Absolute Best Tests

The Absolute Best Way to Marinate Chicken

Plus the absolute worst way.

July 25, 2022
Photo by Julia Gartland

In Absolute Best Tests, Ella Quittner destroys the sanctity of her home kitchen in the name of the truth. She's boiled dozens of eggs, mashed a concerning number of potatoes, and seared more Porterhouse steaks than she cares to recall. Today, she tackles marinated chicken.

I used to think that marinades were pointless. Or, more accurately, I wasn’t really sure what they did for flavor—blame the honey mustard craze of my youth. I wasn’t sure how or why I might employ one to lock in moisture when I could simply dry brine. So more often than not, I skipped them.

And then, a few years ago, my then-colleague Eric fed me a little bite of salmon. The bite was like none I’d ever had: it was juicier than a peach, despite being cooked to flake-stage, and its flavor carried the whole way through, rather than presenting as a surface-level jacket. He was developing a recipe for marinated salmon, and each day for a few weeks, I’d get a taste of a slightly tweaked recipe. Each bite of marinated protein was better than the last. I was hooked.

And so, I began to dabble. I began with prolific food scientist Harold McGee, to parse the true purpose and definition: “Marinades are acidic liquids, originally vinegar and now including such ingredients as wine, fruit juices, buttermilk, and yogurt, in which the cook immerses meat for hours to days before cooking,” McGee writes in On Cooking. “They have been used since Renaissance times, when their primary function was to slow spoilage and to provide flavor. Today, meats are marinated primarily to flavor them and to make them more moist and tender.”

From there, I’ll admit I became a little obsessed, and I’ll also admit that I began to marinade probably more than I should, possibly at one point marinating a single scallop in a six-ingredient concoction. The details don’t matter. What matters is that when the assignment to test as many marinades for chicken as I could fit in my (tiny) refrigerator came through, I responded affirmatively so quickly, I basically sprained my left thumb. Here are the results.



I tested with the most cursed (least juicy) of meats: boneless skinless chicken breast. For each trial, I cut the breast into 2-by-2 inch chunks of roughly the same thickness. I did this to keep the results consistent, but also because through my completely normal dalliances with marinades over the years, I’ve found that the effects on flavor and tenderness tend to be more pronounced with a smaller cut of protein wherein a high proportion of the meat has surface area than, say, a whole bird (see Round 2).

In each test, I covered two chunks with just enough of the marinade agent to fully cover (which for me was about 6 ounces) + Diamond Crystal kosher salt (1/2 tsp) + minced garlic (1 large clove). Using whole Kosher salt in the solution seemed counterintuitive because it didn’t dissolve at first, but everything I read led me to believe it would work within the marinade like a dry brine, drawing out liquid from the meat and dissolving into the flavored liquid replacing it.

I marinated each set of chunks—really, so sorry to have to keep using the word “chunks” — for three hours, and six hours, doing a cooking test after each increment. To test each chicken chunk (we’re doing this), I seared the chicken in a hot Dutch oven with about a teaspoon of high heat friendly oil on all sides, just until cooked through.

Round One

Types of Marinade

  • Rice Vinegar (pH: 2 to 3)
  • White Wine (pH: 3.0 to 3.4)
  • Orange Juice (pH: 3.5 to 4.6)
  • Buttermilk (pH: 4.4 to 4.8)
  • Yogurt (pH: 4 to 4.94)
  • Lemon Juice (pH: 3ish)
  • Tomato Sauce (pH: 5.1 to 5.8)


By the three-hour mark, the most tenderizing marinades were lemon juice, tomato sauce, orange juice, and yogurt. The buttermilk-marinated chicken was barely more tender than an unmarinated piece. (Thank god I’ve found a synonym for chunk. It’s piece!) The rice vinegar-marinated chicken was about half as tender as the extremely tender aforementioned pieces. By the six-hour mark, the most tenderizing marinades were the same—orange juice, lemon juice, tomato sauce, and yogurt—with the addition of rice vinegar. The buttermilk-marinated chicken was a bit more tender than before, but still not quite as soft as the others.

On the flavor front, by the three-hour mark, the lemon juice, orange juice, tomato sauce, and wine had all penetrated the meat extremely thoroughly. Only the lemon juice also carried the flavor of garlic into the chicken. At the six-hour mark, rice vinegar again joined the bunch. Bizarrely, the garlic essence (also my signature perfume, and also all of my passwords) had disappeared from the lemon juice-chicken by the six hour mark, but the garlicky flavor appeared in the six hour white wine-chicken. The flavors of buttermilk and yogurt were not particularly palpable in the three-hour tests, but were subtle and delicious in the six-hour tests. Overall, I was most taken with how deeply and profoundly the wine flavor made its way into the meat in very little time, as when this type of marinade is the basis of dishes like Drunken Chicken.

Round Two

One common complaint about marinades is that, even with more than enough time, depth of penetration can be limited. (Say, if you’re cooking meat that isn’t carved into perfect and tiny 2-by-2 inch chunks. Say, a situation like that.) The good people behind AmazingRibs.com write, “Marinades, unless they are heavy with salt, in which case they more properly are called brines, do not penetrate meats very far, rarely more than 1/8″, even after many hours of soaking. Especially in the cold fridge where molecules are sluggish. They can enter tiny pores and cracks in the surface but that’s about it.”

As such, for each test in this round, I tested different application techniques, all with a rice vinegar marinade, to see if I could get the solution to work its magic deeper than just the surface.

Application Techniques

  • Submerged Only (Control)
  • Scored
  • Injected & Submerged


Scoring the pieces of chicken about ⅓-inch deep significantly enhanced the flavor absorption and expedited the tenderizing effects of the rice vinegar marinade at the three-hour mark, as compared to the submerged only-chicken. By the six-hour mark, the scored chicken was rubbery and over-penetrated, though I suspect a larger piece and/or bone-in breast would have appreciated the extra hours, and perhaps deeper scoring.

I am sad to report that while I bought a truly terrifying tool off Amazon to inject vinegar and little bits of garlic into cold meat, the tool did virtually nothing. The marinade dribbled right out. I’m so glad real syringes don’t work like this. So, so glad. I suspect that were I marinating something huge, like pork tenderloin, I could have used heft, gravity, and twine to my advantage to keep at least some of the injected marinade in place, but for the small pieces I was working with, injection was a bust.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.


Neeley5 March 28, 2023
Ummmm did the author get distracted? There is no conclusion to this.
Molly July 16, 2023
Exactly. And I thought on some of the tests they were using a combination of items and now I don’t know what ended up being the best combination. I must have missed something.
Karl September 23, 2022
And who posted this article without an answer to its headline question? The article seemed to only penetrate the question partly.
mmcdaniel September 9, 2022
OK, so what are the best and worst ways???
Pete M. August 15, 2022
Yoghurt and buttermilk marinades are amazing, *if* you leave them for a long time. Tandoori chicken made with enough chili, etc, is to die for. And buttermilk for 2 days is excellent for roast turkey.
/anne... August 5, 2022
I use real yoghurt, not the ones with thickeners. When you scoop some out, there's a whiteish water that collects on the top.

I used to throw it away, but it's brilliant as a marinade for pork chops (and it does make it moist all the way through). I leave them in the liquid for 24 hours - dump them in one night, then cook the next.

I'm going to have to try it with chicken and fish!
bobblesse August 4, 2022
I'm sorry, I agree with the others. I was excited to read this, because I love marinated chicken, but at the end I felt something was missing, like where are recommendations? A recipe for a great chicken marinade? How about a great follow-up?
ghrohrs August 4, 2022
This partial article is why so many of us used to love America's Test Kitchen. It's jumped the shark now, but it used to be insightful, entertaining and full of in-depth, scientific data, not to mention incredibly well tested.
WCmom August 4, 2022
Really bad article. Didn’t you learn more after all that work?
Elizabeth R. August 4, 2022
Very disappointing article. I was hoping for a conclusion and some recipes as suggested by the title. When I got to the end, I thought a part of the article was missing. This was a tedious and useless waste of time to read.
sheila August 4, 2022
This was a useless article. Silly and non informative
abbyarnold August 4, 2022
I didn't see a conclusion on whether wine marinade helped to tenderize. Please explain.
Pete M. July 31, 2022
Buttermilk- and yoghurt-based marinades are amazing, but need overnight for full effect. (Maybe not on 2" chunks, though.) Buttermilk on roast pork makes for lovely maillard browning. Tandoori chicken is another big winner--and is way, way better than cheap Indian restaurants.
Hapgood July 30, 2022
I was so confused when this article ended. I want more! I want tables and conclusions and recommendations!
PVDfoodie July 28, 2022
Was this article provided to upset the reader so they will create an account to comment about how absurdly long and useless it turns out to be. I will just keep it at that.
Lynn D. July 27, 2022
The article doesn't really answer the question in the title. It seems like part of the article is missing.
steveppp July 27, 2022
Profound waste of time. Who marinates anything with just one ingredient? Marinades usually (and should) have garlic, white wine, lemon, seasoning, etc. Or some other combination. I thought I was going to get the perfect recipe to try, or something useful. NOT.
LovesCheese July 27, 2022
Literally a useless article particularly when you are drawn in by the title. Absolute Schmabsolute.
Jackie July 26, 2022
There are no "absolute" bests or worsts when it comes to food. It is all subjective.