Four Different Ways to Tenderize Meat
These techniques work on beef, pork, poultry, and lamb.
While some cuts of meat are naturally tender (such as the aptly named tenderloin), other cuts need more coaxing before they will melt in your mouth. "Tenderizing methods should be applied to tougher cuts of meat often found in or around the legs—the most active muscles," says Tu David Phu, chef and founder of Tumami Spices, known for his appearance on Top Chef.
Chef Phu learned a lot about meat early on in his career—he was a butcher's apprentice before going on to work in Michelin starred restaurants. He notes that tenderizing techniques can be used for all meats, not just beef: Poultry, lamb, pork, and goat can all be made more tender with the right method. A proponent of grass-fed beef, Phu rejects the assertion that this type of beef is tough: "Grass-fed is generally leaner, but that does not necessarily translate into a tough cut of meat unless you over cook it," he says. Here, he shares the four ways of tenderizing meat he recommends.
The simplest method for tenderizing meat may be brute force. A meat mallet or tenderizer ($39.99, williams-sonoma.com) often has two sides—one flat and the other textured. While the flat side is for pounding cutlets into thinner scaloppine style pieces that can be quickly cooked, the textured side will break some of the tougher muscles and fibers to tenderize cuts of meat. Using a meat mallet takes practice. Too much or too vigorous pounding will lead to torn cuts of meat instead of those coveted tender cutlets. Alternatively, a meat grinder can turn the toughest cuts into tender ground meat.
Meat tenderizes over time. That's why the "low and slow" cooking technique is so effective and why beef is often aged. Explains Phu, "In dry aging microbes break down the meat over time, and evaporation contributes to meat tenderization. But it can only be applied to cuts that have been crafted, craved or butchered to withstand the disintegration that happens on its exterior."
Another way to tenderize meat is through cooking. Phu explains that cooking meat for extended lengths of time tenderizes. That's why barbecue and certain roasts and braises are all cooked at low temperatures. Sous vide is another technique for cooking meat at low temperatures to achieve a tender result.
A solute is a substance that can be dissolved by a solvent to create a solution. Phu says several solute ingredients that have a tenderizing effect, such as egg whites, salt, acids, and fish sauce. Velveting is a method of quickly marinating meats with egg whites and cornstarch, which forms a barrier to maintain juiciness during cooking. Says Phu, "I swear it works. It is best to be applied to tough cuts of meat that are thinly sliced to speed up the marinating and tenderizing process." While commonly used for beef and pork, he says it also works wonders for chicken and notes it has been a common practice with some chefs for decades.
Salt tenderizes when it is absorbed into meat, breaking down lean muscle proteins, but Phu warns that adding too much salt or salting for too long will lead to curing, a technique best known for making bacon. Acids such as baking powder, baking soda, vinegar, and citrus also tenderize says Phu. Acids work by denaturing or unwinding the long protein in muscles, but be warned: If you marinate meat too long in acid, it will become mushy.
Fish sauce is made from fermenting fish with salt, creating a liquid full of amino acids. Phu currently teaches online cooking classes showing students how to use fish sauce both for flavor and for tenderizing. "Its pH rings in around 5-6.5 which means it is acidic. Unlike traditional salts, fish sauce allows me to tenderize without the concern of adding too much sodium." says Phu. His favorite fish sauce is the award-winning Son Fish Sauce because it isn't too salty or funky.