Marinated satay chicken with salad on a plate

How to marinate chicken

Learn how to make a range of delicious chicken marinades, and how long to leave the meat in these sauces so it remains moist, tender and packed with flavour.

What marinades do

Depending on what marinades are made of, they can be used both to add flavour to the outside of the chicken and to tenderise it. If a marinade includes sugar or salt it will tenderise the chicken a little, but if there is an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar, buttermilk or yogurt, then the marinade will transform the texture of the outside of the chicken over time.

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The longer you leave an acidic marinade to work on the chicken, the worse the surface texture will get, becoming more stringy and dry, so don’t leave chicken soaking any longer than overnight. Give it 5-6 hours for the best flavour and texture – if you don’t have that long, even 10 minutes of marinating will give flavour to the outside of chicken. Marinades without acid can be left longer but won’t make them work any better, so stick to 24 hours as a maximum.

How marinades work

Contrary to popular belief, marinades never work their way far into a piece of chicken – they will always be surface flavours. Oil and fat won’t penetrate flesh at all, but salt will get a little way in if used in large enough quantities (1½ tbsp salt per 250ml liquid), as it loosens the muscle fibres.

Make the most of your marinade

Slash your chicken joints with a sharp knife, as this creates more surface area for the marinade to work on. It will also help the chicken cook more quickly – the longer you cook it, the drier it will become. Because marinades give mostly surface flavours, choose how to cook your chicken to make the best of them. High heat will caramelize sugars, so barbecuing, grilling, pan-frying and roasting will transform a marinade into a delicious crust.

Classic chicken marinades

  • Mediterranean marinade: ingredients include olive oil, garlic, lemon zest/juice, oregano, pepper, dried red chilli
  • Tandoori marinade: ingredients include yogurt, ginger, garlic, chilli, turmeric, garam masala
  • Jerk marinade: ingredients include garlic, chilli, ginger, thyme, brown sugar, soy sauce, allspice
  • Teriyaki marinade: ingredients include honey or sugar, mirin, soy sauce
  • Barbecue marinade: ingredients include garlic, brown sugar, wine vinegar, paprika

Simple chicken marinade recipe

Enough for 400g chicken

  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • handful of fresh herbs such as parsley, basil or coriander, finely chopped
  1. Mix the garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and herbs in a large bowl and season well.
  2. Marinate the chicken for 1-2 hours.

Our 5 top chicken marinade recipes

Whole chicken in Asian-inspired marinade

Make a Sunday roast with a difference by marinating your chicken with lemongrass, honey and fish sauce.

Whole chicken in Asian-inspired marinade

Marinated chicken salad

A chilli lime dressing makes an ideal marinade for chicken to go into a salad.

Marinated chicken salad

Tandoori chicken

Skip the takeaway and make your own tandoori chicken – it’s easier than you think.

Tandoori chicken

Smoky chicken skewers

Spanish smoked paprika adds another dimension to these marinated chicken skewers.

Smoky chicken skewers

Hot wings

These wings are marinated in buttermilk and then cooked with a good dose of spice.

Hot wings

Like this? Discover more delicious chicken recipes…

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What are your favourite chicken marinades? Leave a comment below…