How to Marinate Chicken

Whether you're looking for a dry rub or a wet marinade, we'll show you how to marinate chicken for flavorful results. Plus, learn how to broil and grill chicken breast to perfection.

Marinades, typically a mixture of an oil, an acid and seasonings, create tastier, juicier and more tender chicken. How's that? Oils help the meat retain its moisture while cooking, resulting in a juicier finished product. Acids, whether you're using fruit juice or vinegar, help break down the dense protein, tenderizing the meat. Seasonings, as with any food, boost flavor.

When you opt for a homemade marinade or rub instead of store-bought versions, you're in charge of the ingredients. You can skip the preservatives, colorings and additives, keep sodium and sugar in check, and choose olive oil (high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats) over the less healthy oils used in many commercial marinades.

Do You Need to Wash Chicken before Marinating?

No, you shouldn't wash chicken. Washing raw chicken doesn't clean it, but it can actually spread germs in your kitchen. Raw chicken can have bacteria on its surface, including Salmonella, which can transfer into your sink, on your dishes or even onto nearby food. Just use paper towels to blot the chicken instead. You should always wash your hands after handling raw chicken. And don't forget to properly wash and disinfect your cutting board, sink and sponge. Keeping your kitchen clean and sanitized will help you avoid foodborne illnesses in the long run.

How Long Should You Marinate Chicken?

"That depends on the marinade and what kind of chicken," says Breana Lai Killeen, M.P.H., RD. Acidic marinades, like vinegar and citrus marinades, tenderize quicker than creamy mayo or buttermilk-based marinades.

As a rule of thumb, she recommends following this guideline for acidic marinades:

Boneless chicken pieces: at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours

Whole bone-in chicken breasts, drumsticks, wings or thighs: at least one hour and up to 12 hours

Too long in an acidic marinade can produce mushy meat. If using a creamy marinade, like one with buttermilk, you can increase the marinating time up to 8 hours for boneless and up to 24 hours for bone-in chicken.

If you're ready to make dinner and forgot to marinade your chicken in advance (it happens to the best of us) Killeen has an expert hack that she calls a "reverse marinade." You cook your chicken first and then slice it and toss it with the marinade after it's cooked for 5 minutes. You'll infuse lots of flavor, without a lot of time.

Two Types of Chicken Marinades

A basic chicken marinade comes in one of two forms: dry or wet. Each can be delicious, but they're suited for different types of cooking.

How to Make Dry Rubs for Chicken Breast

Paprika-Herb Rubbed Chicken

Pictured Recipe: Paprika-Herb Rubbed Chicken

A dry rub is a mixture of herbs and spices but contains no liquid. Once sprinkled onto chicken, a dry rub forms a crust. This helps enhance the chicken's flavor and seals in moisture.

To make a dry rub for chicken, use a one-to-one ratio of spices plus one-half part salt. Try a combination of any of these dry seasonings:

  • cayenne
  • white pepper
  • red pepper
  • chile flakes
  • dry mustard
  • garlic powder
  • onion powder
  • coriander
  • cumin
  • dried citrus zest
  • brown sugar
  • paprika
  • sage
  • thyme
  • rosemary
  • basil

There's no wrong or right combination in a dry rub for chicken. Use the ingredients you prefer, and keep experimenting to find the just-right flavor you like.

Try These: Healthy Dry Rub Recipes

How to Make Wet Rubs or Marinades for Chicken Breast

Balsamic-Dijon Chicken

Pictured Recipe: Balsamic-Dijon Chicken

A wet rub, or marinade, combines herbs and spices with a liquid. The liquid is essential for adding moisture and tenderizing chicken. It can also provide a lot of flavor.

To make a marinade for chicken, combine your preferred spices and herbs in a one-to-one ratio, plus one-half part salt. Then, add enough liquid to cover the herbs and spices. You can use one liquid, or mix and match in a one-to-one ratio. Try some of these:

  • vinegar
  • soy sauce or tamari
  • beer
  • wine
  • bourbon
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • oil
  • fruit juice
  • honey
  • molasses
  • mustard

If using more than one liquid, whisk them together first. Then mix your dry ingredients together and add 2 tablespoons of the liquid. Stir to combine. Add another tablespoon of the liquid or more until you have the consistency you want.

Some people prefer their wet rubs to be more like a paste. For pastes, rub them onto the surface of the meat, and let it marinate for at least 30 minutes. Better yet, wrap the meat tightly in plastic, and refrigerate for 30 minutes to 12 hours.

If you want a thinner marinade, add up to 1/4 cup more liquid until you reach the consistency you're looking for.

Try These: Healthy Marinade Recipes

How to Marinate Chicken Breast

Boneless, skinless chicken breast is a quick weeknight dinner staple. For four servings, one pound will be sufficient. Choose a rub or marinade of your choice.

chimichurri chicken

Pictured Recipe: Chimichurri Chicken

For marinated chicken: Place chicken in a shallow dish or 1-gallon zip-top bag. Add your homemade marinade, and refrigerate for at least one hour or up to 12 hours. (The longer it marinates, the more intense the flavor will be. See above for our marinating time recommendations.) Remove the meat from the marinade, and pat dry before grilling or broiling.

For dry-rubbed chicken: Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Dry the surface of the chicken well, then coat the chicken with the dry rub. For the best flavor, massage the spice rub into the chicken. Let the chicken rest for up to 30 minutes before grilling or broiling.

How to Grill or Broil Chicken Breast

Grilled Lemon-Herb Chicken

Pictured Recipe: Grilled Lemon-Herb Chicken

For grilled chicken breast: Preheat a grill to medium-high. Oil the grill grates (see Tip). Grill the chicken, turning once, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 165°F, 4 to 8 minutes per side.

For broiled chicken breast: Position a rack in the upper third of the oven; preheat the broiler. Line a broiler pan (or baking sheet) with foil and coat with cooking spray. Place the chicken on the foil. Broil, watching carefully and turning at least once, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part registers 165°F, 10 to 15 minutes total.

Tip: Oiling the grill grates before grilling helps ensure that food won't stick. Oil a folded paper towel, hold it with tongs and rub it over the grates. (Do not use cooking spray on a hot grill.)

Try These: Healthy BBQ & Grilled Chicken Breast Recipes

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