How to Tenderize Meat: 6 Simple Ways You Should Know
There’s nothing more satisfying than preparing a nice tender meat dish – and nothing more disappointing than biting into it and finding out that it is chewy and tough! There are a few ways to guard against this and the obvious one is to buy the more expensive cuts of meat. Sadly, many of us do not have the budget to do this so we have to buy cheaper cuts and find ways of making them tender. There are plenty of options for tenderizing tough meat and we explain how to carry out the best six here. Read on to find out how to tenderize steak and all your other favorite meats.
Understanding How to Tenderize Meat
A piece of meat is essentially muscle and is therefore made up of muscle fibers connected together by protein filaments. These filaments are called collagen. To make meat tender, you need to break down both the muscle and collagen fibers using energy – this can be chemical or physical. Broken down collagen fibers become gelatin which soaks into the meat making it moist. This produces the juicy meat texture that we love so much. Once you know how to tenderize beef and other cuts of meat, you can eat juicy and tender cuts without having to spend a fortune.
Collagen and muscle fibers can be broken down using physical energy and you provide that energy! The simplest option is to bash the meat with a mallet or a rolling pin but this gives unreliable results. The danger is that you will simply turn the meat into a mush that looks and tastes bad.
A better option is to invest in a specially designed meat tenderizer. These look a little like a medieval torture device but don’t let appearances put you off. They have a strong handle (to withstand the strong forces) and a head covered in many sharp spikes. You hit the meat with the head of the tenderizer and it pierces the muscle fibers without mashing up the whole structure. If you want to have a tender cut of meat but do not want to add any sort of chemical to it, this would be the best option for you. The only downside is that you will have to put in some physical effort but it may be a good way for you to let off some steam without having to go to the gym!
Marinate with Acid or Alkali
Both acids and alkalis will break down muscle and collagen fibers but you have to use them with care. Marinades are primarily for altering flavor and you may not get the texture results that you want. This is because acids denature the meat proteins. The bonds between the protein strands are broken and the proteins unwind. However, as soon as this happens, they bump into each other and bond in a loose mesh. To begin with, the mesh traps water molecules making it tender. But as the bonds tighten, the water gets squeezed back out and the meat becomes tough. The key to success is not leaving the meat in the marinade for too long – never longer than 30 minutes. Some examples of acids used in marinades include lemon juice, lime juice and vinegar.
You may have more success using a baking soda meat tenderizer. As an alkali, baking soda will neutralize acid and raise the pH of the meat surface. This makes it harder for meat proteins to tighten up and bond when you cook the cut so the meat stays tender.
Marinate with Enzymes
You can buy natural meat tenderizer that uses enzymes to break down muscle and collagen fibers and make the meat soft. These are found in fruits including pineapple, papaya, and kiwi. The best way to apply the enzymes is to purée the fruits and add seasoning to make a delicious marinade.
There are a few points to bear in mind when using enzyme tenderizers. Firstly, watch out for pineapple! It contains bromelain which is a very powerful enzyme and if you leave it on meat for too long it will turn it into a mush! The papain found in kiwi is not quite as strong. Secondly, you may also want to steer clear of some commercial meat tenderizers because they contain monosodium glutamate as well as high levels of sodium. Monosodium glutamate, (MSG), has been extensively researched by academics and food experts in recent years. Whilst the FDA have ruled that it is safe, some consumers have reported headaches, flushing of the neck and face, and nausea after eating it. Those with asthma seem to be most severely affected. Also, it is well known that if your intake of sodium is very high, you are more likely to get high blood pressure.
Add Salt to the Joint
Salting is a very traditional method of retaining natural juices when a cut is cooked. It is quick and simple and requires no specialist utensils, knowledge or exotic ingredients; it works on all types of meat. All you have to do is rub salt (rock salt or table salt) on the surface of the tough cut around an hour before you intend to cook it. Leave the meat out at room temperature whilst the salt gets to work. Alternatively, you could make up a solution of salt in water (brine) and put the cut in it for an hour.
The salt denatures the proteins so that they uncoil and become stringy. This helps the meat to retain more water and stops it from drying out during the cooking process. After an hour, wash off the salt or brine under running water, pat the meat dry with a paper towel and cook on a hot skillet. This is particularly effective for steaks.
Slicing with a Knife
Tough cuts can be made a lot more palatable with some clever knife tricks. You could score the surface by making shallow cuts – this helps to break up the proteins. You can combine this with marinating to get the best results.
You can also use a meat knife for tenderizing – you use it to slice cooked steak thinly and working across the grain. By doing this, you break up the tough meat fibers and make them much easier to chew.
Many tough cuts are suitable for slow cooking. This means that you cook them at a low heat but for a long time. Tough cuts of lamb and beef do very well in a slow cooker. If you do not have access to a slow cooker, just set your oven to a low temperature and leave your dish in there for at least five hours. Slow cooked recipes have a lot of broth and are full of flavor.