How Long to Marinate Chicken & Not Over Marine It

Timothy Woods
Published by Timothy Woods
Last Updated On: March 26, 2024

Before cooking or grilling chicken, you should consider adding some marinade to tenderize the meat and get flavorful chicken.

However, you need to determine how long to marinate it and which marinades to use.

If you don’t know how long you should marinate chicken, don’t worry; you are in the right place.

I’ll share with you some of my tips and tricks and help you learn how to prepare perfect marinated chicken.

Quick Summary

  • Different chicken parts require specific marination times, such as breasts for up to two days, thighs for under 24 hours, and a whole chicken for 4 to 12 hours.
  • Marinating chicken can take from 3 minutes to 2 days, depending on the part and type of marinade.
  • According to a 2014 study in the National Library of Medicine, enzymatic marinades break down muscle fiber and connective tissue to tenderize the meat and add more flavor [1].
  • Safety during marination is vital, including proper handling, container use, and refrigeration. Over-marinating may affect texture and flavor.

Chicken Marinating Basics

Chicken breast close up image

Keep in mind that chicken meat requires a shorter marinating time compared to other types of meat.

The marination time depends on whether you opt for fried chicken, barbecue chicken, or some other preparation method, as well as what part of the chicken you want to prepare. Don’t worry; I’ll dig deeper into this later.

For now, let’s take a closer look at different types of marinades. The kind of marinade you opt for will impact the flavor of the meat and how long the chicken will marinate.

1. Acidic Marinade

The acidic marinade is one of the common types of chicken marinade recipes. The contents of acid marinade break down meat proteins and make them tender. Cutting through your whole chicken is made easy by the acidic contents after they denature proteins.

Things you can use for your acidic marinade include:

  • Alcohol - wine or rum
  • Fruit juices - lemon juice, citrus juice, and lime juice
  • Vinegar - usually apple cider vinegar or rice vinegar

2. Oil Marinade

Raw marinated chicken in a bowl

When they want to marinate meat, most people prefer oil marinades as they spread well on the meat and adhere properly.

Moreover, those having BBQ prefer using oil marinades as they minimize chicken burns.

Take a look at the common oil meat marinades:

  • Almond and coconut oil
  • Olive oil
  • Infused oils such as coconut oil mixed with oregano, rosemary, or truffles
  • Sesame oil

3. Cream Marinades

These are usually dairy-based products. Dairy products also contain lactic acids, though their acidic nature is mild and has less action on meat. However, they are still great marinades for tender chicken meat.

Cream-based marinades have the following ingredients:

  • Infused butter
  • Sour milk
  • Yogurt, like the greek yogurt
  • Buttermilk

4. Enzymatic Marinades

According to a 2015 post from Discover Magazine, enzymatic marinades break down muscle fiber and connective tissue to tenderize the meat and add more flavor [2].

An enzymatic marinade may include:

  • Ginger
  • Pineapple
  • Guava

3 Forms of Chicken Meat Marinades

Different form of chicken marinates

Marinades used for meat preparation can come in the following forms:

1. Pastes

Pastes are gathered to form a layer on top and left to rest on the meat. Usually, they are sour-based cream or dairy-based marinades like yogurt. You might get them from your local grocery store as they are usually ready-made.

The tandoori chicken marinade is an example of a paste marinade used on pork loins and poultry. It is commonly used in Italian dressing.

2. Rubs

They are often used for BBQ and pork tenderloin recipes. As the name suggests, these marinades are rubbed on the meat. The commonly used rubs for marinating meat are salt, brown sugar, oregano, and pepper flakes.

3. Liquids

There are plenty of marinades in liquid form you can use on beef, poultry, and pork. You dip the meat into the liquid and let it stay in it for some time. Some common liquid marinades are fish sauce, soy sauce, and Worcestershire sauce. Soy sauce is the most common among these chicken marinade recipes.

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How Long Does it Take to Marinate Chicken?

If you are unfamiliar with the time it takes to marinate chicken, here’s the answer - it can take 3 minutes, 3 hours, more than a day, or up to 2 days.

Before marinating your chicken, ensure you have all the right ingredients for seasoning your meat.

“It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken”
- Frank Perdue, Entrepreneur

Chicken marination is aimed at adding flavor and making the meat tender. Always use the right marinade, depending on your cooking plans.

How Long to Marinate Chicken Breasts?

Cooked marinated chicken breasts

You may marinate poultry breasts for up to two days in a fridge. However, you can also opt for a quick marinade and achieve the desired results after two hours. It all depends on the type of marinade you choose.

Carefully select the type of marinade you intend to use. Some marinades tenderize the meat, while others make it tougher.

Since chicken meat is delicate, marinating chicken breasts for a long time may affect the surface texture.

Boneless chicken breasts are easy to work with as the absence of bones makes them simple to prepare.

How Long to Marinate Chicken Thighs

When it comes to marinating chicken thighs, a good marinade should take less than 24 hours. Chicken thighs are more tender compared to chicken breasts. Short-time marinades may work best, along with less acidic marinades that have minimum impact on the meat muscle fibers.

Do you know one can marinate the thighs in under 20 minutes? If you are in a hurry, you may use rub marinades like salt or something similar, and it will work fine.

Lemon juice may also fit the description if it's one of your preferred food seasoning ingredients.

How Long You Should Marinate Drumsticks (Legs)?

Raw uncooked chicken legs

How often do you find marinated drumsticks? Chicken legs are some of the sensitive and delicate parts for marinating. However, with my help, you can marinate your drumsticks properly.

To achieve the sweet spot, you should marinate these delicate meats for under 2 hours.

Chicken legs make up dark meat, and you shouldn’t marinate them for more than 12 hours.

If you keep the drumsticks in a marinade for too long, they may over-marinate and start falling apart.

The marinating process should be short, and you should opt for mild marinades. Lactic acid marinades and a little salt may give that additional flavor you are looking for.

I suggest marinating your drumsticks a few minutes before cooking them. And during cooking, use indirect heat to achieve the best results.

Read More: How to Grill Drumsticks

How Long Does it Take to Marinate Whole Chicken?

For a decent marinade concentration, you will need 4 hours of marination. You can also opt for an extended soaking - more than 12 hours. However, don’t leave the meat to soak for more than two days.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, chicken can be left in marination in the refrigerator for two days [3]. This means 48 hours should be the maximum time to marinate foods so they remain healthy for consumption.

The time used to marinate your chicken will depend on the type of marinade you are using and the size of the chicken.

Here is a breakdown of the time taken to marinate chicken based on different factors to achieve extra flavor:

Bone in breast, skin on 1 to 3 hours
Boneless, Skinless chicken breast 30 minutes to 3 hours
Bone in thighs, Chicken quarters, wings 1 hour to 6 hours
Whole bird  4 hours to 12 hours

Standard Safety Tips for Marinating

Raw marinated chicken with honey garlic soy sauce

Food safety precautions should be paramount, especially when you are handling raw chicken. Always wash your hands thoroughly and clean up items you use for handling meat.

Whenever there is a leftover marinade, it is better to dispose of it. Bacteria present in raw meat might find their way onto the marinate, and if you reuse it on the next meal, you might suffer food poisoning.

Don't worry about the bacteria on the meat, as they are killed during the cooking process. As such, be keen not to undercook your chicken to minimize the chances of ingesting bacteria.

Another thing is that the type of container you use for carrying or storing food should have a lid and be airtight. The material of the container also matters, and you can use glass containers, resealable bags, and reusable plastic food containers.

Metal containers or aluminum containers may react with acid marinades and impact the chicken flavor. The meat's color might also change due to the reaction.

Lastly, one should not use countertops for marination. The whole marination process should be done in the refrigerator to minimize bacterial growth and spread. The safest option is when meat marinates at a low temperature.

Related Articles:

Paleo Honey Mustard Chicken, Bacon & Avocado Salad Recipe

Paleo Honey Mustard Chicken Bacon and Avocado Salad on plate

  • Prep Time: 15 minutes 
  • Cook Time: 15 minutes
  • Total Time: 30 minutes
  • Number of Servings: 2

Ingredients

For the Honey Mustard Dressing

  • 124g of whole-grain mustard
  • 6 tablespoons of Dijon mustard
  • 226g of honey
  • 4 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons of warm water
  • ½ teaspoon of salt
  • 2 cloves of garlic (finely minced or grated)

For the Salad

  • 510g of boneless chicken breasts (I get my chicken from ButcherBox)
  • 8 slices of thick-cut bacon (chopped and cooked)
  • 2 avocados (thinly sliced)
  • 564g of baby romaine lettuce
  • 298g of halved cherry tomatoes
  • 2 bunches of chopped green onions

Instructions

  1. To create the honey mustard dressing, combine the Dijon mustard, honey, olive oil, salt, warm water, minced garlic, and grain mustard. If you have a mason jar, place all the ingredients inside, tighten the lid, and shake well to combine.
  2. Place the chicken breasts inside a zip-lock bag and pour half the salad dressing to coat the meat. We will use this as a marinade. Put it in the fridge for half an hour to one day, depending on your preferences. Save the rest of the honey mustard dressing for the salad.
  3. Preheat the grill to medium-high heat. 
  4. Remove the marinated chicken breasts from the fridge and allow them to adjust to room temperature. 
  5. Cook the chicken for 5 minutes per side. Alternatively, cook the chicken on a frying pan with one tablespoon of olive or avocado oil over medium heat or roast in the oven for 10-15 minutes at 425ºF.
  6. Combine the romaine lettuce, green onion, crumbled bacon, avocado, and cherry tomatoes into a salad bowl. Place the cooked chicken on top and pour the desired amount of honey mustard dressing. Toss and serve.

References:

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24499119/
  2. https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/science-of-marinades
  3. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/poultry/poultry-basting-brining-and-marinating
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About the author

Timothy Woods
CEO / Co-Founder
Timothy Woods holds a Kinesiology and Exercise Science degree from Jacksonville University and is CCC & GMU Certified. He's also the main man behind Carnivore Style. This food aficionado combines science and experience to spread the word about the carnivore lifestyle.
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