Why You Should Marinate Chicken Breasts in Yogurt

Big Little Recipes

A 2-Ingredient Marinade for Never-Dry Chicken Breasts

April 28, 2020
Photo by Ty Mecham

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re getting the most out of a fridge staple.

Greek yogurt is one of the hardest working ingredients in my fridge—the sort of staple that can bounce between sweet and savory recipes without blinking an eye. Top with granola for breakfast or mix into chocolate mousse for dessert. Or put it toward dinner: pasta, or potato salad, or a dunking sauce for chicken.

In this recipe, Greek yogurt works double-duty—both as a marinade and a salad dressing.

If you’ve ever marinated meat before, you already know that you need a few components in addition to salt—something fatty (like olive oil) for better browning, something acidic (like vinegar) to tenderize, and something flavorful (like a spice or herb) for seasoning. Effortlessly, Greek yogurt accomplishes two out of three, thanks to its milk fat and live cultures.

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Top Comment:
“I combined several of the spices and the Greek (non-fat because that's what I had) yogurt--marinated an hour. Dredged in panko...added a little sprinkle of chili powder on top. Decided to bake in a 425 oven, in the cast iron skillet, for 25-30 minutes (tested internal temp 165). So delicious! Love this Greek Yogurt tip!! Thank you. ”
— Heather L.

So it’s easy to see why this technique has been around for centuries: “It was a common practice during the Mongol Empire, which spanned the 13th and 14th centuries, to ferment mare’s milk (that would be from the horse) into yogurt and use this to marinate meat,” writes Priya Krishna in her yogurt column for Taste.

Photo by Ty Mecham

While chicken breasts are infamous for drying out, yogurt's lactic acid boosts their cooking confidence, yielding meat that’s tender and juicy enough to compete with thighs. You’ll salt the marinade more than you’d think is necessary—the yogurt will taste too salty on its own, but modest chicken appreciates this, just like it would a brine.

Marinate for at least one hour, or up to 12. (Any longer in the fridge, and the meat will turn mealy.) If you’re a planner, scale up the recipe and freeze portions of chicken right in its marinade—a smart trick I learned from cookbook author Nik Sharma.

Besides the yogurt and salt, the marinade only needs one other ingredient: ground sumac. With a purplish color and lemony flavor, sumac is a staple spice in Middle Eastern cuisines. In Bottom of the Pot (a Piglet winner!), Naz Deravian writes: “Sumac also symbolizes the color of sunrise—a new day.” Which sounds wonderful right about now, doesn’t it?

If you don’t have sumac and are sheltering in place, let your spice cabinet lead the way. Try black pepper, cumin, caraway, garam masala, chili powder, whatever makes you go, “Ooh!” And add enough to be able to really taste it.

But maybe you’re wondering about the second way we’re using yogurt? Often, cucumbers get tossed with sour cream or créme fraîche or Greek yogurt as a dressing. Here, you’re going to salt smashed cucumbers and some slivered red onion until they both weep, then sob—then we’ll spoon them and their juices onto a downy yogurt blanket. Separating the dressing from the salad may seem strange, at first, but this way each ingredient is heard more clearly.

The rest of that red onion gets thrown in the skillet with the chicken. So, yes, we have yogurt two ways. And red onion two ways. And even sumac two ways (after the marinade, you’ll sprinkle more on the salad). And salt more ways than that. Because if the ingredient is around already, why not use up every last drop?

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Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles on the fly, baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., and writing about the history of pie in North Carolina. Now she lives in New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's award-winning column, Big Little Recipes (also the cookbook in October 2021!). And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Maghetti425 May 28, 2020
Hope this is not a dumb question but I always only have vanilla yogurt in the house ( for smoothies for breakfast each day), will that work with the salt as the marinade with sumac or a spice of my choice? Then what, scrape it off & bake it?
Author Comment
Emma L. June 1, 2020
Hi! No such thing as a dumb question :) Vanilla can be really nice in savory dishes (like these short ribs https://food52.com/recipes/36312-short-ribs-braised-in-red-wine-and-vanilla). But I'm not sure if it would make the dish too vanilla-y in this case, or too sweet (if the yogurt is sweetened). All of which to say: Hard for me to predict, but could be worth a try if it's all you have around! If you give it a go, please let me know what you think.
Sharon May 22, 2020
How important is the fat in the yogurt? The reason we use chicken breast (skinless) is to eat heart-healthy. Once you add full fat yogurt...well, that kind of defeats the purpose. So can 0% yogurt serve the same purpose?
Heather L. May 23, 2020
I used fat-free plain Greek yogurt and we were VERY impressed with how moist & delicious ours was. (I opted to bake in the oven in a cast-iron skillet for 20-25 minutes at 425) We were delighted!
Amy May 22, 2020
Would regular (not Greek) full fat plain yogurt work?
PastryArtista May 23, 2020
Let the plain yogurt sit in a strainer to remove some of the liquid and thicken. That'll have it work
Heather D. May 22, 2020
Hi Emma! This sounds fabulous, can’t wait to try. I’m gonna be the person who asks about the side salad of cukes + red onions in the pic — do you have a quick recipe on that?
Author Comment
Emma L. May 22, 2020
Hi Heather, thanks! Full recipe (cucumber-onion salad included) here: https://food52.com/recipes/82983-yogurt-marinated-chicken-cucumber-salad-recipe
Heather D. May 22, 2020
ooooohhhhh. I just had to read the WHOLE recipe!
Thanks for your super quick response — appreciate it!
Clare C. May 14, 2020
Can you substitute zataar for sumac? (My favorite spice place is behind in their mail ordering, so I can’t order sumac, plus I have a can of zataar in my spice cabinet already.)
Author Comment
Emma L. May 14, 2020
Hi! Yes, just adjust the quantity to taste
Heather L. May 8, 2020
Amazing moist and flavorful chicken breasts. I combined several of the spices and the Greek (non-fat because that's what I had) yogurt--marinated an hour. Dredged in panko...added a little sprinkle of chili powder on top. Decided to bake in a 425 oven, in the cast iron skillet, for 25-30 minutes (tested internal temp 165). So delicious! Love this Greek Yogurt tip!! Thank you.
Heather L. May 8, 2020
AND olive oil to the marinade bag. Coated the cast iron skillet with oil too.
Laura B. May 1, 2020
How long do you cook the chicken for?
Laura B. May 1, 2020
Sorry! Just found the answer!!
Ryan M. May 1, 2020
The two ingredient recipe requires five ingredients to make a proper click bait.
Sara J. May 2, 2020
With empty shelves at the grocery store, we only have two ingredients left. Plus, sumac.
Rainer W. April 29, 2020
Strangely enough I have been marinating chicken, and liver, for amazing liver and onions...not in Yogurt, but in Buttermilk for YEARS!
Author Comment
Emma L. April 30, 2020
Yes, buttermilk is another great tangy marinade! Especially for roast chicken: https://food52.com/recipes/75666-buttermilk-roast-chicken-with-potatoes-and-cornichon-butter
Eric W. April 29, 2020
The easiest way to make sure your chicken breasts get cooked all the way through without getting over cooked is to bake it in the oven at 450 for around 25 minutes. I check for doneness and add another 5 if it needs more time. I never have dry chicken with this method without having to marinate it.
Sharon April 30, 2020
Is this method with skin? Otherwise would imagine it would dry out at such high heat?
Suzanne S. May 7, 2020
I do this with boneless, skinless also at high temp, and it comes out great. I only use a drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper. Comes out super-juicy! Timing depends on thickness, so might need to experiment a bit.
Lavinia L. April 29, 2020
Sounds great....cannot wait to try...
Angie April 29, 2020
Can I replace the yogurt with full fat sour cream.
Author Comment
Emma L. April 29, 2020
Hi Angie! I haven't tried that myself—but I imagine it would work. If you give it a try, please report back!
Becky B. April 29, 2020
My favorite way to grill or bake
chicken and pork chops is marinating in yogurt and sriracha
Author Comment
Emma L. April 29, 2020
duckfat April 28, 2020
Can I put the marinade under the skin, thus keeping the skin on the breasts?
duckfat April 28, 2020
But I love the skin! Does it have to go?
Author Comment
Emma L. April 29, 2020
Hi—you can use boneless, skin-on chicken breasts if you prefer! Just marinate as directed, then make sure you scrape off as much marinade as possible before cooking (skin side-down to start).