You Should Only Marinate Chicken For This Long, According To The USDA

No one likes dry chicken – it's chalky, stringy, and downright unpleasant – but we've all accidentally overcooked our chicken once or twice. Everyone seems to have their own tips and tricks for preventing chicken from losing moisture, whether it's a brine or a sear. Chicken is also bland when it's not seasoned; it needs salt to make it taste like, well, chicken. If you're looking to impart flavor while retaining moisture, use a marinade. Why marinate meat? Well, besides flavorful and juicy meat, marinating chicken also tenderizes the meat.

Marinades are usually made up of a combination of five things, according to Food Network – fat, acid, aromatics, seasonings, and salt. Sometimes sugar and alcohol are added for extra flavor, as well. Fats like olive oil carry flavor and act like glue for aromatics like ginger or garlic, while acidic ingredients like vinegar, yogurt, or lemon juice tenderize. All of these are helped along by the workhorse of the kitchen – salt. Salt flavors and tenderizes meat through osmosis and balances all the flavors. 

It's also versatile – use ingredients like soy sauce, ginger, and sesame oil for your pork or chicken stir fry, or yogurt, ginger, and garam masala for tikka masala. You can create a simple chicken marinade with just a few ingredients you most likely already have in your pantry – mix everything in a Ziploc in the morning to have a flavorful dinner that evening.

Chicken is a lean meat so it doesn't need to marinade as long as beef or pork

There are some words of caution when it comes to marinating chicken, though. Because chicken is a lean meat, it absorbs flavor quickly. This also means it can go from tender to mushy and stringy quickly. Most recipes you come across suggest a marinading time of six hours or up to overnight; anything longer than that, especially if the marinade is acid-heavy, and you risk making the meat mushy, or even toughening it, not more tender, according to Food Network.

The USDA suggests that chicken should be marinated for no longer than 24 hours for optimal results but reminds home cooks that while it's safe to marinade chicken for up to two days, you risk mushy meat. Once the marinade has done its work, you can cook it however you want, but marinated chicken is ideal on the grill. The marinade prevents the chicken from drying out from the high heat of the grill. And, if you're going to brush or baste leftover marinade onto your meat as it cooks, the USDA advises boiling it beforehand to prevent cross-contamination and kill off any bacteria, but don't save any leftovers.