It’s Fine on Salad, but Italian Dressing Is Even Better as a Marinade

updated Sep 18, 2019
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Raise your hand if your parents always had at least one bottle of Italian dressing in the fridge at all times when you were a kid. We had so much on hand in my childhood home that we used to joke that it was our “house dressing.” The funny thing is we didn’t actually use it that much to dress salads.

Italian dressing is notable for that brilliant punchy balance of yummy oil, tangy vinegar, sweet sugar, and bites of spice. And while those flavors are fine over lettuce and crunchy veggies, the strong flavors work even better as an all-purpose marinade for every kind of protein, from chicken to shrimp.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

Why Old-School Italian Dressing Marinades Hold Up

Long before you could find ready-made marinades on grocery store shelves, bottled dressing was the go-to choice for flavoring and tenderizing meat and chicken. My mom almost always had a bag of skinless, boneless breasts swathed in Italian dressing in a plastic bag at the bottom of the fridge. Bottled Italian dressing has everything a good marinade does: Fat, acid, salt, sugar, and a seasoning. It can be a one-ingredient upgrade to nearly any weeknight protein.

I recently bought a few bottles of Italian dressing for a different recipe and didn’t end up using them. So I decided to use them as marinades — mostly for the nostalgia. Though we ate it constantly when I was a kid, I’d nearly forgotten how well it works. Both chicken thighs and a pork tenderloin that I put on the grill were surprisingly tender and delicious.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

How to Marinade Chicken or Pork in Italian Dressing

The simplest way to marinate any protein is to remember the one-to-one ratio: If you have one pound of meat, use 1 (16-ounce) bottle of dressing. But you don’t have to stick with store-bought. You can make your own Italian dressing from scratch. To give the marinade extra punch, I like to add a couple cloves of smashed garlic — as you can see in the image above — or a teaspoon of garlic powder to the bag. While most Italian dressing has some garlic, the addition helps the flavor come through.

Get the recipe: Italian Dressing

Italian dressing works well for marinating boneless skinless breasts, thighs, and pork tenderloin. It’s also exceptional for flank steak, especially if you’re grilling. Shrimp and salmon taste delicious in an Italian dressing marinade and, I imagine, other seafood would too.

My mom may have kept her chicken marinating in the fridge all week, but the sweet spot seems to be between four hours and overnight. More than that and you risk over-marinating, which can cause the meat, paradoxically, to become tough.