Let’s be honest for a moment: the main reason why people avoid preparing chicken meat on a cookout day is the bare difficulty of it. Chicken does not have the variety of doneness like steaks do, and that makes it hard to prepare, especially to fit everyone’s taste. Luckily, chicken meat, at its core, is neutral and allows us to experiment with the taste and juiciness through none other than marinades!
This way you get to be in charge of the whole taste situation, and if you master the skill of marinating, everyone around you will be grateful for the restaurant-grade chicken on their plates.
Now, the knowledge on the topic we acquired is vast, so stay put for all the important things you need to know regarding the marinating process. To understand the timing of it, you need to know why you marinate and how to decide which marinade requires more attention.
Why You Should Marinate Chicken Meat?
There are plenty of reasons, and different cooks will tell you different ones, however, marinating has 2 main purposes in cooking: seasoning and moisturizing! And as we all know it, chicken meat (especially breast) needs all the juiciness it can get. Marinating as a ritual was invented by sailors and sea merchants to prevent spoiling of the meat, and conserve it. Nowadays, we do not need that kind of hassle anymore, but we have developed a larger need for different flavors.
Another reason why chicken should be marinated is the efficiency of seasoning. You won’t get far by just sprinkling the seasons over the meat, you need to make a good transferring solution. And the way you do it will make the difference between a dry piece of chicken and a godly tasteful one.
So, in its core, the marinade is a mix of spices and herbs dissolved into some kind of base (also known as the carrier or marinade mass). The spices and seasoning herbs are there to affect the flavor of the chicken, and the base is there to help you spread it evenly and in the right quantity.
However, the base has another role, which we should address.
Types of chicken marinade bases
Even though you can dissolve your selected spices using practically any type of liquid (from oil to water), there are 3 major groups in the culinary world of today:
- Dairy-based marinades – One of the more popular choices in the western world are marinades that are made of spices and some sort of milk product. Yogurt and sour cream are the best representatives of this group, but you can also use cream cheese, milk and whey as a base, with the last one being popular among athletes due to its protein content. Dairy-based marinades will toughen the chicken meat a bit, and make it firmer and slightly chewier, which makes it a part of our next marinade type, kind of.
- Acidic marinades – Anything that is sour in its flavor core is considered an acidic marinade. The best representatives of this group are vinegar, wines, and fruit juices. Acidic solutions are known to toughen up the meat (more so than dairy-based ones) and should be used for extra soft parts, or if you like your chicken to be slightly tougher.
- Enzymatic marinades – if you are a fan of softer chicken meat, you should consider investing your time into learning how to make enzymatic marinades and sauces. Enzymes found in ginger, pineapples, cherries, and similar fruit are known for tearing apart muscle fibers of chicken meat. This type of marinade is especially useful if you have an older chicken or chicken meat that dried for a bit longer than intended.
Things to Look Out for When Marinating
The whole idea might seem simple, and it is to a degree, but there are some small tricks and tips that are rarely talked about. Because we value food safety over everything else, we would like to stress out the importance of the cookware you use to marinate your chicken.
Always, and we mean it always, use clean utensils, bowls, and cookware to soak the chicken in the tasteful liquid of choice. Poultry has a bad reputation when it comes to bacteria development, and sometimes the line between great flavor and food poisoning is not as strong as you might think. Knowing that bacteria thrives best on plastic surfaces, it would be best to use metal or ceramic as the material of choice. Additionally, if you must use plastic, make sure to get those plastic bags that are made specifically for marinating meat.
However, try to avoid using aluminum, because it can start to react chemically in acidic environments. It’s not that big of a deal if this happens, but it will change the color and final taste of the chicken, so it’s better not to risk it.
Speaking of risk, make sure to leave some empty space inside our fridge for the whole bowl or pot your chicken will be marinating in. Bacteria that live on and inside the chicken awake at room temperature, so you should definitely avoid marinating on the countertop or on the sink. This is allowed only for the quicker marinating recipes, which we will talk about a bit later.
Lastly, think in advance about the cooking itself. A lot of marinade on the chicken surface can prolong the cooking time by a lot, sometimes even double it. Moderation is, as always, the key. If you are new to this concept, start small. Use different doses on each piece of chicken you plan to prepare and find out which dosage fits your taste and cooking skills in the best possible way. Also, do not overestimate the amount of marinade you will be using, because every drop you do not use will end up in the trash can, or toilet. You might be tempted to keep or even freeze leftover marinade, but we strongly advise against it.
How Long Do You Need to Marinate Chicken Meat?
And finally, we have reached the main topic. How long to marinate, and what kind of factors to account for while doing it? Well, there is no short answer to this question, regardless of the fact that marinating is not that hard to execute. However, the secret to tasty chicken, besides properly grilling it, is not only in the making of the perfect marinade sauce. The true skill lies in the amount of time you will soak the meat in these flavorful juices. So, to get down to the core info of “how long should I keep the chicken in the marinade?” we must factor in the properties of the meat itself.
Skin and bone
Being that the marinade penetrates into the meat through the skin of the chicken, this is a huge factor. If you are not sure how to adapt the recipe, just remember that similar rules apply to cook time: the more skin and bone the chicken has, the longer you should marinate the chicken.
You can always go for the fastest solution and buy skinless meat, or simply remove the skin, but let’s face it, one of the main reasons we start grilling chicken in the firsts place is that tasty crunch that chicken skin provides. Some chicken restaurants raised their empires solely by making great chicken skin crust.
If you’d like to leave the skin as a part of the whole experience, you should add another 30 minutes to a whole hour to the marinating process, or sometimes even longer (depending on the recipe itself).
Same goes for bone, especially if you are cooking the whole bird. Bones make it harder for the marinade to penetrate evenly across the muscle tissue, thus making the need for longer marinating time. You can speed up the process by tearing and separating the chicken into parts, but that kind of defeats the purpose of preparing the chicken as a whole.
Mind the Acidity
As we mentioned above, acid can affect the structure of the meat by a large margin. This sounds harsh, but if utilized properly, it will give you a flavor level up! If you are preparing a whole bird, its best to go moderate, which is not the case if you want to marinate chicken parts.
Chicken breast is the driest part of the bird, and it is already chewy and tough, so it would be best to consider picking a less acidic, and more enzymatic marinade base. Do not overdo it though, because you will end up with a mushy pile of what used to be chicken breast.
If you are preparing wings, drumstick or thighs, going down the acidic road is a fair option. This meat is already soft and somewhat greasy, and it could use some toughening up. The rule applies here also: do not overdo it, or you will have unchewable chicken wings on your plate.
When we say “don’t overdo it” we are referring to the ingredients, not the timing. The chicken will stay in the marinade for some time, so there is no need to go all in and pour half a bottle of vinegar or add a whole pineapple. Easy does it.
Overnight or not?
This is the most common question when it comes to marinating any type of meat. In general, poultry is much softer than beef or pork, and there is no need to go on a week-long journey of preparing the perfect chicken. The maximum time your chicken meant can spend in soaking up the marinade juices is 48 hours, and the recipes that require this much time are rare and are usually for advanced and the most experienced cooks out there.
Marinating a whole chicken should take the longest time, at an average of 8 hours of refrigerated soaking. The base that handles the longest times are dairy-based, and going over 24 hours is unnecessary unless the recipe requires you to do it.
Even though “the longer the better” seems logical, the rule doesn’t apply. Of course, if you don’t have a lot of time to prepare on the cookout day, you can start marinating a day or two before, but this should not be practiced until you get the hang of the whole process.
Marinating times based on the part of the chicken
Factoring in everything we talked about in all the sections above, and the experience we gather over time, we can establish some rules about marinating:
- Boneless and skinless chicken breasts take the lest time to marinate, and the whole thing can be done in half an hour. So, the average marinating times are 30 to 120 minutes.
- Bone-in breast with the skin on takes more time due to the protective skin layer and should be prolonged to a minimum of 1 hour. The average marinating time is 1 to 3 hours.
- Chicken thighs, wings and quarters do not have a strict rule. Before you decide on the time period, assess how much bone and skin there’s in and on the chicken, following the rule “the more skin and bone, the longer the marinating process”. Average times are 1 to 6 hours, depending on the skin/bone situation.
- A whole chicken takes the longest to marinate. The minimum time it takes it about 4 and a half hours, with the average time being between 4.5 to 12 hours of marinating.
Before You Go!
Cooking chicken is not easy, it has its safety tricks, and it can sometimes be even annoying. But the payoff is far greater than the trouble you go to, so take the time to experiment a bit, and discover what suits you best. Remember: clean cookware(like a tabletop gas grill or a round cast iron griddle), marinate in the fridge, ideally in a metal or ceramic. Plastic bags made especially for marinating are welcome too. Factor in the skin and bone, as well as the acidic compounds you use.
Restaurant-grade chicken can be made at home, and you don’t need a professional chef to do it. Take some time in GrillnSkill and play around with spices, seasonings, and recipes, and ultimately: enjoy the finger-licking flavors!