21 healthy & easy chicken marinade recipes using 4 ingredients or less! Basics like lemon, soy sauce, honey & Worcestershire transform mundane into mouthwatering in a few easy minutes!
Do you ever grill chicken and get excited for that hot off the grill, charcoal flavor, only to be greeted with a mouthful of dry, bland chicken?
Thankfully, you can make a delicious chicken marinade (yes, even as flavorful as my Instant Pot honey garlic chicken or oven-roasted whole chicken) using what you already have in the pantry! There are two secrets to amazing chicken: 1) marinade ahead of time, and 2) choose the RIGHT marinade.
Why bother with a marinade?
It’s easy to throw some naked chicken on the grill, or just buy a bottle at the store, so why bother making your own? Let me just tell you!
- Easy. A few extra minutes and ingredients buy you a lot of flavor.
- Healthy. All of these homemade marinades are made with FOUR OR LESS whole food ingredients. We were even able to use these marinades during our Whole30 challenge.
- Utilizes pantry staples. Sure, you can go buy a fancy marinade, like this Primal Kitchen Marinade, but why bother when you can whip something up with what you have on hand?
- Saves money. No trips to the store. No expensive sauces. Just basic ingredients. If you’re familiar with my Grocery Budget Bootcamp, you know that budgeting for groceries is a top priority of mine.
The Best Chicken Marinade
The key is knowing how to create a good chicken marinade recipe based on what you have.
Lucky for you, I found a “formula” that seems to do the trick every time:
- Fat. Most flavors dissolve well in oil, but not so much when dissolved in water. When we use fat in a marinade, it permeates the meat better. It gets the flavor deep into the crevices so that every bite is tender, juicy, and flavorful.
- Acid. Acid plays a dual role of tenderizing the meat by breaking down the proteins, but it also balances out the fat a bit and adds flavor.
- Salt allows the fat and acid to more easily permeate the meat than only using oil and/or acid alone. Remember that SALT CAN BE FLAVOR (when it’s the end of the month and there’s no room for special ingredients).
- Flavor. Here’s a chance to add other spices or flavors to your marinade. Remember that sometimes FLAVOR IS SALT (I’m looking at you, soy sauce).
For every ONE POUND of meat, you need:
- ONE ½ cup fat
- ONE ½ cup acid
- ONE ½ cups salt (OR one teaspoon/tablespoon, depending on the type of salt you use – more on that below)
- ONE teaspoon/tablespoon flavor (depending on the flavor you choose – more on that below)
For example, one of my favorite chicken marinades is simply olive oil, honey, soy sauce (and maybe some garlic). If I were going to marinade ONE POUND of chicken breast, I would put the chicken into a bag or container and add:
- ONE ½ cup of olive oil (fat)
- ONE ½ cup of honey (acid)
- ONE ½ cup of soy sauce (salt)
- ONE Tbsp granulated garlic (flavor)
Pretty simple, right?
Here’s another example. Let’s say I have some pineapple juice in the fridge, leftover from making healthy Hawaiian roll copycat dinner rolls, that needs to get used up. Here’s how we can turn that into a chicken marinade:
- ONE ½ cup olive oil (fat)
- ONE ½ cup pineapple juice (acid)
- ONE teaspoon salt (salt)
- ONE teaspoon pepper (flavor)
It’s important to consider how much salt you’re using in a chicken marinade recipe. We want to use some salt in order to tenderize and flavor the meat. However, we don’t want to use so much salt that the meat itself tastes salty.
Here are the general rules of thumb I follow:
- When you’re using salt, use one teaspoon of salt for one pound of chicken breast.
- If you’re using salty liquid (like soy sauce), ½ cup for one pound of chicken and skip additional salt.
- When you’re using a spice blend that contains salt (like homemade taco seasoning), use 1 tablespoon and skip the additional salt.
Note: Using these “rules,” you can easily double or triple any chicken marinade.
Once I learned this formula and opened my pantry, I thought of MANY chicken marinade recipes using ingredients I already have! As long as you follow the rules of including fat, acid, salt, and flavor, you can experiment with lots of combinations.
I’ll share a few flavor combinations that I came up with.
Chicken Fajita Marinade using Citrus
- Olive Oil + Lime Juice + Taco Seasoning
- Olive Oil + Lemon Juice + Soy Sauce
- Olive Oil + Pineapple Juice + Salt & Pepper
- Olive Oil + Lime Juice + Honey & Fresh Cilantro
- Olive Oil + Orange Juice + Soy Sauce & Granulated Garlic
- Olive Oil + Orange Juice + Dijon Mustard & Hot Sauce
Delicious Chicken Marinade Homemade Spice Blends
Olive Oil + Buttermilk + Dry Ranch Salad Dressing Mix
Olive Oil + Apple Cider Vinegar + Dry Italian Salad Dressing Mix
Olive Oil + Red Wine Vinegar + Dry Greek Salad Dressing Mix
Olive Oil + Rice Vinegar + Dry Poultry Seasoning Mix
Olive Oil + Rice Vinegar + Chinese 5 Spice
Chicken Marinade Recipe Using Condiments
- Olive Oil + Honey + Soy Sauce & Garlic Powder
- Olive Oil + Apple Cider Vinegar + Worcestershire Sauce
- Olive Oil + Apple Cider Vinegar + Honey & Mustard
- Olive Oil + Pesto
- Olive Oil + BBQ Sauce
- Olive Oil + Balsamic Vinegar + Soy Sauce & Worcestershire Sauce
- Olive Oil + Maple Syrup + Soy Sauce
Good Chicken Marinade Recipes that Don’t Use Olive Oil
- Coconut Milk + Lemon Juice + Salt
- Coconut Milk + Lime + Curry
- Coconut Milk + Pineapple Juice + Fish sauce
Tip: Everything ends up in the same Ziploc bag or mixing bowl when you make marinades, so save yourself time and dishes by not rinsing out the measuring spoons!
- Marinade chicken for at least 30 minutes to one hour, but for best flavor, marinade for 4-6 hours.
- If leaving the marinade on overnight, try using a weaker acid like rice wine vinegar or honey, rather than a strong acid.
- Cook chicken until it reaches an internal temperature of 160F, regardless of the marinade.
- Don’t skimp on liquid. It may seem like a lot, but all the liquid is necessary to thoroughly cover the chicken with liquid in order for the marinade to impart flavor to the meat.
- Marinades are multi-purpose! They work well on whole chicken, chicken thighs, chicken legs, chicken wings, or any variety of cuts.
Can I reuse chicken marinade?
According to the FDA, you CAN reuse marinade if you boil it first. However, it’s probably best that you reserve some marinade to use as a sauce instead.
When do I marinade chicken?
Whether you’re grilling, barbecuing, baking in the oven or rotisserie, or frying, marinades all work the same way! Simply mix the marinade and chicken in a large bag and let it sit before you cook the meat.
Should I add brown sugar to the chicken marinade?
No. If you want a sweeter flavor in your meat, choose a marinade that has honey or maple syrup. Remember that these natural sweeteners will cook and create a glaze on your chicken!
Other Chicken Recipes
Looking for other ways to jazz up your chicken? Try these recipes!
- Instant Pot BBQ Chicken
- Sweet and Sticky Chicken
- Crispy Baked Chicken WIngs
- Kung Pao Chicken with Vegetables
Okay, just for clarification. You make a variety of these marinades and put them in the freezer in the ziplock bags. Then when you want to marinate chicken you pick the marinade of choice from the freezer and marinate your chicken for the specified time?
I wondered if you could freeze the chicken in the marinade as a possibility?
Thanks in advance for clarifying.
Hi Kathy! To clarify, you mix up the marinade AND chicken in the bag and freeze. Then when you thaw, the chicken marinades AND thaws at the same time. You can also skip freezing if you’d like, and just mix up the chicken and marinade the night before!
Hi! Just to keep us all as smart as possible please correct your terms of using marinade to mean marinate or soaking the chicken. You mariNATE chicken in your marinade. Marinade – a noun/thing – is the sauce used to marinate – a verb/action – the food. Hope this makes sense. 🙂
Can you freeze the marinade