How to Tenderize Tough Cuts of Meat
There's nothing quite like biting into a delicious, perfectly cooked, and super tender piece of meat. Both the flavor and texture combined with that smokiness and sear that can only come from cooking on a grill just can't be matched by other foods. But what about when your meat isn't so tender?
For every fillet you can cut with a fork, there's also a shank so tough you'll have to take a circular saw to it. Regardless of how flavorful a cut of meat might be, it won't amount to much if you can barely chew it. When this happens, your meat will need to be thoroughly tenderized before you can eat it.
But how do you go about tenderizing a cut of meat? Is there more than one way to make something more tender? What are you going to need to do it? These questions and more will be answered in this guide on how to tenderize tough cuts of meat.
Why is Meat Tough?
To understand how to tenderize, you must first understand why meat is tough to begin with. In general, there are a few key ways in which meat becomes naturally tender, with the first being age.
Simply put, age firms meat. The older the animal you're eating was, the tougher its meat will be. This is why the best cuts of meat always come from younger animals, with types of meat like veal and lamb are so highly prized for their flavor and softness.
Additionally, exercise can toughen meat. The more a muscle is used, the firmer and stronger it becomes. This carries over once an animal has been slaughtered, with cuts that come from areas of high activity like the legs of diaphragm being extremely tough compared to the rarely used muscles along the back.
Finally, overcooking is one way to ruin any piece of meat no matter how tender it is normally. Cooking meat causes the proteins within to become firmer, meaning the longer a piece of meat is cooked the tougher it becomes (in general, as a few exceptions apply that we'll discuss shortly).
Longer cooking also forces moisture out of the inside of the meat, causing it to dry out if not kept moist during the cooking process. This is one of the reasons why most experienced chefs prefer rarer meat to well done.
What You'll Need To Tenderize Meat
To tenderize meat, you'll need some specific equipment. What this equipment is, however, can differ depending on which method you use. For convenience, the materials needed to tenderize cuts of meat using each method presented will be listed down below prior to explaining the techniques involved.
Probably the most well known method of tenderization is via pounding. For this method, all you'll need (at minimum) is a good meat mallet, though there are a few other pieces of equipment that can serve to make the process easier and quicker. The full list of materials includes:
- Metal meat mallet.
- Textured board.
- Plastic wrap (for easy cleanup).
Cooking tough meat slowly over long periods of time is a great way to soften it up, though you will need to introduce a lot of flavor and moisture to keep it from drying out. In order to do this, you'll need a few more specialized and technological ingredients compared to other methods and will differ quite dramatically depending on the cooking method you employ.
For braised dishes, you might need:
- Large stainless steel stockpot.
- Sharp knife (for trimming fat and silverskin).
For barbecued dishes, you would use:
- Barbecue grill and fuel.
- Smoking wood.
- Aluminum foil.
The simplest means of tenderizing a piece of meat, tough or tender to begin with, is just slicing it right. The simplicity makes this an attractive as well as effective option no matter what kind of dish you prepare. To do this, all you'll need is:
- Sharp kitchen knife.
- Carving fork (for larger pieces of meat).
Marinade in Acids or Enzymes
While marinading meat all on its own doesn't do anything but add more flavor to a piece of meat, marinades containing certain acids or enzymes can break down meat fibers as they soak. In order to utilize this method, you will need:
- Acidic substances (citrus juices, buttermilk, etc.).
- Natural enzymes that break down protein (papaya juice, pineapple juice, etc.).
- Large plastic bag or container for marinading.
Beyond just marinades, salt can be an effective means of tenderizing meats. While there are several ways to properly utilize salt for tenderizing meats, there is only one ingredient that needs to remain constant. That is, as one would expect:
How to Tenderize
Now that you know what kind of tools you'll need to do the job, you can follow along with the method for tenderizing that you like the best.
You now have the skills to fix up any cut of meat you could want so that it's as tender and delicious as a fillet. With so many different methods to choose from, there's sure to be one that fits your cooking style and the dish you want to prepare. No longer will you have to suffer a tough and uncomfortable meal with a disappointing steak, as you can easily and skillfully tenderize it in an instant.
Have any tenderizing tips you want to share? Leave a comment about it down below. And if there's anyone in your life who might need some help learning how to prepare their meat, give this guide a share.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Do You Make Meat Tender?
In this article, we explain exactly how to make meat tender! Our favorite techniques are pounding, slow cooking, thinly slicing, marinating in acids and enzymes, and salting. Read above for the details on each of these techniques.
How do You Use Meat Tenderizer Powder?
Meat tenderizer powder uses an enzyme powder (usually papain, which comes from papayas) to break down the protein structure in a piece of meat. Just before cooking, sprinkle some tenderizer over the meat. A good rule of thumb is 1 teaspoon powder for every pound of meat.
What Can You Use as a Natural Meat Tenderizer?
Papaya and pineapple contain natural enzymes that rapidly break down the protein structure in meats. You can also use black tea (which contains tannins) or acidic ingredients (like wine, citrus or vinegar). Beer and buttermilk (or yogurt) are also popular natural tenderizing ingredients.
Do You Need a Mallet To Tenderize Meat?
No, a mallet might make it easier to pound meat to the desired thickness, but it is not strictly required. You can place the meat between two pieces of plastic wrap and use a rolling pin, or the bottom of a heavy pot or pan, to pound out the meat.
How Long Do You Leave Meat Tenderizer On?
Powdered meat tenderizer works very quickly, so you should only need 30 minutes when using an enzyme. If you are using citrus or other acidic ingredients, it can stay on for a few hours. Salt by itself can go as long as 24 hours.