The Art of Tenderizing Meat - Why and how you should tenderize your meat!

Is it strange to describe tenderizing meat as an artform? Plenty of professional chefs and experienced home cooks would tell you not to gawk at the skillset required for meat tenderizing. Tenderizing meat properly requires intimate knowledge and care of each cut. Not to mention a deep understanding of temperature, enzymes, fat, and overall anatomy of the meat you're working with. 

Luckily, the ability to tenderize meat doesn't require years of professional training and expertise. With practice, patience, experimentation and a little research, you too can gain an intimate understanding of how to tenderize the toughest cuts of meats out there. Here we are sharing some basic tips you can utilize to make the most out of your meat, right from your own kitchen. 

What does it mean to tenderize meat?

Before we get into why it's important to tenderize meat, let's discuss for a moment what it is. Tenderizing is the process of breaking meat down using either force, slow cooking, and / or chemical enzymes to make the meat easier to cut and chew. 

Think back to the last, best piece of steak you've ever had. Chances are you remember how soft the texture of the meat was. How the meat practically "melted away" in your mouth. This was the result of proper care and the perfect execution of the meat having been tenderized. 

So what makes meat so tough to begin with? Well simply put, you're dealing with muscle. Just like humans, animals move around and with more activity their muscles become not only stronger, but tougher and stiffer as well. It's no wonder that some cuts of meet that come from farm animals, are much easier to tenderize, then those coming from wild game. 

Tenderizing is essential for fully bringing out the umami flavors of the meat as well as any other accompaniments of the dish. Not only will it be easier for you to digest, but the soft texture makes for a truly sensuous, carnivorous experience. Meat is expensive, so it's important to make sure you get the best out of each cut. 

The Hammer Technique

meat tenderizer

By far the most popular method of tenderizing meat, is using a meat tenderizer or a "meat hammer" as they call it. This method involves taking a hammer and beating the meat down until it becomes soft and / or flatter on the surface. Using the flat side of a meat hammer is best for softer meats such as chicken, flank steak, or sir loan. It's also great for pounding out chicken or veal cutlets for recipes that require butterflying the meat. 

Use the textured, or "spiky" side of the meat tenderizer, for tougher cuts of meat, such as a ribeye steak, brisket, or tenderloin. The textured end of the meat tenderizer helps break the surface of the meat, creating small perforations which will allow any marinade to seep through. This not only further tenderizes the meat when cooking, but allows the juices of the marinade and meat itself to coat and sear the outside of the meat, thus locking in the juices. The added benefit of the marinades penetrating the meat improves the overall flavor profile, while allowing any chemical enzymes of the marinade to sufficiently break the meat down further. 

The Slow Cooking Method

meat stew in pan

Ever heard of the famous BBQ mantra "cook it low and slow"? Temperature is one of the most important factors to take into consideration when tenderizing meat. 

As for why slow cooking works, think back to the fact that meat is essentially a muscle. When we touch something that's too hot or too cold, our natural reaction is to tense up. However, if you are in a warm and wet environment, like in an jacuzzi for example,  your muscles naturally relax. 

It's the same with meat. A low but hot temperature, usually around 60°C (140°F), gently relaxes the muscle fibers within the meat. 

When the meat is relaxed the marinades and juices of the meat are able to penetrate and perforate the meat more easily, allowing it to tenderize while maximizing it's flavor profile. The longer this "jacuzzi" effect is prolonged the more tender the meat becomes. 

The Importance of Marinades

marinade chicken

As previously mentioned, using the textured side of a meat tenderizer will help in ensuring that marinades properly penetrate the meat. With that being said, it's no wonder that the ingredients you use in your marinades are incredibly important. 

Some common examples of ingredients that tenderize meats are pineapple juice, figs, kiwi, red wine, ginger, or even coffee. Yes coffee. The main thing these ingredients have in common is that they are all acidic. They not only contain special enzymes which help break down the tough exterior of most meats, but also break down the tougher proteins within the meat itself. 

If you are looking to balance out the acidic flavor profile of your marinade, you can add honey or plain yogurt. Honey will add natural sweetness to your marinade while also containing enzymes to further tenderize the meat. You can also add plain yogurt to tone down the acidic flavors. 

Overall you should experiment with different kinds of marinades and ingredients until you find the perfect flavor combo to your liking. Below we have a basic starter marinade recipe you can use. 

Ingredients

  • ½ cup olive oil
  • ½ cup honey
  •  cup plain yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
  • 4 scallions, washed and slices
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • ¼ cup pineapple juice
  • ½ tsp salt 
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 3 tablespoons dark brown sugar 

Instructions

  1. In a blender, add oil, honey, scallions, garlic, yogurt, pineapple juice, soy sauce, red pepper, cumin, and sugar. Puree together.
  2. Once combined leave inside fridge for at least an hour
  3. Take marinade and leave on steak, brisket or choice of meat for at least 2-4 hours, or overnight. 

Keep in mind, that while the ingredients are crucial to the effectiveness of a  marinade, patience is equally as important. The enzymes used to break down a piece of meat don't work within seconds. Depending on the cut of meat and how tough it is, it can take hours for a marinade to efficiently work it's magic. So ideally you would want a marinade to stay on for at least 2-3 hours before cooking. Overnight would be even better. 

So remember, when it comes to tenderizing meat, patience is a virtue. 

 

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