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A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.
Annabelle is an experienced food writer and editor. She focuses on common sense, easy to replicate recipes formulated to help keep things fresh and exciting while fitting into her day to day life as a wife and mother.
Have you ever bought steaks or chops from a butcher only to find the cuts are gummy and as tough as leather? Well, we’ve all been there. Some cuts of meat are tough naturally, but what you do with the tough cuts after buying is all that matters.
This post highlights some of the best steak tenderizing techniques you can use to soften any type of meat. Whether you’re contending with pork shoulders or chuck roasts, tenderizing can turn the toughest cuts into succulent meals.
Here are a few ways you can make this happen:
Tenderizing Meat Using Tools
Pounding tough cuts into submission is an easy and efficient way of tenderizing meat. For this to work, you only need to use a meat mallet, a rolling pin, a knife or any of the best meat tenderizer tools to pound your meat and break down the tough muscle fibers.
Nevertheless, pounding is not ideal if you plan to grill your meat. Grilling requires you get cuts of meat, which haven’t lost their cohesion or integrity. This method works best if you intend to fry or sauté your meat since it breaks down the connective tissues making the cuts easier to cook.
Then again, not all cuts are suitable for pounding. Ideally, you should only pound smaller, boneless cuts such as hanger steaks, flank steaks and cutlets. Thumping up tough cuts of meat that contain bones could be dangerous if the bones break into small, sharp pieces.
The following are the steps on how to tenderize meat physically:
1.) Lay your cut of meat on a chopping board
2.) Select your tenderizing tool preferably a meat mallet, but you may use a knife, a rolling pin or a heavy skillet as well
3.) Pound the meat evenly over the entire surface. Flip the meat over and continue with the same process until the meat is thin and tender
Tenderizing Meat with Heat
Cooking the meat over low heat for longer periods can help break down the tough muscle fibers and connective tissue. It's an alternative method in meat tenderizing, rather than just using a meat mullet. You can braise, grill, smoke or use a slow cooker to tenderize your meat.
As you are aware, meat consists of long fibers surrounded by a sheath of collagen. When heated at 160° F, the layers of collagen will become gelatinous, leaving your meat tender and succulent.
However, tendering meat with heat is somehow difficult to hack since you have to maintain the temperature between 160° F and 205° F to prevent the meat from drying out.
Even though you can safely cook your tough cuts all day long to make them tender, we do not recommend this since your meat will more likely lose essential nutrients.
Tendering meat with heat is ideal for tough cuts such as beef chuck, short loin, shoulder, brisket, rib and butt. This method doesn’t work well with filet mignon and pork chops.
Here are the steps on how to tenderize meat with heat:
1.) Identify the type of meat you have e.g. chuck roast, shoulder
2.) Choose your heat tenderizer (grilling, braising, smoking)
3.) Slow cook your meat over low heat while maintaining the temperature at 160°F to 205°F until the meat becomes tender
Tenderizing Meat with Fruit Enzymes
Some fruits such as kiwi, papaya, mango, lemon, buttermilk and pineapple, contain strong enzymes, which can help break down tough meat proteins quickly. These enzymes work like magic to speed up the tenderizing process.
In fact, most commercial steak tenderizers consist of dried fruit enzymes further highlighting how effective these enzymes can be in tenderizing your meat.
Besides, these enzymatic fruits will not only make your meat tender, but also add a tasty fruity flavor to your dish. However, some tastes tend to be too strong. With this in mind, you should opt for fruits, which have neutral flavors like the kiwifruit.
Fruit enzymes work best on thinner cuts since they are able to penetrate through the muscle fibers easily and cause fast reactions. However, be extra careful when using fruits like pineapples since they contain the enzyme Bromelain, which can turn your meat into mush if left to sit for too long.
Here’s a guideline on how to use fruit enzymes:
1.) Know the different types of fruits containing tenderizing enzymes
2.) Pick your preferred enzymatic fruit consisting of your favorite flavor
3.) Crush your fruit in a bowl into puree
4.) Alternatively you can use fresh pineapple or mango juice
5.) Marinate your meat with two tablespoons of fruit puree
6.) Let the meat rest in the marinade for at least a day
Tenderizing Meat by Slicing It
Another simple way to tenderize your meat is by slicing it. Apparently, slicing tough cuts of meat into thin pieces makes the meat tender and easier to chew.
However, for this method to work, you have to cut the meat against the grain of the connective tissues rather than parallel to the muscle fibers. This will make the tough fibers come apart easily and seamlessly.
You can also use your knife to perforate across the surface of the steak. This will help break down tough fibers and allow the meat to absorb tenderizing marinades quickly and easily.
You’ll definitely love this tenderizing technique since it gives you the option of slicing your meat before or after cooking. You can slice your meat before cooking making it easier to absorb marinade or after cooking for easy chewing.
Cuts that work well with this method include flank steak and any other type of meat with visibly long muscle fibers.
Tenderizing Meat Using Salt
We know you probably have your doubts about using salt as a tenderizer. However, the notion salt makes meat tough is all but a myth.
Salting meat is a tenderizing method, which has been existence since time immemorial. The greatest chefs in history have been using salt to make their meat soft and tender.
So how does this work?
Well, salting your tough steaks an hour or two before cooking will make your meat tender and juicy. The salt draws the natural juices to the surface of the meat resulting in maximum tenderness.
Moreover, it dissolves the muscle fibers and breaks down tough protein strands quickly thus making your meat soft and chewable.
Nonetheless, not any salt will do. The best type of salt for this is kosher salt or coarse sea salt. Table salt has fine grains, which tend to get absorbed too quickly and could affect the taste of your food.
Here’s how to salt your tough meat cuts effectively:
1.) Place your cut of meat on a cutting board, pan or plate
2.) Generously sprinkle the entire surface of the meat with salt
3.) Turn the meat over and salt the other side while massaging it
4.) Let the meat rest at room temperature for at least one hour
5.) Brush off the salt and pat dry
6.) Cook the meat as desired
Tenderizing Meat by Dry-Aging
Dry aging is a tenderizing technique that uses the meat’s own natural enzymes to make the tough cut tender. It works by storing the meat in controlled, near freezing temperatures for several weeks until it dries out. In simpler terms, dry aging is carefully controlled decomposition.
As nasty as it might seem, dry aging essentially improves the taste and tenderness of the meat, better than any other tenderizing method. As the meat hangs in the climate-controlled environment, its enzymes break down tough muscle fibers resulting in a more tender and tasty cut.
Drying aging tough cuts of meat is a relatively effective way of making your meat tender. However, it takes a long time to attain desirable results. Apparently, you may have to wait for up to 14 days or even more, for your meat to become soft and tender.
Make sure you buy the largest cut since it’s possible you’ll lose about 30% of the meat during the dry aging process. Besides, you have to trim off the dry, yucky outer layer after dry aging your meat.
Steps on how to dry age meat:
1.) Buy a large cut of meat
2.) Set up your fridge or aging station with temperatures of 33-40 degrees
3.) Place the meat on a rack
4.) Leave the meat in the fridge untouched for 14 to 28 days
5.) Remove the dry-aged meat from the fridge and trim it down
6.) Cut the meat into individual steaks and cook as desired
Tenderizing Meat Using Baking Soda
Using baking soda is an excellent option for those who want to tenderize their meat quickly. Apparently, baking soda has alkaline properties renowned for breaking up protein bonds quickly and effortlessly thus turning tough cuts into tender meat.
The only concern with using baking soda is the taste. The alkaline taste never seems to go away even after rinsing your meat thoroughly in running water. With this in mind, you should use baking soda to tenderize meat if you don’t mind the vague alkaline taste remaining in your meat.
Interestingly, baking soda works well with all types of meat. You can use it to tenderize your tough beef cuts and pork chops without much fuss. However, we recommend this method for the smallest and thinnest cuts to get the best results.
How to tenderize meat using baking soda:
1.) Dissolve baking soda in water
2.) Submerge the meat in the water and let it rest for 20 minutes
3.) Rinse thoroughly in running water to remove the baking soda
4.) Pat dry the meat and cook as desired
Alternatively, you may coat the meat with baking soda and let it rest for 15-20 minutes. Wash the meat in clean, running water, pat dry and cook as desired
Tenderizing Meat with Acidic Marinade
Marinating your tough cut of meat won’t make it any tender. After all, the essence of using marinade is to add more flavor to your meat. Moreover, the acids in the marinade might take time to penetrate the meat further delaying the tenderizing process.
As if it’s not enough, many marinades contain sugars, oils and artificial preservatives, which could slow the process down. With this in mind, you should only use this method as a last resort.
However, some acids such as citric found in lemon, vinegar, wine and buttermilk, along with premade rubs, can help break down tough muscle fiber and meat protein. These acids deliberately weaken the protein structure of the meat, making it tender just the way you like it.
In the same breath, make sure you do not leave the meat in the acidic marinade for too long lest the meat will become too soft and mushy for your liking. Here's a neat how-to video on how to make your own marinade.
Here are the steps to tenderize meat in an acidic mix:
1.) Select the right acidic marinade such as wine, vinegar, lemon juice, yogurt or Worcestershire sauce
2.) Pour the marinade in a resealable bag or covered bowl
3.) Submerge your meat in the bag and seal for 2 to 24 hours depending on the thickness of the cut
4.) Remove the meat from the marinade and cook immediately
Allowing Your Meat to Rest
Resting your cooked meat to room temperature before cutting is one of the easiest ways to tenderize your steak. It does not really matter how well you’ve cooked your meat, but if you cut it immediately, you’ll lose up to 40 percent of the essential juices that could have made the meat soft and tender.
If you give the meat time to rest, the juices will reabsorb and redistribute within the meat, making it soft, tender and easy to chew.