This easy chicken marinade recipe uses a mix of pantry staples and fresh ingredients. All you need is 30 minutes to enhance the meat’s flavor.
Table of Contents
- The role of fat
- Salt changes the protein’s structure
- Don’t forget the aromatics
- Sweeteners have multiple benefits
- Be careful with acidic ingredients
- Can I add alcohol?
- How much marinade to use
- Marination time
- To customize the marinade
- Need a side dish?
- Frequently asked questions
- Balance the acid in the marinade
- Chicken Marinade Recipe
It’s no secret that chicken often becomes dry and overcooked, especially when grilling, due to the high direct heat. And alone, it can also taste bland and uninteresting. A simple chicken marinade not only infuses more flavor but can also make the meat more tender and juicy. A win, win!
This chicken marinade is versatile and goes well with lean breasts, legs, thighs, half pieces, and wings. When building an effective marinade, I add ingredients in each of these categories; oil, salt, aromatics, sweetener, and acid to ensure that the chicken is brined for a savory taste with juicy, tender bites. I use olive oil, kosher salt, soy sauce, garlic, chopped parsley, honey, and lemon juice for this version, but it’s very customizable.
The role of fat
Oil dissolves fat-soluble flavor compounds in the lemon zest, mustard, and capsaicin in black pepper to evenly disperse on the surface. You can use a neutral-tasting oil like olive oil or avocado oil, which has high smoke points for cooking.
For a bolder, fruity taste, use extra-virgin oil—this type of oil pairs well with Greek or Mediterranean cuisine.
Salt changes the protein’s structure
Salt, or sodium chloride, acts as a brine and loosens the protein structure of the meat, helping the chicken hold more salted water. The looser muscle fibers also make it easier to chew. The result is a juicier protein that is well-seasoned.
I also add fermented soy sauce as it’s high in glutamates, which enhance the savory, umami flavor. Alternatively, you can swap in Worcestershire sauce which has a unique mixture of vinegar, molasses, anchovies, garlic, tamarind extract, and seasonings to boost the taste.
Don’t forget the aromatics
A good marinade also includes aromatics to give a well-rounded taste and aroma that further intensifies when cooked. Minced garlic imparts a sulfurous flavor compound called allicin with water and fat-soluble properties. It infuses into and coats the exterior of the chicken. When heated, the raw taste mellows out into caramelized flavor.
Minced shallots or onions are a good substitute or addition for a more robust pungency. Chopped herbs like parsley leaves add a nice fresh note to the marinade flavor. Chives, cilantro, basil, and tarragon are other great options.
Sweeteners have multiple benefits
The marinade flavor is not meant to be overly sweet, but a little bit of honey encourages browning through the Maillard reaction and caramelization during the cooking process. The result is better color and flavor development.
The sugar also balances the acids in the lemon juice. Pure maple syrup, granulated sugar, or brown sugar a good swaps. This step is optional if looking to make a sugar-free marinade.
Be careful with acidic ingredients
The citric acid in the lemon juice brightens the flavor of the savory mixture. The acid weakens the surface proteins of the poultry, tenderizing the meat in a short time. However, do not let the acid soak with the chicken for over an hour, or it will cause the proteins to become mushy.
I also add lemon zest to incorporate citrus oils into the mixture and strengthen the aroma. Lime juice is a good substitute. If you want a more spicy, fermented taste, add vinegar like apple cider, red wine, rice, or balsamic vinegar instead of citrus juice.
Can I add alcohol?
Alcohol is an option to intensify the flavors. The ethanol acts as a solvent to quickly move the flavoring agents to the meat’s interior. An excellent example of how I apply this is in my tequila lime chicken recipe. However, the amount and time are essential. Too much for too long can dry out the meat.
The taste of the alcohol, whether it be a spirit like rum or tequila, or white or red wine, will impart their unique fermented flavor to the meat.
How much marinade to use
For every pound of chicken, you will need ½ cup (120ml) of marinade which is just enough to coat the outside of the meat. If the chicken is added to a baking dish, flip it over every 15 minutes for even soaking. I prefer to use a plastic bag to take out the air for better contact and coating with less of a mess when flipping. It’s straightforward to scale this recipe up or down. Here’s a good rule of thumb: 1 pound chicken = ½ cup (120ml) marinade
Boneless skinless chicken breasts are my top choice for quickly adding flavor using a marinade. The lean white meat and neutral taste dramatically benefit from the saucy soak. If you prefer dark meat, chicken thighs, drumsticks, and wings work well. Bone-in or skin-on pieces of chicken can be used. Remember that the fatty skin will absorb more of the flavor than the meat.
For this chicken marinade recipe which contains lemon juice (an acid), marinate for at least 30 minutes, but no longer than 1 hour. Too much acid makes the surface mushy and dry. It can also turn the chicken white and give it a cooked appearance.
Cooking the protein with acid is something you want in ceviche, but not chicken. Another alternative is to marinate for 24 hours max without adding the lemon juice until the last 30 to 60 minutes of marination before cooking. This process can prevent the undesirable texture development mentioned above.
To customize the marinade
Switch up the flavor with different sauces. Choose from herb-based mixes, sweet and savory, soy, spiced Thai curry, or peppery fajita.
Need a side dish?
- Fluffy mashed potatoes or potato salad
- Steamed broccoli or broccoli salad
- Grilled asparagus
- Elotes or street corn salad
- Pico de gallo or mango salsa
Frequently asked questions
Due to the acid from the lemon juice in the marinade, soak for at least 30 minutes and up to 60 minutes. Add the acid in the last hour or marination if you want to meal prep and sit overnight.
Yes! It’s safest to always marinate raw chicken in the refrigerator, even for a brief time. The salmonella bacteria can rapidly multiply if left on the counter in the temperature danger zone between 40 to 140ºF (4.4 to 60ºC).
A baking dish, a resealable plastic container, or a large resealable plastic bag. I prefer a plastic bag as it’s earlier to flip over and store.
Balance the acid in the marinade
Acids like vinegar, lemon juice, and buttermilk are commonly used in marinades. Note that too much can cause the marinade to be overly acidic, reducing the chicken’s natural pH. The muscle proteins, over time, will pack together, squeezing out the moisture. To prevent this, use a small amount of the acidic ingredient, no more than 25% of the marinade recipe. Also, marinate for a shorter period, 30 to 60 minutes.
- ⅓ cup olive oil
- 3 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest
- 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast, about 4 pieces
- 1 lemon, cut into wedges
- Prepare the Marinade – In a medium bowl, vigorously whisk together olive oil, water, lemon juice, mustard, soy sauce, honey, salt, garlic, parsley, black pepper, and lemon zest.
- Marinate the Chicken – Add the chicken to a baking dish or large resealable plastic bag. Pour marinade over, cover, and refrigerate. Press out the excess air if using a plastic bag. Marinate for a minimum of 30 minutes and up to 60 minutes—flip over every 15 minutes.
- Dry the Chicken – Remove the chicken from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels to remove excess moisture from the surface. Discard marinade.
- Cook the Chicken – Use the desired cooking method, such as grill, pan sear, or bake, and cook to an internal temperature of 160 to 165ºF (71 to 74ºC).Grill: Preheat the grill to medium-high heat, about 400 to 450ºF (204 to 232ºC). Clean and grease the grates with oil. Keep one burner off for indirect cooking. Place the chicken on the direct heat side and close the lid. Cook each side until char marks form, about 5 to 8 minutes, depending on the thickness. If browning quickly, move the chicken to the indirect heat side to complete cooking.Pan Sear: Set a large cast iron or stainless steel pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add one tablespoon of oil, then add the chicken and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Turn the heat to medium and flip. Cook for about 4 to 6 minutes.Bake: Preheat the oven to 425ºF (218ºC). Add the chicken to a greased foil-lined sheet pan or baking dish. Bake until fully cooked, about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the thickness.
- To Serve – Transfer to a cutting board or clean serving platter. Tent with foil for 10 minutes before slicing or serving. Serve with lemon wedges.
- Recipe Yield: 1 cup of marinade which is good for up to 2 pounds of chicken.
- Chicken Selection: Use breasts, thighs, quarters, wings, legs, and bone-in pieces.
- Marinating Ahead of Time: Chicken can be marinated for up to 24 hours, but wait to add the lemon juice (acid) until the last 30 to 60 minutes.
- Make it Paleo: Use pure maple syrup instead of honey.
- Make it Gluten-Free: Use gluten-free tamari or coconut aminos instead of soy sauce.
- Make it Keto: Use coconut aminos instead of soy sauce. Omit honey or use erythritol.
Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet. All nutritional information is based on estimated third-party calculations. Each recipe and nutritional value will vary depending on the brands you use, measuring methods, and portion sizes per household.
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