Some steak cuts, such as filet mignon, naturally possess a tender texture, but many tougher cuts, such as the top sirloin and skirt, cost less and provide richer, fuller flavor. Once you learn the basics of the three main methods for tenderizing meat before cooking it, you can experiment with combinations of different methods for different cuts of meat to find what works best in your kitchen.
Mechanical tenderizers physically alter the structure of the meat, breaking down the connective tissues before you cook it. There are three main mechanical meat tenderizing techniques, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.
Marinating helps infuse food with flavor, while certain ingredients also help soften the tough fibers to tenderize meat. Some examples include the following:
- Acids, such as vinegar or lemon juice, which break tightly bonded proteins apart as the meat soaks. Unfortunately, if the acids are allowed to work too long, they squeeze moisture out, leaving meat tough. For example, shrimp that have been left marinating too long in a very acidic mixture end up tough and rubbery.
- Enzymes, typically derived from pineapple, kiwi and papaya, which also work to break collagen and muscle fibers down. Some enzymes, particularly the bromelain in pineapple, are very strong and can quickly turn your meat from tough to tender — and then to mush.
- Dairy products, such as buttermilk and yogurt, which are only mildly acidic. Fine Cooking points out that buttermilk and yogurt contain calcium that helps activate the naturally occurring enzymes in meat that break down protein in a similar fashion to aging.
Perhaps the most well known example of this technique is the humble pot roast. In this dish, a relatively tough cut of beef — usually a chuck roast — gets slowly cooked to an internal temperature that actually melts the collagen in the connective tissues, leaving it fork tender and full of flavor. This meat tenderizing technique can come from the dry heat of the grill or wet heat of braises. The key is to slowly apply the heat to prevent the exterior from burning before the tissues are able to completely break down in the center. This method is ideal for barbecuing or cooking collagen-filled cuts, such as brisket, pork shoulder or ribs, but it will do little for lean cuts, such as filet mignon, which contains minimal connective tissues.