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Why do people cook chicken with yogurt?

Cooking chicken with yogurt is a technique that has been used in various cuisines around the world for centuries. The practice likely originated in regions where yogurt was commonly produced, such as the Middle East, Mediterranean, and South Asia. While the specific reasons may vary between cultures, there are some common benefits to using yogurt when cooking chicken.

Tenderizing Effect

One of the primary reasons for cooking chicken with yogurt is to help tenderize the meat. Yogurt contains lactic acid, an acidic compound that helps break down tough muscle fibers in the chicken. This makes the cooked meat much more tender and juicy. The tenderizing effect is enhanced when yogurt is marinated with the raw chicken for several hours or overnight before cooking.

Marinating Chicken in Yogurt

Marinating chicken in yogurt before cooking is a simple technique that produces exceptionally moist, tender meat. The lactic acid in yogurt partially denatures the proteins in the chicken, making the fibers easier to chew. The marinade also allows the chicken time to absorb flavorful spices and seasonings.

Yogurt-based marinades often include:

  • Yogurt – Plain yogurt or Greek yogurt work best.
  • Spices – Garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, paprika, etc.
  • Herbs – Mint, cilantro, parsley, dill, basil, oregano, etc.
  • Oil – Olive oil, vegetable oil, etc.
  • Acid – Lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar, etc.
  • Salt

The chicken is coated in the marinade and refrigerated for anywhere from 30 minutes to overnight. The lactic acid penetrates deep into the meat for maximum tenderizing.


In addition to tenderizing chicken, yogurt helps keep the meat very moist during cooking. Yogurt contains fat and proteins that prevent the chicken flesh from drying out. This effect is amplified when yogurt is used as a marinade, allowing the moisture to penetrate deeply into the chicken over time.

The moisturizing properties of yogurt make it ideal for oven-baking, grilling, or roasting chicken pieces. These dry heat methods can easily produce tough, dried-out meat if not properly prepared. Marinating in yogurt provides a protective buffer against overcooking.

Baking Chicken with Yogurt

Baked chicken marinated in yogurt turns out incredibly juicy and flavorful. The yogurt keeps the lean breast meat from becoming dry and stringy. Thighs, legs, wings, and other dark meat benefit from extra moisture retention as well.

To bake chicken with yogurt:

  1. Mix 1 cup yogurt with desired seasonings to make a marinade.
  2. Coat chicken pieces in marinade and refrigerate 1-8 hours.
  3. Bake on a sheet pan at 425°F for 20-30 minutes until cooked through.
  4. Let rest 5 minutes before serving.

The yogurt marinade creates a barrier between the chicken and the heat of the oven, resulting in meat that stays tender and juicy throughout the baking time.


Yogurt provides a tangy, creamy flavor that complements and tenderizes chicken beautifully. When used as a marinade or cooking sauce, yogurt allows spices, herbs, and other seasonings to infuse the meat with lots of flavor.

The natural sweet-tart taste of yogurt balances well with bold, spicy seasonings. It also forms a rich, aromatic sauce that clings to the chicken, keeping it moist and adding flavor with each bite. Yogurt’s versatility allows it to be used in all types of global cuisines and flavor profiles.

Indian Chicken Curry with Yogurt

Yogurt is integral to many Indian chicken curries. It provides creaminess to temper the heat of spices like cumin, coriander, and chili. A simple curry can be made by:

  1. Browning chicken pieces in oil with onion, garlic, ginger, and spices.
  2. Simmering in a sauce of tomato and yogurt.
  3. Finishing with cilantro.

The yogurt gives a tangy contrast to the rich curry while keeping the chicken exceptionally moist. The sauce clings to each tender bite.


Using yogurt when pan-frying or sautéing chicken can help promote browning through a process called the Maillard reaction. The amino acids and sugars present in yogurt react with the chicken at high heat to produce those desirable caramelized bits.

Browning adds layers of complexity and flavor to chicken. Yogurt’s acidity accelerates the Maillard reaction compared to cooking with water or oil alone. This produces deeper, richer browning in less time.

Pan-Roasted Chicken Thighs with Yogurt

Chicken thighs develop incredible crispy browned bits when pan-roasted in yogurt. The technique is simple:

  1. Coat boneless, skinless thighs with salt, pepper, and spices.
  2. Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.
  3. Brown thighs for 2-3 minutes per side.
  4. Add yogurt and roasted vegetables to skillet.
  5. Simmer until chicken is cooked through and vegetables are tender.

The up-front browning step helps develop those sought after crispy bits and caramelized flavors before gently simmering everything together in the yogurt sauce.


Yogurt provides a neutral background that allows other flavors to take center stage. Its mild tang complements all sorts of global seasonings without overpowering them.

When cooking with strong spices or assertive ingredients like garlic, ginger, or chilies, yogurt helps balance and round out the flavors. It also cools down heat from spices, allowing their aromas to shine.

Chicken Tikka Masala

In traditional chicken tikka masala, chicken is marinated in yogurt and bold Indian spices like cumin, coriander, turmeric, and chili powder. The yogurt allows these strong flavors to penetrate the meat while still keeping them balanced.

The chicken is then simmered in a creamy, mildly spiced tomato-yogurt sauce. The yogurt adds cooling contrast to the heat of the dish.

Browning Prevention

While yogurt accelerates browning in pan-frying, it does the opposite when used in moist cooking methods like braising, stewing, or curries. The moisture in yogurt prevents chicken pieces from getting too dark or crispy when simmered for long periods.

This helps maintain the tender texture of the chicken and ensures it cooks through without burning. The yogurt sauce clings and coats each piece, protecting it from excessive browning and evaporation.

Butter Chicken

In classic Indian butter chicken, chicken breasts are gently simmered in a creamy, tangy tomato-yogurt sauce known as makhani. The yogurt helps prevent the delicate chicken breast meat from drying out or getting too browned.

The chicken stays moist and tender, even after hours of gentle simmering in the rich sauce. The yogurt also lends cooling contrast to the dish’s warm, buttery spices.


Yogurt adds luxurious thickness, richness, and body to sauces and gravies. The creaminess coats the chicken in each bite, adding satisfying mouthfeel. Yogurt creates sauces that cling to the meat instead of becoming watery.

This texture enhances the overall enjoyment of the dish. It transforms a plain chicken dish into an indulgent experience. The thickness also allows flavors to coat and stick to the chicken rather than washing off.

Chicken Paprikash

Hungarian chicken paprikash features chicken braised in a thick, creamy yogurt-based gravy flavored with sweet paprika. The yogurt gives the sauce a smooth, velvety texture that clings to each tender morsel of chicken.

Sour cream or heavy cream can also be added for extra richness. The luxurious texture takes this simple braise to the next level.


Yogurt’s tangy flavor comes from lactic acid, an acidic compound produced by lactic acid bacteria during yogurt fermentation. The acidity brightens and balances the richness of chicken. It also heightens your tastebuds’ perception of other flavors.

This acidity makes yogurt an ideal ingredient for marinades, as it begins gently “cooking” the chicken at the molecular level to enhance tenderness. The brightness also cuts through fattiness while complementing aromatics like garlic, ginger, and onions.

Yogurt Chicken Kebabs

Chicken kebabs marinated in a yogurt-based marinade take on tons of bright flavor. The yogurt tenderizes the chicken and allows seasonings to penetrate deeply.

Common additions include:

  • Lemon juice
  • Garlic
  • Spices like cumin, coriander, and turmeric
  • Herbs like mint, cilantro, dill

The yogurt’s acidity balances the richness of the charred meat for a satisfying contrast of flavors.


As described earlier, yogurt contains lactic acid that breaks down tough muscle fibers in chicken to make it more tender. This effect happens both when marinating raw chicken in yogurt and when cooking chicken in yogurt-based sauces.

The tenderizing effect helps prevent overcooking and produces chicken with a smooth, delicate texture. Yogurt allows the chicken to become fall-off-the-bone tender without requiring excessive cooking time.

Moroccan Chicken Tagine

In Moroccan tagines, chicken is braised with yogurt and warm spices like cumin, turmeric, ginger, and saffron. The yogurt tenderizes the chicken while creating a robustly flavored sauce.

Olives, apricots, chickpeas, and almonds are often added. The chicken turns out melt-in-your-mouth tender after simmering gently in the aromatic yogurt broth.


When handled properly, yogurt is a safe ingredient for marinating and cooking chicken. It does not need to be fully cooked like raw meat or eggs. The main safety concern is avoiding cross-contamination when handling raw chicken.

To use yogurt safely:

  • Use separate utensils and surfaces for raw chicken vs. yogurt.
  • Wash hands and utensils thoroughly before and after contact with raw chicken.
  • Never reuse marinade that touched raw meat unless boiling it first.
  • Cook chicken to a safe internal temperature of 165°F.

As long as basic food safety principles are followed, yogurt can be used worry-free in your chicken dishes.

Reusing Yogurt Marinades

For food safety, marinades that have been in contact with raw chicken should not be reused without proper precautions:

  • Discard used marinade or boil it for 10+ minutes before reusing.
  • Always use a clean utensil and container for reused marinade.
  • Never baste chicken with used marinade or use as a sauce without boiling first.

With proper handling, fresh batches of yogurt marinade can be reused safely multiple times.


Yogurt provides nutritional value to chicken dishes beyond just great flavor. It contains protein, calcium, probiotics, vitamins, and more. Using yogurt boosts the nutritional quality of chicken.

Specifically, yogurt provides:

  • Protein – Strengthens bones, muscles, and immunity.
  • Calcium – Important for nerve and muscle function.
  • Vitamin B12 – Essential for energy and brain health.
  • Riboflavin (B2) – Converts food into energy.
  • Probiotics – Support healthy gut bacteria.

The live cultures found in many yogurt varieties may also boost digestion of chicken by those with lactose intolerance.

Nutrition Facts of Yogurt

Here are the nutrition facts for 6 ounces of plain, low-fat yogurt:

Nutrient Amount
Calories 154
Fat 3.5g
Protein 13g
Calcium 349mg
Vitamin B12 1.4mcg

Yogurt provides protein, calcium, probiotics, vitamins, and more to boost the nutrition of chicken dishes.


Yogurt is an extremely versatile ingredient that can be used in a diverse array of worldwide cuisines. Its neutral tang complements bold Middle Eastern spices, aromatic Indian curries, spicy Mexican dishes, and more.

Yogurt can be used to marinate or cook chicken in many creative ways:

  • Marinades: Tandoori, tikka masala, Greek, Persian, Southern barbecue
  • Curries: Butter chicken, korma, chickpea curry, vegetable curry
  • Braises/Stews: Tagine, paprikash, garlic chicken
  • Grilled: Kebabs, tandoori, satay
  • Baked: Tray bake, barbecue chicken, chicken Parmesan

The options are endless! Yogurt always adds a cooling, creamy contrast to chicken’s richness.

World Cuisines Using Yogurt with Chicken

Here are just some of the many cuisines that frequently use yogurt in chicken dishes:

Cuisine Dishes
Indian Butter chicken, tikka masala, korma
Middle Eastern Shawarma, tagine, kebabs
Mediterranean Greek baked chicken, chicken gyro
Eastern European Paprikash, chicken stroganoff


Cooking chicken in yogurt is a time-tested technique that boosts flavor, tenderness, and moisture. Yogurt’s unique properties allow it to tenderize, marinate, brown, cook, and add creaminess to chicken dishes across cuisines. It brings nutritional value and versatile flavor to backyard barbecues, hearty stews, quick weeknight meals, and gourmet entrees alike.

Yogurt’s mild tang balances and complements the savory richness of chicken beautifully. Once you try cooking chicken with yogurt, you may never go back to plain old chicken recipes again!