As meat prices continue to rise, it is valuable to know how to use what in the past were called utility cuts. Which is a nice way to say if you don’t handle them properly you will be chewing them for a couple days. But when you do use the right process they will give you some of the best tasting meat you can cook up for friends and family. For that reason some utility cuts from the past have migrated to being sought after. Short ribs, flank steak, flat iron or diaphragm steaks and such have become popular for their flavor. Chuck steaks, shanks, tri-tip, and others are still more of a value.
What they all have in common is needing special treatment to make them enjoyable.
Low and slow cooking is an option, but so are other avenues to make them tender. Besides cooking style, there are two broad categories of tenderizing techniques.
- Physical; needlers, mallets, knives
- Chemical; acids, enzymes, alcohol
These are the areas we will explore.
Timing Is Key
As mentioned, cooking techniques are a big factor in making meats more tender. Obviously there is a foolproof aspect of properly braising or slow cooking meats to get that ideal pot roast for instance. But using other techniques also opens up a variety of cooking styles.
Combining different approaches is also effective. Most of what we will talk about is in the preparation stages. Pounding meat is much more effective (and less messy) when the meat is raw as opposed to cooked. Marinades are prep stages, with the potential to enhance to the sauce used at serving time. Pre and post cooking, your knife skills can contribute to more tender meats. Knowing when to incorporate these is another aspect we will cover.
Physically Changing Texture
You could argue that it is primitive, and you’d win, but pounding meat flesh will make it more tender. From a rolling pin to a specific mallet type to a heavy bottle, you can accomplish this with just about anything. Pounding meat will almost always end with tenderer meat to cook, but it also used to shape meat for different cooking styles.
For tenderizing the traditional mallet with the textured side is effective. Using it in a gentler style will avoid creating a mushy texture. Taking a chuck steak for example, working it over with the textured side of the mallet, you do not want to reduce the height significantly. If it starts at 2” thick, lightly pound it down about ¼” from each side, ending up with a softer 1-1/2” steak when finished.
Mallets have a smoother side. This is to change the shape of the meat. Flatten a chicken breast to stuff as cordon bleu, or make pork loin slices into thin sheets for schnitzel; these are examples of changing the shape. They also have the benefit of tenderizing the meat. You can use the textured side on the last round of pounding to create a cubed steak type of texture for chicken fried steak or such. The pebbling holds breading well. A smooth flattened piece dredged in flour will work for a Steak Diane or a Chicken Picatta or such.
Find the needle
Needle tenderizers come in all shapes and sizes. The commonality is a surface of sharp needles or thin blades that are used to repeatedly puncture the meat. Many of them have a spring loaded guard that will pop back in place after the needles have been pushed into the meat. This process breaking down of the tissue will definitely make a more tender piece of meat.
This process can be overdone and create meat that is too soft. Some people will object to commercially needled steaks because the processors often do not disclose this, except maybe in super fine print. The negative is a grainy, sawdust like texture. Like all the techniques we are looking at, be judicious in how you apply them. Needling is a great step to prepare for marinating the meat since it will improve absorption and fluid penetration.
Slice and dice
As usual, your knife is the work horse of the kitchen. You can emulate the needle technique with a very sharp knife cutting a shallow cross thatched pattern on each surface of the meat. You can also cut the raw meats down into various shapes that will give you a more tender experience. Cubing meat for example, requires less cooking time so it will not toughen up from the heat. Marinate absorption and effect is improved with the smaller pieces. Cutting through the tissues, and specifically across the grain of the meat, literally cuts the tough connective tissue into less noticeable textures.
After cooking, slicing is a hugely important step with many meats and dishes. No one would cut a prime rib lengthwise into long strips. Cutting perpendicular to the grain gives you the best enjoyment of the texture you worked so hard to prepare. Flank, chuck, brisket, tri-tip; these are all examples of meat that yearns for a proper slicing across the grains when it comes time to serve them up.
These will focus on liquid marinades. Don’t misunderstand, we love our rubs and the huge flavors that they impart. The salt that helps these blends penetrate deeper are also known to slightly toughen your meat. So they don’t fit into this focus on tenderizing techniques.
Oil is another outlier for this topic. Use it! Don’t expect tenderizing effects from it though. It is an incredible agent to carry flavor and will help with the cooking processes of your dish. Since marinades do not typically penetrate deep below the surface, you can also enhance the flavors and textures with an injector. Generally this is better done nearer to the time you will begin the cooking process.
Citric acids, vinegar, tea, buttermilk and even wine will help you get a more tender product, although there are some who disagree with this statement. Yes, marinating is inherently a method to transfer flavor, and it really does. But in the short term, two hours or so, these agents will help to relax the proteins in the meat giving you a more tender result. After a couple hours the effects will start to reverse however, and the meat will begin getting tough again.
The quandary is that marinates do not penetrate very deeply into the meat because meat is already mostly water, and the same collagens and tissues that make it tough are resistant to absorption. That is why needling or shallow slicing will enhance the effects of a marinade. They create more surface area to be exposed to the fluid for more tenderizing effect and better flavors.
This is more controversial as a tenderizing adjunct. There is a large school of thought that you should denature, or cook off the alcohol. There are others who swear by wine which brings tannins and citric acid along with the alcohol to help in the tenderizing process.
Beer is another beverage that imparts fun flavor, and it straddles the fence of including alcohol as well as enzymes that will help with tenderization. High alcohol beverages, whiskey and such, can be too strong to be helpful. High alcohol concentration will make things tougher, so be sure to dilute down to 15% or less with your other liquid ingredients.
Pineapple is perhaps the best know meat eating fruit or vegetable. Given enough time the high content of a protease enzyme called bromelain will literally digest the meat as it sits in contact. Papaya, kiwi fruit and mango are also good source fruits for the enzymes that will help tenderize your meats. You want to use them judiciously and for controlled times and temperatures.
More than any other chemical adjunct, enzymes are much more active with higher temperature. They are most effective around 120-150 degrees Fahrenheit. Obviously not a viable marinating temperature. Marinating with these enzymatic components will allow them to adhere and slightly penetrate the meat, then they will become active when you start cooking. A great example is classic pork Al Pastor, where tough pork cuts are sliced and layered with pineapple on a vertical spit for the cooking process.
Cook And Serve
These tenderizing techniques will prepare meat for a variety of cooking techniques. Anticipating your cooking process may dictate the best direction to take in your preparation steps. For example, slices of meat that have been marinated are great to throw on a hot grill because the sugars in the marinade will also caramelize for a nice exterior layer. Searing small cubes in a wok or skillet is another way to enjoy properly prepared meats.
Pan frying thinly pounded meats is a technique throughout a multitude of dishes to prepare. Conversely, needling from both sides of a piece of meat to be roasted can prepare cuts almost three inches thick for tasty tender results. Lastly, diligent knife work has a role to play in both pre and post cooking of the meat.