This is my very best chicken marinade of all time! You simply have to make it! This recipe, originally called Isabel’s Island Chicken Marinade, is one I have made so many times over the years I could do it in my sleep. And many readers and friends have told me how much they love it.

a gray platter with four pieces of chicken

I originally shared this recipe here on February 22, 2012. I have updated the text and images today.

Why This is The Best Chicken Marinade

This Chicken Marinade has been with me much longer than this blog. And it’s totally celebration-worthy because it is one of my most prized recipes. Well, it is not mine, really. I got it from a restaurant where I worked called Isabel’s on the Waterfront. Luckily, I wrote the recipe down, because the restaurant closed down more than a decade ago.

Anyway, when I worked there, I made this AMAZING marinade recipe so many times, I had it memorized. I think I could have made it blindfolded. On our menu it was called Island Chicken Marinade, or more fondly by the crew at Isabel’s, Buccaneer’s Marinade. Today, I’m just gonna straight up rename it the Best Chicken Marinade. Because it is.

I kinda love how even though Isabel’s is gone, the recipe lives on. Not only do I make it several times a year, but I pass it on A LOT! As soon as someone tries a bite of chicken marinated in this recipe, they ask for the recipe. I serve it for parties of 100, or for dinner on a Tuesday night. I never get sick of it. Of course it is a great chicken breast marinade but it is also good with pork loin or tenderloin, flank steak, chicken thighs, scallops and even shrimp.

The Key Ingredients to Make Any Marinade

ingredients for this recipe with text overlay

Salt

The most important thing a marinade has to have is salt or some sort of salty ingredient. The reason is twofold.

  1. Salt makes it possible for our taste buds to perceive flavors better. That is because human’s bodies are made up of salt water.
  2. Think of salt as the Trojan Horse for your marinade. It’s how you’ll get the flava into the the chicken. Basically, salt makes the meat absorb the marinade. Think back to 10th grade science class and remember learning about solutions, osmosis and semi-permeable membranes? Well, salt dissolved into a marinade is a solution. Therefore when you set meat (which doesn’t have salt in it) into the solution which does have sodium in it, you’ve created an imbalance. In other words the sodium wants to balance itself on the inside and on the outside of the chicken’s cellular membranes. With it, it carries the marinade’s flavors too. Sneaky! 

In addition to regular salt, sodium can be added to marinade in the form of other salty ingredients, such as Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce or tamari (like today in this recipe for the Best Chicken Marinade) or my Maple Teriyaki Marinade. Fish sauce is another salty ingredient sometimes used in marinades, like in my Thai Coconut Lime Skirt Steak Recipe.

Acid

Most, but not all marinades contain acid. These acidic ingredients are commonly added because they help to break down the outer layer of the proteins of the chicken, meat, pork or fish. They also add sour flavor which is important to balance with the other tastes of the marinade (salt, bitter, sweet and heat.) Some examples of acidic ingredients added to marinades are citrus juice, vinegar and wine.

Some marinades have fruit juices added to them which serve as both a sweetner (see below) an acid, and a tenderizer. Pineapple and Papaya are known to tenderize meat in particular. That is due to naturally occuring enzymes which speed the process of denaturing the proteins on the surface of the meat. In fact, some meat markets add papaya extract to their marinades for the sole purpose of making tougher less expensive cuts (like steak tips) more tender. 

Allium

I hope I don’t have to convince you this is an important ingredient. Again, it isn’t necessary, but it adds so much impact to the flavor of the final cooked meat. You can add allium by adding in chopped garlic, onion, shallots, chives or scallions to a marinade will make it so much better. 

Spices or Herbs and Other Flavors

These are the ingredients that will be the star of the show. You can go with fiery hot chilis, ginger or herbs. Here’s where you can really get creative, and make the flavors in the marinade taste unique. Ingredients that fall into this flavoring category are dried or fresh herbs, spice pastes such as Thai Red Curry, ginger and ground spices such as cinnamon or cumin.

Juice or Sweetener

Sugar, in the form of maple syrup, honey, brown sugar or even fruit juice can be used in marinade recipes. They help to balance the salty, sour and bitter flavors of the marinade.

Oil or Other Base

Many marinades do not have oil, so they have some other bulking ingredient (such as juice or soy sauce) this makes it so there is enough of the marinade to flow around the surface of the meat. Oil works as a neutral tasting medium to extend the marinade. Other marinade base or mediums you can use are broth, wine or cider.

How to Make The Best Chicken Marinade

The best chicken marinade recipe (bold claim, I know)​ takes no time at all to whip up. The basic steps for making this marinade are as follows: 

cooking the onion and adding the spices

Step 1: Cook the onion and garlic

This trick helps to mellow and sweeten up the onions and garlic, and it helps the flavor of the onion mix into the other marinade ingredients better. It also serves the purpose of having a hot base for the spices and sugar to melt into.

Step 2: Stir in the spices

Add the spices to the hot pan to wake them up, so to speak. As soon as the spices hit the hot onions and garlic, they should kick off a strong scent and make your kitchen smell fantastic. The heat of the hot onion mixture will melt the brown sugar. This is important to make the sugar dissolve into the marinade.

Add the liqid and cool then marinate the chicken

Step 3: Add liquid and cool

Take the pan off the heat and stir in the soy sauce (or tamari) and red wine vinegar. This will help to cool the marinade down.

Letting the marinade cool is essential, as you don’t want to accidentally cook the outside of the meat in the hot marinade! You can quickly cool the marinade by setting your saucepan directly into a bowl of ice water. Or you can decant the marinade into jars let them cool, then cover, freeze or refrigerate them. 

Step 4: Marinate the chicken

Once it is cool, the marinade can be used right away, or you can store it in the fridge or freezer.

a jar of marinade

FAQ and Expert Tips For This Recipe

How long should you marinate your chicken?

For best results marinate chicken for 4 hours or up to 24 hours in this easy chicken marinade. Try not to let it marinate for longer than that as the meat will become dry.

Can other proteins be marinated in this marinade?

Yes! For pork or beef and other poutry marinate it for 4 to 24 hours. Seafood, Fish and tofu can only be marinated for 30 minutes to 1 hour max or the marinade will “cook” the seafood.​

How to Use The Best Easy Chicken Marinade

  • This batch of marinade (which can be doubled by the way) is enough for 7 pounds of chicken, meat or seafood. It is very strong, so a little goes a long way. Use about 1/3 cup per pound of meat, chicken or seafood.
  • To use this marinade combine everything in a shallow baking dish or Ziplock bag and let it marinate in the fridge. This is an important detail as food born pathogens multiply at room temperature. You can read more about food safety and how to safely thaw chicken here.
  • The flavor will better infuse into the chicken the longer you let it marinate. Because this marinade takes just 15 minutes to whip up, you can easily make it before you go to bed and let the meat sit in your fridge all night and during the workday. Then, you can grill the meat as you normally would come dinnertime! 
  • If you don’t happen to use the meat you’ve marinated, but it has been 24 hours, no problem! Simply drain the marinade away, pat the meat dry with clean paper towels, and then return to a clean bag or dish to refrigerate until you are ready to cook it. 

How to Store Chicken Marinade

  • In the Fridge: Because this mixture is so high in acid and salt, it will keep in a clean jar in the fridge for several weeks. The oil will become solid, but you can bring it back to room temperature and stir it together to use it. 
  • Large vs Small Batch: Dividing the batch up into smaller usable portions makes a ton of sense unless you are cooking for a large crowd. If you are making it for a crowd, double (or triple) this recipe if need be. It’s super easy to make a big batch of this island chicken marinade.
  • Make a Big Batch and Divide:  Whenever I make this healthy chicken marinade, I make a big batch of it and freeze it in 2/3 cup portions.
  • How to Freeze the Chicken Marinade: You can freeze this marinade in small containers for several months. Each portion is enough for about two pounds of meat. So convenient! 
a platter of chicken

More Healthy Marinade Recipes To Try

  1. Toss any protein you like into this simple Garlic Marinade and prepare to be wowed! No chopping, no mess- try this technique (all made in a bag) and you’ll never need another marinade recipe again! It works with tofu, shrimp, fish, beef chicken and pork!
  2. This Thai Coconut Lime Grilled Skirt Steak is so juicy and flavorful! Even better, this easy steak recipe requires less than 15 minutes of hands on prep work! 
  3. With this Herb Grilled Chicken recipe you will never have to eat bland dry grilled chicken again! 
  4. Making homemade teriyaki marinade is so simple and so delicious especially when it has maple syrup in it! You’ll never have to buy bottled again. Bonus: this recipe is made with wheat-free tamari so it is gluten-free.
  5. It is so worth the 10 minutes of prep it takes to whip this Garlic Lemon Chicken Marinade together! It is so easy and it simply transforms boneless skinless chicken breast from boring into juicy flavorful grilled perfection! {Gluten-free and Paleo}

Thanks so much for reading. If you are new here, you may want to sign up for my free weekly email newsletter where I share weeknight meal plans delivered right to your inbox. Or follow me on Instagram. If you make this recipe, please come back and leave a star rating and review! It is very appreciated. Happy Cooking! ~Katie

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chicken close up

The Best Chicken Marinade


  • Author: Katie Webster
  • Total Time: 15 minutes
  • Yield: 2 3/4 cups, enough for about 7 pounds of meat 1x

Description

This chicken marinade recipe with allspice, cloves and onion is easily the best chicken marinade EVER. It has sweet Island spices, soy sauce and brown sugar and makes the most irresistible grilled chicken, pork, steak, shrimp or tofu.


Ingredients

Scale
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons avocado oil or organic canola oil
  • 1 large onion, peeled and chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped garlic
  • 1/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 ½ teaspoon ground allspice
  • ¾ teaspoon dry thyme
  • ¾ teaspoon black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Pinch cayenne
  • ½ cup reduced-sodium soy sauce or tamari
  • ½ cup red-wine vinegar

Instructions

  1. Heat olive and oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic, cover and cook, removing lid to stir often, until the onions are softened but not browned, 4 to 6 minutes.
  2. Stir in brown sugar, allspice, thyme, pepper, cloves, cinnamon and cayenne and remove from the heat.
  3. Stir in soy sauce or tamari and red wine vinegar. Cool completely before marinating meat.

Notes

Marinating Times: 15 to 30 minutes for seafood or tofu. 2 to 24 hours for chicken or pork. 4 to 24 hours for steak. Discard used marinade and do not re-use.

  • Prep Time: 15 minutes
  • Cook Time: 0 minutes
  • Category: Dressings, Sauces
  • Method: Stove Top
  • Cuisine: Caribbean

Nutrition

  • Serving Size: 2 tablespoons
  • Calories: 31
  • Sugar: 3 g
  • Sodium: 13 mg
  • Fat: 2 g
  • Saturated Fat: 0 g
  • Carbohydrates: 3 g
  • Fiber: 0 g
  • Protein: 0 g

Keywords: best chicken marinade, healthy chicken marinade