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How long can I soak chicken in buttermilk?

Soaking chicken in buttermilk before cooking is a popular technique used to help keep the chicken moist and tender. But exactly how long should you soak chicken in buttermilk? Here’s a look at how long you can safely soak chicken in buttermilk and what factors impact the timing.

Quick Answer

The recommended time to soak chicken in buttermilk is 30 minutes to overnight. Soaking for 30 minutes to a few hours is enough time to allow the buttermilk to permeate the chicken. Longer soaking times up to overnight in the refrigerator can further tenderize the meat.

How Long to Soak Chicken in Buttermilk

There are a few general guidelines for how long you can soak chicken in buttermilk:

  • 30 minutes – 2 hours: This amount of time allows the buttermilk to soak into the chicken and gives you tender, moist results when cooking. 30 minutes is the minimum recommended soaking time.
  • 2-8 hours: A longer soaking time will further tenderize the chicken. The buttermilk has more time to break down muscle fibers.
  • Overnight (8-12 hours): Letting chicken soak in buttermilk overnight in the refrigerator is common practice and leads to very moist, tender chicken.

Soaking chicken for only 15-30 minutes will impart some flavor and moisture, but for best results, aim for at least an hour or up to overnight.

Factors That Impact Soaking Time

There are a few factors that can impact exactly how long you want to soak chicken in buttermilk:

Thickness of the Chicken

The thicker the cut of chicken, the longer the soaking time needed. For example, bone-in chicken pieces or a whole chicken will need a longer soaking time than thin boneless skinless chicken breasts. Overnight is best for very thick cuts.

Desired Tenderness

If you want very tender, fall-off-the-bone chicken, soak for the longer end of the time range up to overnight. Quick weeknight meals can get by with only 30 minutes to 1 hour soaking time.

Temperature of the Buttermilk

Warmer buttermilk will penetrate into the chicken faster than cold buttermilk straight from the refrigerator. If you have time, letting the buttermilk come closer to room temperature before adding the chicken can decrease the soaking time needed.

Acidity of the Buttermilk

The lactic acid in buttermilk helps tenderize and flavor the chicken. More acidic buttermilk can work a bit faster. Adding a squeeze of lemon juice can increase the acidity of your buttermilk and speed up soaking time.

How Does Buttermilk Tenderize Chicken?

There are two primary ways that soaking chicken in buttermilk makes it more tender and moist:


Like any marinade, buttermilk has time to penetrate into the chicken’s muscle fibers. The buttermilk permeates the meat, keeping it juicy when cooked. The lactic acid in buttermilk also tenderizes the chicken.


Buttermilk contains salt and acidic lactic acid, providing a light brining effect. The salt helps retain moisture, while the acid denatures proteins. This relaxes muscle fibers over time, leading to tender chicken.

Benefits of Soaking Chicken in Buttermilk

Here are some of the top benefits you get from soaking chicken in buttermilk:

  • More tender and moist chicken
  • Buttermilk flavor infused into the meat
  • Juicier fried chicken or chicken baked in the oven
  • Tenderized texture from the lactic acid
  • Salt and lactic acid lead to enhanced juiciness

Tips for Soaking Chicken in Buttermilk

To get the best results when soaking chicken in buttermilk, follow these tips:

Make Sure Chicken is Fully Submerged

Place the chicken in a bowl or zip top bag and pour over enough buttermilk to cover all the pieces fully. Turn the chicken so the buttermilk penetrates from all sides.

Chill the Buttermilk First

For best safety, only soak chicken in chilled buttermilk. Refrigerate the buttermilk before adding the raw chicken.

Remove from Buttermilk Before Cooking

When the soaking time is up, remove chicken from the buttermilk and pat dry. Discard used buttermilk.

Adjust Soaking Time as Needed

Try a 30 minute minimum soak first, then adjust longer as needed to get the tenderness you want.

Buttermilk Substitutes

If you don’t have buttermilk available, these substitutes also work to tenderize chicken:

Plain Yogurt

Like buttermilk, yogurt is acidic which helps tenderize. The yogurt flavor also pairs well with chicken. Use plain unsweetened yogurt.

Milk & Lemon Juice/Vinegar

The acid from lemon juice or vinegar can sour regular milk to mimic buttermilk. Mix 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar per cup milk.

Coconut Milk

For a dairy-free option, unsweetened coconut milk also tenderizes chicken well. Canned coconut milk works best.

Can You Soak Chicken Too Long in Buttermilk?

While buttermilk is acidic, you don’t have to worry about “over-soaking” chicken and making it mushy. The acids tenderize protein fibers but don’t break them down completely. Overnight soaking simply allows more time for the buttermilk to penetrate deeply.

However, for food safety it’s recommended to limit raw chicken soaking time to 24 hours maximum in the refrigerator. Any longer and bacteria could start growing, especially if the buttermilk becomes too warm.

How to Store Chicken Soaked in Buttermilk

You have a few options for storing chicken soaked in buttermilk:

  • Refrigerate in the buttermilk up to 24 hours. Keep the bowl covered in the fridge.
  • Pat dry and refrigerate up to 2 days. Remove chicken from buttermilk, pat dry, and chill in an air-tight container.
  • Freeze for up to 3 months. Pat chicken dry and tightly wrap pieces or bag for the freezer.

For best texture and taste, it’s ideal to cook chicken within 24 hours of soaking in buttermilk. But freezing gives you the option to prep chicken ahead of time.

Buttermilk Fried Chicken

One of the most popular uses for soaking chicken in buttermilk is fried chicken. The buttermilk marinade makes the chicken extra juicy and flavorful when fried. Try this simple buttermilk fried chicken recipe:


  • 3-4 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 1 tablespoon hot sauce (optional)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
  • Peanut or vegetable oil, for frying


  1. Place the chicken pieces in a large bowl. Whisk together the buttermilk and hot sauce, then pour over the chicken. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to overnight.
  2. In a shallow bowl, mix together the flour, salt, black pepper, paprika, and cayenne. One at a time, remove chicken pieces from the buttermilk, allowing excess to drip off. Dredge in the flour mixture, coating all sides.
  3. In a large heavy skillet or Dutch oven, heat 1″-2″ of oil over medium-high heat to 350°F. Working in batches, fry chicken pieces for 12-15 minutes, flipping once halfway, until golden brown and cooked through.
  4. Transfer fried chicken to a paper towel-lined plate. Allow oil to reheat between batches. Serve chicken hot.

Common Buttermilk Marinades

Beyond plain buttermilk, you can mix in various flavorings and spices to marinate chicken. Here are some popular options:

Buttermilk Ranch

Add ranch seasoning mix and fresh or dried herbs like parsley, dill, chives.

Buttermilk Garlic

Crushed garlic, oregano, basil, and black pepper.

Buttermilk Lemon Pepper

Lemon zest and juice with cracked black pepper.

Cajun Buttermilk

Cajun seasoning blend, hot sauce, garlic.

Buttermilk Brine

Add 2-4 tablespoons of salt to buttermilk to amplify the brining effect.

Buttermilk Chicken Recipes

In addition to fried chicken, here are some more great ways to use chicken marinated in buttermilk:

Baked Buttermilk Chicken

Coat chicken pieces in breadcrumbs or flour after soaking, then bake in the oven until cooked through and crispy.

Buttermilk Chicken Tacos

Shred soaked chicken and serve in tortillas or lettuce wraps with desired taco toppings.

Buttermilk Chicken Salad

Chop or shred chicken and mix with mayo, celery, onion, mustard, herbs for a tasty chicken salad.

Buttermilk Chicken Casserole

Combine chicken with rice, veggies, and cream of chicken or mushroom soup. Top with biscuits or stuffing and bake.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you soak chicken too long in buttermilk?

No, technically you cannot over-soak chicken in buttermilk. The acids will only tenderize the meat so much. However, for food safety do not marinate raw chicken for longer than 24 hours.

Does soaking chicken in buttermilk add flavor?

Yes, soaking chicken in buttermilk imparts a tangy flavor and tenderizes the meat. The lactic acid in buttermilk penetrates the chicken.

Can you soak chicken in buttermilk overnight?

Yes, chicken can be safely soaked in buttermilk overnight in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. Overnight buttermilk soaking maximizes tenderness.

Does buttermilk make chicken juicy?

Buttermilk helps keep baked or fried chicken very moist and juicy. The salts and acids in buttermilk retain moisture and prevent the chicken from drying out.

Is buttermilk the same as milk?

No, buttermilk is different from regular milk. Buttermilk is cultured milk that has been fermented with lactic acid bacteria, giving it a thick texture and tangy flavor.

The Bottom Line

Soaking chicken in buttermilk before cooking is an easy way to keep the meat moist and to impart delicious flavor. Aim to soak chicken for at least 30 minutes, but for the juiciest texture and tenderness, an overnight soak in the refrigerator is ideal. Adjust the soaking time based on the thickness of the chicken and your desired level of tenderness. Buttermilk-marinated chicken is perfect for frying, baking, or any recipe that calls for juicy, flavorful chicken.