Kitchen Mistakes: *Never* Over-Marinate Meat

published Oct 10, 2019
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

I wrote recently about how Italian dressing is incredibly effective at marinating chicken — it’s something I learned from my mom when I was growing up. In that story, I also casually mentioned that my mom “kept her chicken marinating in the fridge all week,” in a bag that lived in the bottom of our fridge. She did it with the best of intentions; it was essentially her early version of meal prep.

If we were lucky, we’d have eaten through those chicken breasts by Wednesday. By Thursday or Friday they were unappetizing — even grilled or made in a slow cooker. And mom did everything she could to make them edible (my thrifty-by-need mom was not about to waste chicken). But by Friday, after a week swimming in marinade, the chicken was just no good.

If you’re prepping out your week and considering marinating chicken, you might be in the same boat. In theory, if chicken marinated overnight tastes better than it does after only an hour, then it should taste amazing after three days, right? Nope. You will end up with a squishy, mucky mess. It will taste like eating a sponge. Here’s what happens when you over-marinate, and how long you should actually let it sit for.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

What Happens When Meat Marinates Too Long

Basic marinades are a combination of rich oil, salt, sugar, and a tangy acid. Lemon juice, vinegar, and yogurt are the most common acids, and they help tenderize and flavor the chicken as it sits. Tenderizing meat is great! It breaks down tougher muscle fiber and can make what would be a chewy piece of protein melt-in-the-mouth tender. But when that goes on too long, it becomes essentially melted-outside-the-mouth: The meat turns mushy.

There’s a food-safety reason to avoid letting meat over-marinate as well: According to Federal Food Safety guidelines, raw chicken should only be stored in the refrigerator for one to two days (pork and beef are safe a little longer). After this, dangerous amounts of bacteria can grow, and you risk getting sick. This is especially true when the meat is in contact with a bunch of other ingredients from all over the place (like in a marinade).

Long story short, you shouldn’t marinate meat for longer than 24 hours — less if you are marinating small pieces. I’ve personally found 12 hours to be the sweet spot, but you can also go shorter — as little as a three to four hours will do a lot. Certain factors will impact how long it takes a particular marinade to flavor (or, if left too long, deteriorate) chicken — the most salient being acid. Keep the 24-hour marinade window in mind for all meats, including pork tenderloin, flank steaks, and especially tender seafood like shrimp and salmon.

How to Meal Prep Marinated Meats

So what can a meal prep-minded person do, other than restricting all their meat-eating to Monday or Tuesday? There are options: Make your marinade during meal prep and then add in the meat the night before you plan to cook it. For a longer-term solution, toss chicken in a marinade and freeze it immediately. This stops the marinating process until you thaw it.

Lastly — and this move can be used when your meal plan changes, and you can’t cook something you’ve been marinating right away — remove the meat from its marinade and rinse it. You’ll still need to season it before cooking but you’ll save it from becoming inedibly mushy, and that’s something! Quick favor: Will someone else please send this to my mom?