Marinating chicken breast before cooking is a common technique used to add flavor and tenderize the meat. Many home cooks enjoy soaking chicken in a marinade for 30 minutes to overnight before grilling, baking, or sautéing. While marinating imparts flavor, some wonder if it also adds a significant amount of calories to the chicken. Let’s take a closer look at whether marinating chicken breast really increases the calorie count.
The purpose of marinating chicken
Marinades are liquid mixtures used to soak and flavor foods before cooking. Common marinade ingredients include oil, vinegar or citrus juice, herbs, spices, and sometimes dairy products like yogurt. The acidic components in a marinade help tenderize and moisten the chicken by breaking down connective tissues. Oil provides added moisture and allows the spices and herbs to stick to the meat. Salt and sugar also penetrate the chicken to enhance flavor.
In addition to infusing flavor, marinating has some other benefits:
- Tenderizes less expensive cuts of meat
- Adds moisture to prevent drying out during cooking
- Can reduce cooking time
- Introduces new flavors
- Allows meat to absorb spices evenly
Marinating is especially useful for lean types of poultry and meat that tend to easily dry out during cooking. The marinade provides added moisture and flavor to compensate for the lack of fat.
Do marinades add significant calories?
Marinades are made up of ingredients that certainly contain calories, such as oil, sugar, yogurt, etc. But the question is whether enough of these higher calorie ingredients actually get absorbed into the chicken during marinating to make a real difference in the calorie count.
According to the USDA, a 6 ounce raw, boneless, skinless chicken breast contains approximately 210 calories. If the chicken breast is soaked in a marinade overnight, does the calorie count increase significantly?
Several sources indicate that the calories added by marinating are minimal. For example, the PennState Extension service states that marinating meat does not greatly increase the calorie content. The small amount of oil, sugars, etc. that may penetrate the surface of the meat is insignificant compared to the total calories already present in a serving.
One study published in the Journal of Food Science compared marinated and unmarinated chicken breasts after cooking. They found no significant differences in calories or fat content between the two types of chicken. This indicates that while flavor compounds penetrate the meat, larger molecules in the marinade like fats and sugars do not.
Food science writer J. Kenji López-Alt performed an experiment to test the effects of marinating on chicken’s calorie count. He soaked chicken breasts in a marinade containing olive oil and then analyzed their fat content chemically. He found that even after 12 hours of soaking, there was no measurable increase in fat absorption or calories.
Therefore, most evidence suggests that marinating does not add a substantial amount of calories to chicken breast or other meats. The flavors and spices are absorbed into the surface, but the fats and sugars in marinades do not significantly increase calorie counts.
How many calories in popular marinades?
To provide an idea of the relatively low calorie count of many homemade marinades, here is the calorie content in 3/4 cup of some popular flavors:
|Lemon, olive oil, garlic||163|
|Soy sauce, brown sugar, ginger||83|
|Yogurt, lemon juice, dill||98|
|Tomato juice, balsamic, basil||61|
|Beer, mustard, rosemary||64|
As you can see, 3/4 cup of marinade only provides 60-160 calories. Only a small portion of those calories would potentially be absorbed into a few chicken breasts after marinating. So the calories added to the chicken itself would be negligible.
Tips for low-calorie marinades
To keep your homemade marinades as low-calorie as possible, follow these tips:
- Use an oil spray instead of pouring oil directly over chicken – this reduces overall oil calories
- Choose acids like lemon juice, vinegar, or yogurt instead of sugary juices or sodas
- Use herbs, spices, garlic, mustard, etc. for flavor rather than sugar
- Skip dried fruit, honey, or other sugary add-ins
- Use small amounts of oil like olive or avocado oil
- Rinse off marinade before cooking to remove any excess sugars/fats sitting on the surface
Making your own fresh herb-based marinades at home gives you control over the ingredients. This allows you to limit calorie-increasing sugars while boosting flavor with acidity, spices, aromatics like garlic and ginger, and small amounts of oil.
Do store-bought marinades add more calories?
Pre-made marinades sold at the grocery store will often be higher in sodium, sugars, and preservatives compared to homemade versions. Check the nutrition labels when buying store-bought marinades to get an idea of their calorie content.
On average, 3/4 cup of a store-bought marinade can contain 150-400 calories depending on the variety. Thicker, syrupy marinades flavored with juices, molasses, or honey tend to be higher in calories than lighter herb- or vinegar-based marinades.
Even though these pre-made marinades may be higher in calories than homemade, the amount of marinade calories that actually get absorbed by the chicken is still minimal. Just a small percentage of the sugars, fats, and sodium will penetrate into the meat during marinating.
One tip when using a high-calorie bottled marinade is to remove the chicken from the marinade and pat it dry before cooking. This helps limit the amount of excess sugars or oils that remain sitting directly on the surface of the meat. You’ll still gain the flavor benefits of marinating without as much of the calorie-laden marinade sticking to the chicken.
How marinating can affect cooked chicken’s calories
Marinating makes chicken moister and more tender. This can allow you to use lower calorie cooking methods because the chicken won’t dry out as easily. Here are some of the lean cooking techniques you can use after marinating chicken:
- Grilling – Marinated chicken stays juicy on the grill without needing to coat with high-fat sauces or oils. Grill over direct medium heat for 5-7 minutes per side until cooked through.
- Broiling – Marinated chicken can go straight under a hot broiler without drying out. Cook about 6 inches from heat for 18-20 minutes total, flipping halfway.
- Roasting – Roast marinated chicken pieces on a sheet pan at 425°F for 30-40 minutes until cooked through and nicely browned.
- Poaching – Gently poach marinated chicken breasts in simmering water or broth until cooked through, about 10-15 minutes.
- Steaming – In a steamer basket, steam marinated chicken breasts over boiling water for 10-12 minutes until no longer pink.
These lower-fat cooking methods allow the marinated chicken to stay juicy and become fully cooked without needing to fry in oil or coat with high-calorie sauces. So marinating can actually support healthier, lower calorie home cooking.
Does marinating affect the chicken’s nutritional value?
Marinating makes chicken tastier, but does it reduce the nutritional content at all? Chicken breast is prized as a high protein, low fat meat.
The protein in chicken does not break down or leach out during marinating. Studies confirm that marinated and unmarinated chicken have very similar protein content. A 6 ounce serving of chicken breast will provide around 43 grams protein whether it is marinated or unmarinated.
Marinating may end up lowering the total fat content in chicken slightly. Research in the Journal of Food Quality found that brief marinating actually extracted a bit of fat from the surface of the chicken, resulting in a small reduction in total fat compared to unmarinated chicken.
When it comes to vitamins and minerals like B vitamins, zinc, selenium and phosphorus, marinating does not appear to deplete chicken of these nutrients. The flavors soak in, but the marinade does not remove nutrients from the chicken breast.
One exception is sodium, as many marinades contain salt or soy sauce. Marinated meats average about 5-10% higher in sodium compared to unmarinated. However, when using low-sodium ingredients to make your own marinade at home, you can easily control the amount of salt that gets added to the chicken.
Summary of marinating’s effects on nutrition
- Does not affect protein content
- May slightly reduce fat content
- Provides vitamins and minerals from herbs and spices
- May increase sodium if marinade contains salt, soy sauce, etc.
Overall, marinating remains an excellent way to add big flavor without sacrificing the nutrition of lean chicken breast. Home cooks can marinate with confidence knowing the calories, fat, and protein will not change significantly compared to unmarinated chicken.
Marinating chicken breast provides undeniable flavor benefits without packing on many additional calories or fat. While a marinade contains certain calorie-containing ingredients like oil or sugar, very little of those larger molecules actually get absorbed into the chicken during marinating.
Most evidence indicates that the marinade only penetrates the surface and does not contribute meaningful amounts of fat, sugars, or substantial calories into the chicken breast. You can soak chicken in flavorful homemade marinades for short or long periods without worrying about it turning into a high-calorie food.
Marinating chicken breast remains an extremely useful technique for home cooks who want juicy, tender meat with big flavor. By using fresh herbs, acids like lemon juice or vinegar, minimal salt, and moderating oil in marinades, you can pump up the flavor while keeping calories low.
So go ahead and marinate chicken breast before roasting, grilling, or sautéing to ramp up the flavor without the guilt. Track the calories in the raw chicken and any oils used for cooking, but don’t stress about counting the small amounts of marinade ingredients that may have penetrated the surface. Enjoy the benefits of marinated chicken with confidence that you aren’t consuming excessive extra calories or fat.