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How Long Should You Marinate Chicken for the Best Results?

There's nothing worse than a dried-out bird.

It's no secret that marinating chicken can completely transform its flavor. So how long should chicken marinate before you decide to cook it? It depends on the dish you're preparing, but there are still some rules to keep in mind.

When chicken is soaked into the perfect blend of oils, acids, and spices, it adds more zest and makes the meat tender and juicy. After all, who doesn't love a delicious chicken tikka masala or chicken curry dish?

Marinades are particularly important for grilling chicken because the high heat on the grills can dry it out. We asked Jason Hall, Executive Chef at Egghead in New York City; Chris Coombs, chef and owner at Boston Urban Hospitality; and Bogdan (Dan) Danila, Executive Chef of Queensyard in New York City, for their insight on how long you should marinate chicken for the best results. Start serving tender, mouth-watering chicken with these expert tips on how to marinate poultry like a professional.

How long should you marinate chicken?

Generally speaking, you shouldn't marinate chicken for more than a day. However, the length of time that your chicken should marinate is relative to each dish. "I think the marinade should always be time appropriate, or you may denature proteins and have a negative effect on texture," says Coombs.

Danila suggests that when preparing chicken, the best practice is to air dry it by hanging it in the fridge for five to six days prior to use. He also brines the chicken for at least six hours with 10% lemon juice, which helps the marinade and spices to penetrate the meat. At Queensyard, he uses a curry and seaweed stuffing to stuff the breast and provide additional flavor for the skin. He then lightly coats the chicken with a whipped, salted truffle butter. The whipping helps prevent splitting when the chicken cooks in the oven.

You might automatically think that the most flavorful marinades are the ones that sit longer on the meat, but that's not always the case. "These days, I do strong, concentrated marinades 15-30 minutes before cooking at room temperature in a metal bowl. It allows for more even cooking when your protein isn't ice cold when you begin cooking it," Coombs adds.

For a less concentrated marinade, even an hour will do the trick. "When preparing chicken, I usually let it marinate for about one hour prior to cooking. But, if you are using a thicker, more intense marinade, you could do it for a shorter time," Hall explains.

Is the marinade timeframe different for different cuts of meat?

If you're cooking dark meat, you might want to marinate it for a longer time, Hall explains.

"When marinating, the general rule is that dark leg meat takes longer than breast meat," he says. "When preparing, I like to use a simple 'vinaigrette-style' on the breast—for example, EVOO, lemon juice, herbs and/or spices, and a thicker 'BBQ Sauce' style marinade on the leg and thigh."

How do the marinade's ingredients factor in?

Coombs says it most definitely depends on the ingredients you are marinating with. "The specific concentration of salt, acidity, and spices is always a factor," he explains. But even though it is a factor, the product is more important than the marinade.

"A good marinade should contain bay leaf, thyme, parsley, and leeks," Danila suggests. "For fried chicken, a marinade [should contain] buttermilk, cilantro, lime, lemon, salt and pepper, parsley, garlic powder, and onion powder, immersing the chicken for 24 hours."

A marinade's ingredients also factor into what will happen if you leave the chicken marinating for too long. "Anything acidic could essentially cook the meat and break down the proteins within the meat," advises Danila. "This makes it mushy-tasting, and it would ruin the meat before you make it!"

Should you marinate the chicken in a plastic bag?

Many self-proclaimed chefs at home use the plastic bag method for marinating. It seems simple and easy, but it can also do a disfavor to your dish. "If you are going to marinade for a long time in a bag, it should be more diluted, like a salad dressing—for example, an Italian dressing with a higher oil concentration and less salt," says Coombs. "For me, I think it is a waste of time because I like the flavor of chicken itself and would only want to accent it, not take it over." The main benefit of preparing chicken in a bag is that you preserve the overall moisture of the chicken.

Easy, healthy, 350-calorie recipe ideas you can make at home.

Should you cut the chicken into pieces before marinating it?

Danila recommends that when you're cooking fried chicken, you should cut it before you marinate it. But for a whole roast or chicken breast, leave it whole. He suggests preparing the chicken "on the crown" (with the main bone still in), which will provide the most optimal flavor results.

Is boneless chicken easier to marinate?

"Yes, it takes a shorter amount of time to marinate because it doesn't need to affect the bone," says Danila. "This takes maybe a few hours. However, when you cook the chicken this way, it might not have the same flavor composition, because you're losing the bone, which harnesses and repurposes flavors throughout the meat." Looking for more flavor? Leave the meat on the bone.

Now that you know how to prepare your chicken and what to marinate it with, you'll be able to try out a new recipe stress-free without ruining the taste!

Lindsay Paige Stein
Lindsay Stein is a freelance writer specializing in food and travel stories. Read more about Lindsay Paige
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