A Chef Explains Why Poultry Is The Most Versatile Meat For Marinating

It's true that you can marinate practically any protein you like, but if you want to experiment with a wide range of flavors, there's one protein in particular that reigns supreme. Tasting Table spoke to Jenn Segal, professional chef and founder of the cooking blog "Once Upon a Chef," to get the scoop on which meat you should go for that will work with practically any combination of seasonings and sauces. Her pick? Poultry, which Segal says is "pretty versatile and takes well to a variety of flavors, from citrus to herbs to spices."

It turns out there's a scientific reason backing up Segal's choice here. Poultry like chicken and turkey are much lower in the protein myoglobin than darker meats like beef, which means they'll have a lighter taste overall. This is good news if you want to make a potent marinade like in Segal's grilled tequila-lime chicken or our tahini-marinated Mediterranean grilled chicken, as your protein can sit back and let the sauce's flavors take center stage. On the flip side, if you want something simpler like an expertly marinated baked chicken, you'll still be able to taste all those yummy seasonings.

Marinades can provide textural benefits too

When it comes to your marinade, those creamy, saucy, zesty ingredients are good for more than flavor. "Things like yogurt or buttermilk aren't just for taste," Segal explains. "They help tenderize the chicken in recipes like grilled chicken kabobs, chicken tikka masala, or fried chicken tenders." There's a few reasons why they do so. The calcium present in dairy products disintegrates the collagen that causes toughness and chewiness, while the lactic acid dissolves proteins to create tenderness. As a bonus, a classic or spicy buttermilk marinade can create the perfect tangy taste to cut through the richer ingredients in a fried chicken recipe.

Yogurt marinades have a gentler tenderizing effect than other ingredients, which is why you'll often find more potent acidic elements like citrus juice or vinegar included in the recipe. All of these will work beautifully with poultry as well. And if you want a combination of creaminess and acidity, mix the two together and throw in seasonings that match the flavors of your meal (such as garam masala for an Indian-style feast or Italian seasoning for a Mediterranean one). Since chicken and turkey can handle practically anything you throw at them, you don't have to worry about going too hard with your marinade.