How long to marinate chicken? Why you shouldn't overdo it.

Written in 2024
by Adam

    Marinating is a great way to add flavour and tenderize your chicken. For some people, it's also the only way they can get their children to eat chicken! However, many of us wonder how long we should actually marinate our food. The answer is less than you think!

    Contrary to the popular belief, adding extra marinating time does not increase the flavour. Knowing just the right amount of time to marinate your chicken is important, otherwise, you will have a disastrous meal! Let's look at what makes a good marinade, why marinate, and how long you should marinade depending on the type of marinade and chicken cuts.

    Why Marinate Your Chicken?

    Marinating your chicken is a great way to add some flavour and tenderize it.

    When you are marinating chicken, the meat absorbs all the flavours from your sauce or spices. This is because when fat meets water, it emulsifies and traps all of those yummy ingredients inside itself! The reason for this is that oil does not mix with water molecules, so they can't escape into the surrounding air.

    When cooking, the marinade burns on the surface, turning it into a delicious crust. This effect is known as "the Maillard reaction".

    It's important to use a thin sauce or liquid – if your chicken has absorbed too much water, then there may not be enough space inside for the fat molecules!

    When it comes to tenderizing the meat, the marinade works by breaking down the tough collagen fibres, making them easier to chew. Although cooking your chicken on high heat will also help with this process, marinating just gives you another option.

    Why You Shouldn't Overdo It With Marinades

    When you are marinating your chicken, it's important that the meat absorbs just enough liquid to enhance its flavour without becoming too soggy.

    Over marinating, especially with acidic marinades like vinegar, makes the proteins in the chicken break down, which not only affects its texture but also alters its appearance.

    Not to mention, the chicken loses its natural taste and flavour and will start to taste like whatever you marinated it with.

    You should also be careful not to leave your food in for too long as this can cause harmful bacteria like salmonella and e-coli to grow on the surface of the meat, which could make you sick if eaten raw!

    How Long To Marinate Different Chicken Cuts 

    Different chicken cuts absorb marinades in different ways, so it's important to marinate them for the right length of time. This is because the size and thickness will affect how long the meat takes to marinate.

    Keep in mind you can not marinate frozen chicken as marinades will not penetrate.

    Check out our article on How To Defrost Chicken Safe But Fast

    Whole Chicken- minimum of 4 hours up to 24 hours depending on size and cut. Note that marinading overnight is OK if you are planning a party the next day, but be sure to keep it refrigerated!

    Chicken Thighs- marinate for a minimum of 2 hours up to 6 hours depending on size and cut.

    Chicken Drumsticks -minimum of 1 hour up to 4 hours depending on size and cut.

    Boneless Skinless Chicken Breasts – Minimum 30 minutes up to two hours, maximum 6 hours depending on size and cut.

    Chicken Wings – Minimum one 1 hour up to 6 hours depending on size and cut.

    Bone-In Skin On Breasts -minimum of 30 minutes up to four hours, maximum eight hours.

    Chicken Quarters -minimum of 2 hours up to 6 hours depending on size.

    How Long To Soak Your Chicken In Different Types Of Marinade.

    There are several types of marinades, and you have to keep in mind how each affects the time it takes for your meat to soak up the marinade.

    1. Enzymatic marinades: Made with pineapple, papaya and other fruit juices. These break down the meat's proteins more quickly than acidic marinades, so you only need to keep it in the fridge for such a short time, like 30 minutes depending on the size of the chicken cut.

    2. Acidic Marinade: usually made of vinegar or citrus fruits like lemon and orange. These break down the meat's proteins over time, so you need to keep your marinated meats in the fridge for a few hours (or even overnight).

    However, keeping the chicken in an acidic marinade for longer than necessary will make it dry and tough when cooked.

    3. Dairy Marinades: Yoghurt is commonly used in marinades to tenderize less tough chicken pieces, like skinless chicken breasts. They work similarly to acidic marinades, as the yoghurt contains some mild levels of lactic acid.

    A tip to make your marinade absorb faster is to add salt to your marinade in large amounts but not too much. Salt ensures the moisture from the marinade penetrates the chicken through a process called osmosis., it also prevents the preserves the meat juices and prevents it from drying up.

    Make sure you keep the marinating chicken in the refrigerator otherwise you risk harmful bacteria growing and spoiling the meat.

    How To Tell You Have Overdone Your Marinating Time

    If for any reason you forget about your chicken, and it has been left in its marinade for longer than the recommended time then there are a few signs to look out for: 

    The meat begins to discolour. You will notice some browning or scorching on the outside. This is usually an indication that harmful bacteria have built upon the surface of your meat due to being left too long.

    Foamy, bubbly liquid at the bottom of the bowl or container. Coupled with an unpleasant odour coming from the marinade. It could be an indication of fermentation happening, which will make your meat sour instead of tenderized!

    Different Types Of Flavours To Add To Your Marinade.

    There are many ways you can add flavour to your marinades, here we list some of them:   

    • Spices like fresh or dried thyme, rosemary and oregano;    
    • Fresh herbs such as basil, coriander and parsley;    
    • Oil, either extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil.
    • Sauces like soy sauce, teriyaki or oyster;
    • Lemon juice and zest.

    Here are some common marinades that you can try out at home:    

    • Italian Style Marinade: Made with fresh parsley, garlic powder, salt & pepper to taste. Use this for chicken wings or your cutlets before cooking them.
    • Citrus Marinade: Made with orange juice, lemon juice and zest. Use this for chicken wings or your cutlets before cooking them.
    • Soy Sauce Marinate: made with soy sauce, garlic powder, ground ginger to taste. Great for cutting up pork chops or even ribs!    
    • Chicken Tikka Masala: Made with garlic and ginger paste, cumin powder and tandoori masala. Great for your chicken cutlets before cooking them!

    How To Marinate Chicken.

    Now you know how long you should let your meat sit with its marinade, it's time to find out what is the best way to apply that sauce! There are many ways that people do this, but here are some of the most common: 

    Place all ingredients in a large resealable bag, close and shake well until mixed together. Then, leave your chicken in this marinade for at least 30 minutes.

    Pour your mix into a large bowl and add the chicken pieces to it. Make sure they are completely coated in this marinade before placing them in the fridge for at least 30 minutes or up to overnight if you have time!

    Keep it covered in the fridge at all times to prevent harmful bacteria from growing on your meat.

    Brush it onto your meat with a pastry brush or spoon;    

    Use a spray bottle for an even coating throughout each piece of chicken;  

    Safety Tips To Keep In Mind:

    Never reuse your marinade after it has touched raw meat.

    Don't let the marinating chicken sit on the bench for too long or harmful bacteria will grow and spoil it!  

    Keep all surfaces that have come in contact with this marinated chicken clean so there is no chance of contamination from other food.

    When you are done cooking your meat, make sure to dispose of any remaining marinades in the sink immediately because they contain raw juices!

    Don't use aluminium-based containers or foils for marinating your meat because the metal reacts with acids in the marinade, causing it to become poisonous.


    So there you have it. You now know how long marinating should be done for and the best ways to apply sauce onto chicken before cooking. We also gave you some safety tips, so make sure to keep them in mind when preparing any type of meat dish at home!

    Make sure you only leave the meat in its sauce for as long as needed. If you've left it too long, then don't worry, just check our tips on what signs to look out for to ensure your meat is safe to eat!

    I hope this blog post has been helpful, and you can even put it to use next time you go shopping for a marinade!

    Possible FAQs

    How long is it safe to marinate chicken in the fridge?

    For up to 24 hours in the fridge.

    Can marinating chicken too long make it tough?

    It depends on the type of marinade. If it's been left in an acidic marinade for too long then yes this will make it tough.

    Is it better to marinate in the fridge or room temp?

    Always marinate your meat in the fridge. If you leave it out on a warm counter, then harmful bacteria can grow and spoil your dish!

    Written by Adam

    Adam is the creator of the SmokeGuys website, running it since 2016. Hater of coriander, lover of all things meat... Adam currently works in marketing with a dream of being able to make food his full-time 'job' in the longer term.

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