Why You Should Stop Marinating Chicken (And What to Do Instead)

Marinating Chicken Overnight Isn’t Worth Your Time. Here’s What You Should Do Instead.

You know the feeling when you find a perfect looking chicken recipe that you want to make that day for dinner only to see that it says “marinate chicken overnight”.

Ugh, that’s a bummer.

But, it doesn’t have to be.

Because overnight chicken marinade before cooking doesn’t really do anything.

Yep, that’s right. Marinating chicken doesn’t moisten, tenderize, or add flavor to your chicken. It’s been debunked. And chefs everywhere are beginning to accept that spending a long time marinating chicken is mostly a waste of time. 

I know these are some big claims, so check out this article, this one, this one, or this one if you don’t believe me.

But, this is good news. No more preparing dinner the day before or planning ahead.

And to get that tender, moist, flavorful bird? Well, there are a few things you can do for max juiciness and flavor. We’ll get to those below. And they’re all way easier than the whole raw chicken in a bag with marinade that you have to toss out before cooking.

Raw chicken breast

What Does Marinating Chicken Do? (Supposedly)

Marinating chicken has traditionally been done to add moisture, tenderness, and flavor to chicken. Let’s take a look at these claims.

Adds Tenderness

The big idea to remember with marinating chicken is that the marinade doesn’t penetrate past the surface. Meat isn’t actually absorbing the contents of the marinade.

The thought was that the acid (lemon juice, vinegar, citrus, etc.) in a typical marinade breaks down the proteins in meat. Therefore, making it more tender.

Well, now that we know that marinade doesn’t actually penetrate the meat, it’s easy to understand that it wouldn’t break down internal proteins. If anything, acidic marinade will break down collagen on the surface of the chicken, turning the texture mushy instead of tender.

Adds Moisture

Again, we’re talking about absorption (or lack of). Chicken is already full of water. So, it’s not going to absorb any additional water based ingredients in a marinade. Other common marinade ingredients like oil won’t make it past the surface of the meat either.

So, marinade isn’t making your chicken any juicier.

Adds Flavor

Technically, marinating can add flavor to chicken. But, that flavor doesn’t penetrate past its surface. Chicken does not actually absorb flavor from a marinade.

So, for the majority of an 8+ hour or overnight marinade (other than the time it takes for the marinade to stick to the surface of the chicken), nothing is happening in the flavor department.

whole raw chicken

How to Add Moisture and Tenderness to Chicken

There isn’t really a secret sauce (get it?) for adding moisture and tenderness to chicken. It comes down to quality of chicken and correct cooking.

Buying High Quality Chicken

There are a ton of different varieties of chicken at your grocery store. Some of these chickens lived healthy, happy lives. Some of them not so much. Healthy, happy chickens means delicious tasting chickens for you.

I won’t get into exactly how to read a chicken label and buy chicken at your grocery store here. Check out this post on everything you need to know about buying chicken that walks you through how to buy chicken.

Long story short, the best chicken you can buy at your grocery store will be organic, free-range or pasture raised, antibiotic free, and air-chilled. Chicken from your local farmer’s market is also a great option.

But, both of these will cost you. For a cheaper option, try out a bunch of different types of chicken within your price range and rely on your taste buds.

Cooking Chicken Correctly

We’ve all had overcooked, dry and chewy chicken. I don’t think I even knew chicken could be juicy until I was an adult. Cooking chicken correctly is a huge factor in making a juicy bird.

Chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 F or until its juices run clear. However, most chefs will cook it closer to 160 F and let it rest for 5-10 minutes for the internal temperature to come up to 165 F.

The super popular chicken breast can be tricky to cook right. So, I wrote this whole post to help you cook chicken breast to tender and juicy perfection: How to Cook Chicken Breast: 3 Ways

More Chicken Recipes

How to Add Flavor Without Marinating Chicken

You have plenty of options for adding flavor to chicken. 

Short Marinade

So, a long 8+ hour marinade doesn’t really do much. It doesn’t tenderize or moisten chicken. And the flavors of the marinade don’t penetrate past the surface.

But, take note of that last piece regarding the flavoring the surface. Soaking chicken for 10-20 minutes will coat it in your flavorful marinade. Then when you cook it, those flavors will be the first thing released.

So, a short marinade to coat the surface of your chicken can add flavor.

Brushing On Sauce During Cooking

Same idea here with adding flavor to the surface of the chicken. Brushing sauce onto the surface of meat is a common grilling / BBQ technique. As you brush on some sauce, it will cook, caramelize and impart its own flavors onto the surface of the chicken.

Reverse (or Post-Cook) Marinating Chicken

I love combining ingredients with an acidic sauce while they are still warm after cooking. This is a great technique, known as escabeche or reverse marinating, for adding flavor to veggies, meats, and fish. It is commonly used in Spanish, Latin American, Portuguese.

Once the chicken is done cooking, cut it up while it is still warm to maximize the exposed surface area to soak up sauce. Then pour an acidic marinade, vinaigrette, or sauce over the fish and let it soak for 15-60 minutes.

Want a recipe to follow? Check out this garlic and herb reverse marinated grilled chicken breast. It may just be the best chicken breast you’ll ever eat. I ate half of the chicken as leftovers the next day after it sat in the fridge with the tasty garlic herb sauce, and it was even more amazing.

Garlic herb marinated chicken
Garlic Herb Reverse Marinated Grilled Chicken Breast

Add a Dry Rub

Another way to add flavor to the surface of your chicken (because remember, chicken doesn’t actually absorb flavor) is to coat with a dry rub. The rub will stick to your chicken and remain there during cooking. So, the surface of your chicken will have a nice layer of spices.

Check out these dry rub recipes from Joyful Healthy Eats for your next chicken breast.

Serve With Sauce

The easiest way to add flavor to chicken is simply to serve with a side of sauce or marinade. Or pour the sauce over the chicken and serve. 

This is great because you can make your flavor packed sauce while the chicken cooks. Plus, chicken is a blank canvas that can take on pretty much any sauce you can make with what you have on hand. Or simple serve with  yogurt, tahini, or a squirt of lemon.

Here are a few delicious and easy sauce recipes that you can serve with chicken:

Brining – A Better Long Soak Option Than Marinating Chicken 

Brining chicken is a different story than marinating.

A wet brine is basically salty water. Salt can in fact penetrate the meat to make it taste more flavorful. Salt can also make chicken taste more juicy because it increases the ability for the proteins to retain water.

Dry brining – seasoning chicken with salt and letting it rest for a long period – also works the same way. Salt is absorbed by the meat and helps it retain moisture while adding flavor.

So, if you have an extra day before you cook your chicken, simply reach for the salt instead of a whipping up a fancy marinade.

Ready to Pass On Marinating Chicken?

I was pretty pumped when I found out I didn’t have to marinate chicken overnight anymore. Next time you see a recipe that says “marinate overnight”, know that you can substitute overnight for 15 minutes. Or 0 minutes and pour on the marinade after cooking.

Now, time for me to go back and update all of my recipes that call for marinating chicken.

Here is what I’m doing to chicken instead of overnight marinating: Garlic Herb Reverse Marinated Grilled Chicken Breast

Garlic herb marinated chicken
Garlic Herb Reverse Marinated Grilled Chicken Breast

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