I own all the latest culinary doodads and gadgets, but all I really need is my trusty chef’s knife and my grandma’s cast iron frying pan.
How Can I Make This Steak, Chop, Loin, or Roast More Tender?
Even if I could afford to buy filet mignon or Wagyu or jamon Iberico every day, I wouldn’t want to. For so many reasons, it’s important to use every part of the animal. Besides, I know that some of the least fancy cuts are completely worth the extra time it takes to prepare them. My favorite stew is made with the cheapest rump roast I can find, but when I’m done with it, it tastes like a million dollars!
Every cook has their own preferred method for transforming cheap, tough meat into delicious, tender mouthfuls. Here, I’ve gathered every meat-tenderizing technique in one place. Most of these methods work on any kind of meat: beef, pork, lamb, goat, buffalo, venison, etc., and for each method, I list on which cuts it works best.
Note: Many of these methods work on poultry (chicken, turkey, etc.), but I’m mainly focused on meat in this article!
8 Surefire Ways to Tenderize Meat (Plus a Controversial One)
- Pound it into submission. Use a mallet or cover it in saran wrap and thump it with a rolling pin or a heavy skillet.
- Cook It long and low. Both dry heat (like on a grill), or wet (as in a braise, stew, or crock pot) will do.
- Use fruit enzymes to break up the proteins. See the list of fruits below.
- Dry-age it (if you have time). This process uses the meat’s own enzymes to break down the muscle tissue.
- Use a knife to either macerate the raw surface so that it absorbs the enzymes/marinade more deeply, or slice the cooked meat thinly and against the grain. Either way, you’re using a knife to help you chew. If you have a meat grinder, you can turn it into ground meat.
- Use baking soda. This method is not for everyone, but you can’t make many Asian meat dishes without knowing how.
- Use salt. Although some science-types insist that salt makes meat drier (and therefore tougher), it has been used as a tenderizer for centuries, and all serious chefs and in-the-know foodies salt their meat before cooking.
- Let the cooked meat sit before cutting. This is the final, crucial step for all cuts and types of meat.—The next method is controversial, but definitely worth mentioning:—
- Use an acidic marinade. Some people swear it helps tenderize the meat, but others argue it only adds flavor.
Each of these methods is described fully below.
1. Use Your Muscles
The oldest, easiest, and most obvious way to tenderize meat is to pound it into submission. Use a mallet or cover it in saran wrap and thump it with a rolling pin or a heavy skillet.
When should I use a meat mallet?
This method is best if you plan on frying or sautéeing quickly, but isn’t recommended if you want to use the grill. Since you’re manually breaking the fibers, the meat will lose some of its cohesion and integrity.
Which cuts should I use a mallet on?
For obvious reasons, pounding works best on smaller, boneless pieces like cutlets and steaks. Pummeling a roast with a heavy skillet would be dangerous, for you and the roast!
2. Cook It Long and Low
With a little heat and a lot of time, the collagen in the toughest cuts eventually breaks down, leaving you with shreds of tender, juicy meat.
How does heat make meat tender?
Meat is made up of long fibers, each individually wrapped in a sheath of collagen, a connective tissue that, when heated too high, shrinks and squeezes out the juices. That’s why well-done meat is tougher. But if you keep the heat from 160° to 205°F, the collagen begins to gelatinize and the meat gets more tender.
How low should I go?
Anywhere from 160° to 205°F will work, but 190°F is the sweet spot.
How long is long enough to cook meat?
Old-school chefs say all day, but I say two and a half hours. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s article on this topic, Why You Shouldn’t Cook Your Beef All Day is worth reading.
What method of long, slow cooking works best?
You can use either dry (grilling or smoking) or wet heat (braising or stewing). You can use a slow-cooker or a dutch oven.
Which cuts have the most collagen?
Brisket, rib, beef chuck, shank, short loin, shoulder, or butt. These all respond well to slow cooking, but chops and filets don’t.
Food for thought: Overcooking or cooking too fast will render a tough piece of meat even tougher. If you’re the impatient type, use a thermometer.
Tender Korean Bulgogi
(made with hanger steak or boneless short ribs) owes its magnificent tenderness to a marinade of Asian pear.
3. Use Fruit Enzymes
Some fruits contain protease, a kind of enzyme that’s great for breaking down meat proteins. These fruits especially:
- kiwi is at the top of the list since it contains actinidin, which works gently and has a neutral flavor. Some cooks let the meat sit in a kiwi marinade for almost a week.
- pineapple contains bromelain, an enzyme that is so strong it will turn your meat to mush if you’re not careful.
- Asian pear
How much fruit should I use? Include up to two tablespoons of the mashed fruit per cup of marinade, but be careful not to let it marinate for too long or it will turn to mush. If you happen to have pineapple or mango juice, you can use that, too.
What temperature works best? Fruit enzymes work best between 50-70°C (120-160°F).
Which cuts work best with fruit enzymes? Just like with other marinades, fruit enzymes work best on thinner cuts.
What about a commercial tenderizer? Most pre-packaged tenderizing powers are made with dried fruit enzymes. I prefer to use the whole fruit, but many people swear by them.
What About Ginger?
Ginger also contains a proteolytic enzyme that breaks down protein and tenderizes meat.
4. Dry-Age Meat for Tenderness
Dry-aging uses the meat’s own enzymes to break muscle fiber down and results in a more tender and flavorful cut.
How long does it take to dry-age meat? There is some debate about this.
- Some, including Cook’s Illustrated, say four days is probably the longest you should risk in a non-commercial cooling unit. Most recipes for roasting meat in Cook’s Illustrated call for aging it for 1 to 4 days and they also recommend salting and rubbing it with butter.
- But others, including The Food Lab’s Complete Guide to Dry-Aging Beef at Home, say 14 to 28 days is best.
- If you have a large sub-primal cut of meat, most agree that a couple weeks of aging is enough. The older you leave it, the funkier it will get, but some people like it funky. I suggest you experiment in your fridge to discover what works best for you.
Which spot in the refrigerator works best for dry-aging?
According to America’s Test Kitchen, the ideal goal for humidity is from 80 to 85% and the ideal temperature is between 33 and 40 degrees. Their team recommends putting the meat at the back-most, bottommost part of the refrigerator (the coldest part). Since most home refrigerators lack the humidity control of commercial ones, they also recommend wrapping the meat in several layers of cheesecloth and placing it on a wire rack. Many chefs recommend placing the meat near the fan, if possible. The meat should be occasionally turned to help it age evenly.
What happens when meat is dry-aged?
- It gets significantly more tender.
- The dried or yucky outer layer will need to be trimmed.
- You’ll lose up to 30% of the cut due to moisture loss and/or trimming.
- It develops a deep, nutty, umami flavor and aroma.
Which meats are ideal for dry-aging?
Beef is commonly aged, of course, but it works on pork, too. It is important that you start with as large a piece as possible, the whole sub-primal cut—the top round or whole tenderloin, for example—bone-in, with fat caps intact. If you can get the butcher to give it to you before it is cut into smaller steaks, this is ideal. Dry-aging smaller pieces will not be worth your while in terms of tenderness or flavor, and you might lose too much to trimming.
5. Let the Knife Do the Chewing for You
- Cut the connective tissue to make it more tender. Slice the cooked meat thinly, against the grain. Your knife should bisect the muscle fibers, not follow them. This is especially important for flank and skirt steaks.
- You can also use your knife to perforate the outer surface of the raw meat before you marinate or salt.
- If you have a meat grinder, you can take it to the next level by turning tough cuts into tender ground meats.
6. Use Baking Soda
Cook’s Illustrated explains how baking soda alkalizes the surface of the meat, hampering the proteins’ bonds and making the meat more tender. Many people love this method, but some complain that even after rinsing, a vaguely alkaline taste remains.
Which meat or cuts work best? Any kinds, but since it does affect both the taste and the texture of the meat, use only the cheapest, toughest cuts. Also, since it only works on the surface, this method should only be used on the smallest, thinnest, bite-sized pieces.
Through this article, we hope to help you understand How to soften stew meat