B. "And it only takes 30 minutes from prep till you can grill."
This one does it without a fat -- it's balsamic vinegar, minced onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, paprika, rosemary, parsley, chili powder, and oregano. If you want, sneak in a splash of olive oil. "This is a recipe I made up after eating LOADS of bland chicken breasts," says R.Upchurch. "Chicken is so easy to prepare and this recipe makes chicken breast meat extra-tender and juicy."