How To Marinate Chicken

Marinating chicken is an excellent way to infuse flavour, tenderise meat and take a dish to the next level. No matter how you plan to cook your chicken - whether you're grilling, braising, roasting or frying - a marinade can make all the difference to your finished dish. Read on to discover how to marinade a chicken, including preparation tips and recipe ideas.

What is a marinade?

A marinade is a preparation of aromatic ingredients rubbed into meat and left for a period of time to infuse. 

It could take the form of a dry rub of spices and dried herbs, the ingredients could be suspended in oil, you could add an acid like lemon juice or vinegar, or yoghurt could form the carrier.

What does a marinade do?

A marinade penetrates the surface of the chicken allowing the aromatic ingredients to season and flavour the meat. This ensures that every bite is well-seasoned - not just the exterior. There are a number of ingredients you can add to a marinade and each add a different dimension to the final results. These include:

  • Acids like citrus juice which tenderise and break down the tougher muscle fibres in the meat.
  • Papaya which is fantastic at tenderising meat. It contains an enzyme called papain which is a protease - meaning it breaks down protein.
  • Oils which add flavour and help to keep the chicken moist, preventing it from drying out.
  • Sugar which creates sweet and fudgy flavours along with a nutty aroma that improves any dish. Sugar triggers the Maillard reaction - a chemical reaction that occurs when food is browned. It releases new aromas and makes the dish infinitely more delicious!

Marinade or marinate?

This is one of the most common questions we get asked about marinating a chicken! The semantics are a little confusing, but marinade is the noun and marinate is the verb. Remember: you prepare a marinade to marinate the meat - simple!

What is the difference between a brine and a marinade?

Brining and marinating may seem like similar processes, but there are some key differences. Wet brining involves soaking meat in a saltwater solution, known as a brine, typically consisting of salt, water, and sometimes sugar or other flavourings. The meat is submerged in the brine, allowing it to absorb moisture and flavours. Brine has much deeper penetration through the meat compared with a marinade, which imparts flavour to the surface and works its way slightly into the meat. Brine also enhances moisture retention and juiciness. Both brines and marinades have their advantages - brining for moisture and marinading for flavour enhancement.

Choosing a good chicken

Our free-range chickens roam freely on established pastures with perches and shelter offering shade, food and water. The living conditions are so much better, resulting in higher-quality meat that is perfect for marinating. In terms of appearance, look for a healthy pink colour - not grey. Opt for plumpness and moistness but not excessive moisture in the packaging. High-quality chicken will be more expensive, but the price reflects better living conditions, higher quality feed and a longer and slower maturation. This makes such a difference to the taste, size and nutritional value of the meat.

Preparing chicken for marinating

Chicken skin is great when it’s crispy or when the fat is rendered down. If you’re braising or slow-cooking chicken, it’s best to remove the skin first so it doesn’t go soggy or add excessive oil to the dish - so the marinade can penetrate the chicken meat itself instead of the skin.

How to prepare a marinade

Thoroughly mixing ingredients in a bowl first ensures an even, consistent marinade for the bird. Oil and acid will require thorough whisking, so it emulsifies properly. At this point, you can taste and tweak the flavours of your marinade until you’re happy with it. It should be punchy and bold as it will need to carry through the chicken and into the finished dish. It’s best to prepare the marinade before you’ve touched the chicken, so you don’t have chickeny hands.

The base: Every marinade needs a base layer to build upon to act as a vehicle for flavours. You could use an oil - perhaps a neutral oil such as vegetable, sunflower or rapeseed oil, to build upon. Alternatively, something a little punchier will impart its flavour such as olive oil or sesame oil.

Acid: The acid component has three effects. It adds balance to the oil if used. It tenderises the meat. And finally, it imparts its flavour too. Choose a vinegar (balsamic, apple cider vinegar or sherry vinegar perhaps), citrus juice or yoghurt. If the marinade is too acidic and you leave it on for too long it will cook the food like a ceviche, so be careful. 

Yoghurt:  Yoghurt is both a great base for marinade and has acidity too.

Herbs: To add flavour and depth, it’s best to use woody herbs such as rosemary, thyme or sage - or you could use the fragrant stems of delicate herbs - basil, coriander, dill stems. Use the leaves of delicate herbs at the end of cooking or as a garnish to enjoy the best flavour. 

Spices: At this point - enjoy the artistry of balancing and mixing spices. Spices span the globe and the combination of flavours are endless. Paprika, cumin, chilli powder, garlic powder, cardamom, saffron, cinnamon - you can take the food in whatever direction you fancy.  

Aromatics: Onions, garlic, ginger, shallots and chilli all impart flavour for a well-rounded marinade.

How to marinate a chicken

After you’ve trimmed any excess fat and removed the chicken skin, if necessary, it’s time to add the marinade that you’ve prepared.

Before you touch the chicken, it’s handy to have a clear sink area, so it is completely free from freshly washed dishes to avoid contamination. Prepare a bowl of soapy water in the sink for your hands.

Place the chicken in a resealable plastic bag or shallow dish. Pour the marinade over the chicken, ensuring it's fully coated all over. Use your hands to rub the marinade into the poultry, getting it into all the crevices. Seal the bag or cover the dish with cling film. 

Place the chicken in the fridge to marinade for at least an hour - up to 24 hours, depending on the cut of chicken and desired flavour intensity. Longer marinating times will result in more flavoursome, tender chicken. 

Always store raw meat at the bottom of your fridge so there’s no chance of it touching or dripping on anything else.

Top tips for a perfect marinade

  • Balance Flavors: Ensure a balance between acidity, sweetness, saltiness, and spiciness in the marinade.
  • Experiment: Feel free to experiment with different ingredients and flavor combinations to create your unique marinades.
  • Time Matters: Longer marinating times intensify flavors, but be cautious not to over-marinate, as prolonged exposure to acidic ingredients can make the meat mushy.
  • Use Ziplock Bags: They allow for better distribution of the marinade and are easy to store in the fridge.

Buy a good marinade!

We are proud to sell Gymkhana's range of sauces and marinades, using the recipes from their eponymous Michelin-starred kitchen. The range brings the true flavours of North India to home kitchens, making it quick and easy to prepare delicious chicken dishes at home. Recreate Gymkhana's famous Tandoori Chicken in the comfort of your kitchen using their Classic Tandoori Marinade, made with the highest quality Kashmiri chillies, garam masala and mustard oil.

Recipes for marinated chicken

If you need a little inspiration when it comes to creating the perfect marinated chicken, check out our delicious coriander & lime chicken and Indian spiced chicken flatbreads recipes.