Chicken Marinade

4.98 from 114 votes
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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.

Grilled chicken breasts served on a plate with lemon.

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.

Bowl of chicken marinade being whisked.

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.

Marinating chicken breasts in a baking dish.

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.

Marinating chicken inside a ziploc bag.

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.

Marination time

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?

Frequently asked questions

How long can you marinate chicken?

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.

Do you marinate chicken in the fridge?

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).

What should I marinate chicken in?

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.

Flavorful chicken breasts sliced apart on a platter.

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.

Chicken Marinade

Easy chicken marinade that uses a combination of olive oil, lemon juice, mustard, parsley, and garlic to make each bite burst with flavor.
4.98 from 114 votes
Prep Time30 minutes
Cook Time15 minutes
Total Time45 minutes
Servings 4 servings
Course Condiment
Cuisine American

Ingredients 
 

  • 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

Instructions 

  • 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.

Notes

  • 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. 

Nutrition Facts

Serves: 4 servings
Calories 230kcal (12%)Carbohydrates 5g (2%)Fat 5g (8%)Sodium 481mg (20%)Potassium 37mg (1%)Fiber 1g (4%)Sugar 3g (3%)Vitamin C 17.8mg (22%)Calcium 7mg (1%)Iron 0.3mg (2%)

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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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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49 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Kate Melville says

    This seemed like a lot of salt, but I read a review form someone who cut it down and then said they should have used it all. I strongly disagree. The salt is way too much. I will definitely try it again but with half the salt.

  2. Valerie C. says

    We used this recipe tonight to marinate pork loin chops and it was really good. We did reduce the amount of salt (2 tsp as opposed to the 1T called for) and it still turned out beautifully. Next time I probably will use the full amount to give better flavor. As always, thanks for the wonderful recipe Jessica!

  3. Christine says

    I grilled chicken thighs marinated with this receipe and my husband loved this. Easy to prepare and the touch of soy sauce made a big differnce. You can marinate the chicken while you’re getting the rest of the dinner ready. Thank you!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      You’re welcome, Christine! Yes, the soy sauce is a game changer in the marinade but doesn’t over power the flavor.

  4. June Gallo says

    I would love to get the grill marks on the chicken as shown in your recipe. I do not own a barbecue grill. Is there a specific grill pan you would recommend for grilling on stovetop and how do you get those deep grill marks.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I have a le Creuset grill pan made of cast iron that I love. The trick is to pre-heat the pan to make sure it’s very hot, then carefully grease it to prevent sticking and help char the meat. Make sure to lightly press the meat down after you add it for direct contact with the grates, and don’t move it! Reduce the heat once you flip the chicken so that it can gently finish cooking.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thanks, John! I agree that marinating flavors a few millimeters of the surface, which is why you only need a brief amount of time. But as mentioned in the recipe, a good amount of salt helps to act as a brine to make the interior of the chicken more juicy and flavorful. If I have time, I marinate. Using the right combination of ingredients adds a dimension of flavor and more aromatics than just plain salt and pepper seasoned piece of meat. Just my opinion 🙂

  5. Erin says

    Wow this was super tasty! This marinade was a perfect combination of flavours that even our pickiest eaters loved – thanks for sharing this amazing recipe Jessica.

  6. Devorah says

    Amazing recipe! I’ve been making this on a regular basis and it comes out perfectly every time! The first time I tried it, my husband was skeptical because he’s had too much overcooked, dry chicken breast, but he was quickly won over and is a huge fan. I do make a couple of changes: since I use table salt and kosher chicken, which inherently has a lot of salt, I reduce the salt to a scant teaspoon. I also bake the chicken as directed but in a pan with the marinade included, instead of discarding it. We then use the cooked marinade as an accompanying sauce for rice or quinoa. Also good for company and toddlers!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thank you for sharing your tasting chicken recipe modifications! What temperature do you bake the chicken at? Sounds delicious with the sauce!

  7. Danny says

    This is by far the best marinade I’ve ever made, and in fact, it has become a classic in our household. I’ve used it in baking and grilling, and it comes out fantastic every time.

  8. Christina P. says

    This is hands down my favorite chicken marinade recipe. I have made this probably 20 times now, we have it every other week. It’s the perfect marinade that keeps your chicken super flavorful and juicy! My toddler LOVES it. Anytime I make this chicken she eats every piece and asks for more. We LOVE it!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I so happy to hear that your family it enjoying the chicken marinade! I know how hard it is to get toddlers to eat, great job mom!

  9. Maria Terry says

    Made this last night. I had all the ingredients on hand, they’re all staples in my kitchen. So many wonderful flavors. While eating dinner I decided I could reduce the salt and use it as a salad dressing. Keep those hits coming!

  10. Shannon says

    Made this tonight with boneless, skinless chicken thighs on the grill! chicken was organic so a little bit smaller, 4 mins on each side and maybe 5 to 8 mins more indirect cooking.
    First time grilling without hubby and he came to an intact house and yard 😛 Oh, and chicken has his stamp of approval!

  11. Dana says

    So awesome! Entire family loved it! FYI, I did not have Dijon, so I substituted with Stone Ground Mustard, it gave it a nice texture and flavor. I also ran out of soy sauce so I used coconut amino. It came out fantastic. Thank you for posting the recipe. It’s a keeper for sure!

  12. Mary Jo Campana says

    I baked the chicken and served it with saffron rice…delish! This will definitely be my go to marinade recipe.

  13. Ann says

    I don’t consider myself to be much of a cook, but I made this for my (grown) kids this evening, and it turned out perfectly. I used low sodium soy sauce but all of the recommended kosher salt, and wiped the chicken before cooking. Cooking to 160 and then observing the resting time meant that the chicken was perfectly cooked. I will make this again!

  14. Mondo says

    I tried this today and boy was that some good chicken! The chicken came out juicy and flavorful. I doubled the recipe for 3 large bone in breasts. Marinaded for 1 hour and turning every 15 minutes as stated. I also didn’t pat dry the chicken before putting it on the grill. Amazing taste! This will be our go to marinade, thanks so much Jessica!

  15. Jan Thompson says

    I tried this tonight and it was delicious! Marinated for one hour and it was amazingly moist and tender. It was a bit salty though, so I will adjust the salt to perhaps half or else double the soy sauce instead. What would you recommend? I was looking for a marinade to try out for a dinner party with friends this weekend and I’m happy I found it!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thank you for your feedback Jan! Did you pat dry the chicken before it was cooked to remove the marinade? You can reduce the salt if you’d like to 1-2 teaspoons to reduce the saltiness. I’m so happy that you found my recipe as well!

      • Jan Thompson says

        No, I did not pat dry, but I think I will reduce the salt amount, because I like the flavor that the soy sauce (combined with all the other ingredients) provides!

  16. Chris says

    I made this tonight and it was delicious. I didn’t feel like messing with the charcoal and I don’t own a gas grill so I did the saute method. Very good and very easy.
    Thanks.

  17. mike says

    I just made this tonight and it turned out great. I added some ginger powder for a little pop. Thanks for the recipe!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thanks for your feedback Helen. It’s sort of a brine/marinade, so the salt is higher than traditional recipes. However, it certainly can be reduced to your desired level. Did you happen to dry the surface of the marinated meat before cooking? That could help reduce some of the salt flavor.

  18. Alison says

    I’ve been using this marinade constantly this summer! Makes perfect chicken to throw on top of all your salad recipes. Yum!

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Dennis- I think I would still marinade the bulk chicken for 30 minutes, pat dry and then transfer to the bag that you are planning to sous vide in. Then cook according to your recipe. Let me know how it turns out!

    • Stephanie says

      Would this marinade be good to boil for 30 seconds to 1 minute and serve over the cooked chicken?

  19. Janet says

    I usually have low sodium soy sauce on hand, so would you adjust the salt in this marinade recipe? Thank you for all the wonderful information you provide.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Janet- Low sodium soy sauce has about 37% less sodium. You can add 4 teaspoons of soy sauce total to get closer to the salt amount, or leave as is since there is already additional salt in the marinade. Let me know how it turns out!