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How to marinate chicken in lemon juice

How to marinate chicken in lemon juice

Last night I made a tried-and-true recipe from our archives, Zesty Lemon Chicken. I hadn’t made this recipe in a long while … but I knew it would be OK because I developed it myself for our June 2000 issue. What could go wrong?

Something did. The chicken, while tasty, turned out as tough as, well, an old bird.

I’d used organic boneless skinless chicken breasts and marinated them, per the recipe, in fresh lemon juice… though given what I’ve learned over the years, the “marinate overnight” instruction struck me as overkill, so I marinated it only for an hour and a half, turning occasionally.

I also ignored the instruction to marinate in a zip-top plastic bag and used a glass casserole dish instead. (This is probably when I should have realized that I’ve learned a few things in the past 10 years and maybe this recipe wasn’t exactly spot-on.)

Well. When we cut into the cooked chicken, it was not at all like I expected or wanted.

Then it started to dawn on me. Straight lemon juice, without any oil … wouldn’t that “cook” the meat rather than tenderize it?

So I did what any cook does: I went to the Internet. And, according to all kinds of smart people on smart websites, straight lemon juice can, indeed, toughen the protein fibers in a more delicate meat like boneless skinless chicken breast (that’s why it works with fish for ceviche).

"When meat is exposed to an acidic marinade, the bonds break between protein bundles, and the proteins unwind, forming a loose mesh. Initially, water is trapped within this protein 'net' and tissue remains moist and juicy. But after a while, the protein bonds tighten, water squeezes out, and the tissue toughens. Acid bases include vinegar, wine, citrus juice, and tomatoes. Acidic marinades might actually toughen chicken. So when using a highly acidic marinade for chicken, add a little olive oil and/or minimize marinating time. Two hours is usually more than enough time.

"On the other hand, enzymatic marinades work by breaking down the muscle fiber and connective tissue (collagen). Kiwi, papaya, raw pineapple, honeydew melon, and figs all contain protein enzymes (proteases). Again, they might work too well if the marinating goes on too long. Chicken might turn to mush without passing though an intermediate stage of tenderness. Two hours is usually enough time to marinate chicken."

And there you have it. Just goes to show that even long-time food editors make mistakes and need to adjust when things don't work. Now pardon me while I change those instructions in our online recipe (namely: add olive oil!) so someone doesn’t serve tough lemon chicken like I did.

How do you marinate foods? What techniques or marinades work for you?

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