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Does chicken marinade need salt?

Quick Answer

Salt is not an absolute necessity in a chicken marinade, but it does provide some important benefits. The main reasons to include salt in a chicken marinade are:

  • It enhances flavor – Salt helps bring out the chicken’s natural flavors.
  • It acts as a tenderizer – The salt will help break down muscle fibers in the meat.
  • It improves moisture retention – Salt allows the chicken to retain more moisture as it cooks.

So while you don’t have to include salt, it is highly recommended for improving the end result of your chicken. Even just a small amount of salt in a marinade can make a noticeable difference.

The Purpose of Chicken Marinade

Before looking specifically at the role of salt, it helps to understand the overall purpose of marinating chicken. There are a few main reasons people marinate chicken:

  • To add flavor – A marinade allows you to impart new flavors to relatively bland chicken.
  • To tenderize – Marinating makes chicken more tender and easy to bite into.
  • To retain moisture – Chicken stays juicier when cooked after marinating.
  • To protect texture – Marinades reduce protein damage from cooking.

A good marinade enhances the flavor, tenderness, and overall enjoyment of chicken. The ingredients you choose directly impact how well it accomplishes these goals.

Do You Need Salt in a Marinade?

While salt is not strictly required, it provides noticeable benefits that align with the main goals of marinating:

  • Enhances flavor – Salt enhances and balances the other flavors in the marinade.
  • Tenderizes – Salt helps break down tough muscle fibers.
  • Improves moisture retention – Salt allows chicken to retain more moisture when cooked.

Salt also has some additional minor effects, like reducing any bitter flavors and giving a slight “meaty” taste.

So you don’t absolutely have to use salt, but it contributes to marinating in some important ways. A marinade without any salt at all may end up quite bland or fail to tenderize the chicken effectively.

How Salt Tenderizes and Enhances Flavor

To understand why salt matters for marinating, it helps to look at the science behind how it works:

  • Tenderizing – Salt causes the muscle fibers to break down through osmosis and protein denaturation.
  • Flavor enhancement – Salt reduces bitterness, balances other flavors, and provides a subtle “meaty” taste.

The tenderizing effect happens as the salt causes water to be drawn out of the chicken initially. This allows the muscle fibers to loosen up and partially break down.

The salt also interacts with proteins on a molecular level, causing them to denature and turn from long fibers into a looser structure. This denaturing contributes greatly to the tenderizing effect.

For enhancing flavor, salt simply makes the taste buds more sensitive and receptive. It balances out bitter, sour, and other flavors. The salt ions even seem to interact with flavor compounds directly for a stronger taste.

What Quantity of Salt is Needed?

You don’t need a lot of salt to make a difference. Here are some guidelines for how much to use in a marinade:

  • As a general rule, use about 1 teaspoon salt per 1 pound of chicken.
  • For a shorter marinade time (under 2 hours), use 1/2 to 3/4 tsp salt per pound.
  • For longer marinating (over 4 hours), use up to 2 tsp per pound.
  • You can fine-tune to taste – add salt slowly and test the marinade.

The longer the chicken marinates, the more salt it will absorb over time. So less is needed for a quick marinade, while more helps keep the chicken flavorful when marinating for many hours.

Here is a quick table summarizing the recommended amount of salt per pound of chicken for different marinating times:

Marinating Time Salt per Pound of Chicken
30 min – 2 hours 1/2 to 3/4 tsp
2 to 4 hours 3/4 to 1 tsp
4 to 12 hours 1 to 2 tsp

This serves as a general guideline. Taste and adjust the salt as needed.

What Types of Salt Work Best?

While regular table salt (sodium chloride) works fine, there are some other varieties of salt that can be ideal for marinating:

  • Kosher salt – Flaky crystals that dissolve well and season evenly.
  • Sea salt – Provides a pure, clean salt flavor.
  • Himalayan pink salt – Attractive color; contains trace minerals.
  • Smoked salt – Adds a subtle smoky flavor.

The main thing is to use a nice coarse-grained salt that distributes nicely and dissolves reasonably fast. Fine table salt works in a pinch.

Avoid large rock salt crystals, as they dissolve too slowly. Flavored seasoned salts can also throw off the balance of the marinade flavors.

Should You Brine Chicken Instead?

Brining is a similar technique where chicken is soaked in a seasoned saltwater solution. It allows the chicken to absorb extra moisture and salt.

Brining achieves some of the same goals as marinating with salt:

  • Adds flavor
  • Tenderizes the meat
  • Improves moisture retention

The main differences are that brining uses a much higher salt concentration, while marinating allows you to add other flavors beyond salt.

You can combine both techniques – brining first, then marinating. This gives the salt benefits of brining along with the other flavors from the marinade.

However, for most purposes, a good salty marinade alone is sufficient and more convenient than brining.

Tips for Marinating Chicken with Salt

Here are some useful tips to get the most out of salted chicken marinades:

  • Use enough salt – Don’t be afraid to season well with 1 tsp or more salt per pound.
  • Marinate at least 2 to 4 hours – Short marinates don’t absorb much salt.
  • Turn the chicken over halfway through – Ensures even exposure to the salt.
  • Pat chicken dry before cooking – This allows salt/spices to better adhere.
  • Reserve some marinade to baste with – Basting adds extra flavor.

Properly preparing the chicken ensures the salt and flavors fully penetrate. Basting while cooking then adds an extra layer of flavor.

Sample Salt Marinade Recipes

Here are 3 delicious and easy chicken marinade recipes that include salt:

Greek Lemon Chicken Marinade

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper

Whisk all ingredients together in a bowl or resealable plastic bag. Add chicken and marinate for at least 2 hours. Grill chicken, basting with reserved marinade.

Jerk Chicken Marinade

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp lime juice
  • 1 Tbsp jerk seasoning
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

Combine ingredients in a blender or bowl and mix well. Pour over chicken in a zip top bag to marinate for 4-12 hours. Grill over high heat, basting with marinade.

Tandoori Chicken Marinade

  • 1 cup yogurt
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

Whisk together all ingredients. Apply generously to chicken and let marinate 8-12 hours. Broil or grill chicken, discarding leftover marinade.

Is Salt Needed for Safe Marinating?

Besides flavor and texture benefits, one concern with marinating is food safety. Can leaving raw chicken sitting in a marinade cause bacterial issues?

Luckily, salt improves the safety of marinating chicken by:

  • Reducing microbial growth – Salt creates a less hospitable environment.
  • Allowing longer marinating – Chicken can marinate for up to 2 days safely.
  • Aiding in quick penetration – Salt carries flavors deep into the meat.

With sufficient salt, marinated chicken is generally safe in the refrigerator up to 2 days. Without salt, marinating time should be limited to 6-12 hours max.

So while not a complete replacement for proper food handling, salt does provide a margin of safety when marinating.

Key Points Summary

To wrap up, here are the key points on whether salt is needed in chicken marinade:

  • Salt is highly recommended, but not absolutely required.
  • It improves flavor, tenderness, and moisture retention.
  • Only a small amount is needed – 1 tsp per pound of chicken.
  • Kosher or sea salt work best for even dissolving.
  • Marinate at least 2-4 hours for salt to fully penetrate.
  • Salt also aids in food safety when marinating overnight.

So while skipping the salt is an option, including it provides significant benefits. For best results, don’t be afraid to season a marinade well with the proper amount of salt.


Salt is certainly not mandatory, but it has a major impact on the final outcome of a chicken marinade. By tenderizing, enhancing natural flavor, and retaining moisture, salt takes marinated chicken to the next level. It also allows you to safely marinate for longer periods.

While you can experiment with low-sodium recipes, salt generally improves any chicken marinade. For the ideal texture and flavor, it’s best not to skip the salt! A properly salted marinade results in juicy, flavorful, tender chicken every time.