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I learned, that "marinating" for days before cooking, doesn't actually work, since nothing can actually penetrate the meat very deep.

However, with salt, it seems to be a different story.

Does that mean, that marinating works, but only the salt is actually penetrating the meat?

And does that also mean, that when dry brining, you should rather only use salt in order to maximize its absorption and not have other stuff stand in the way?

Are there other ingredients, which penetrate the meat in a matter of days, like salt?

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First: the information that "marinades only penetrate 1/8 inch" appears to be entirely from the show America's Test Kitchen (ATK); I reviewed multiple articles on it on the internet, and all of them cited ATK or didn't cite any source. I mention this because ATK has been wrong before due to flawed test conditions, so maybe some judicious testing of your own is in order. Assuming that ATK is correct, though, here's answers to your questions:

  1. With marination, only the salt will affect the meat more than 1/8 inch deep. However, the other flavors will affect that top 1/8 inch, so if you're eating that portion you still care. Also, some marinating techniques like lechon asado involve piercing the meat many times, which lets the marinade penetrate more of the meat by increasing the surface area.

  2. For a dry brine, having ingredients other than salt would only interfere with the brining process if the other ingredients were on thickly enough to keep the salt from contacting the surface. Since dry brining rarely involves a 100% salt coverage (although there are a few that do), this seems unlikely to be a real problem.

  3. Sugar will actually have a similar effect on meat as salt does; both denature proteins and increase moisture retention. Of course, sugar is rarely used to brine meat, but it is used for fish. Serious tenderizers, like bromelain from pineapple, may also penetrate the meat -- certainly we believed it did for South Texas fajita recipes -- but I haven't ever seen an actual scientific test of this.

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    To be fair though, the 1/8 inch penetaration is only achieved after (if I remember correctly) 8 days of marinating. 1-2 days marinating will probably penetrate a lot less. But I appreciate your comment about the "mechanical" marinating technique and the fact, that this all seems to stem from a single source. I looked at different articles and thought, that this is a widely believed fact, but didn't know they all based their articles on the same source! – user1721135 Apr 27 at 21:51
  • According to the ATK source, the 1/8in penetration is achieved after 1-2 hours of marinating. – FuzzyChef Apr 28 at 5:49

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