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 Muscle
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 the 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 can I use the 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.
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.
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 to meat that's 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 Some 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.
How should I use the baking soda?
- Coat and rub the meat with baking soda by holding a tablespoon of it in your hand and sprinkling a thin layer OR dissolve the baking soda in water and submerge the meat.
- Let it rest on the counter for 15-20 minutes. If you leave it longer, it won't hurt the meat, but it won't make it more tender, either.
- Rinse thoroughly to remove all the baking soda, since it affects texture and taste (but dry the meat thoroughly before you cook it if you want it to brown).
7. Use Salt as a Tenderizer
Some science folks insist that salt makes meat tougher, not tenderer, but the best chefs and true foodies know better. If you give it time, salt can blast the protein strands and dissolve the muscle fibers of tough meats.
According to most cookbooks and sources, including Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen, salt is the secret to juicy roasts. Since brining works only for extremely lean cuts, instead they recommend rubbing roasts with salt and then refrigerating for 24 hours before cooking. For smaller cuts like steaks they say 40 minutes is sufficient. If you're interested in learning more about this topic, Turning Cheap “Choice” Steak into Gucci “Prime” is worth reading.
How should I apply the salt?
- Place the meat on a pan, board, or plate and sprinkle its entire surface with a generous layer of salt. Turn it over and salt the other side, as well. You can massage it a little if you want to.
- Leave it laying there untouched, at room temperature. How long depends on how thick the cut of meat is. Give it an hour for each inch of thickness. So if you have a 1 1/2 inch steak, let it sit for an hour and a half.
- When the proper amount of time has passed, thoroughly brush or wash off the salt on the surface of the meat. This step is important because you don't want to eat all that salt.
For how long should I salt the meat? Like I said before, let it sit salted for an hour per inch of thickness.
Which kind of meat should I salt? All kinds and cuts of meat.
What kind of salt works best? Many chefs insist that you use a coarse grain (coarse kosher or sea salt). They say that the fine grains dissolve and get absorbed too quickly and affect the taste. I admit that I sometimes use table salt, but I brush it off before I cook, and the meat tastes fine.
8. Always Let the Meat Rest Before Cutting It
Don't rush this final, crucial step! It's been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt by experts like J. Kenji López-Alt that short rest on the carving board BEFORE CUTTING makes all the difference. If you cut it right after removing it from the heat, about 40% more of the meat's juice will end up on your cutting board, but if you give it time to rest, relax, and re-absorb all its own juice, your mouth will definitely notice the difference.
9. Use an Acidic Marinade
Food scientists know that although marinades are great for flavor, they don't always work to tenderize. Acids can take some time to penetrate meat, and added oils and sugars might slow the process down, so if you have a thicker cut, a marinade is probably a waste of time.
How long should I marinate for best results?
If you only have a couple hours, go for a straight acid mix. If you have more time, use a marinade with oil in it. Make sure you don't leave it in too long, since over-marinated meat can get too soft and mushy.
What's the best method for marination?
Place the marinade-submerged meat in a covered bowl or resealable bag. It should not be open to the air. Let it sit in the refrigerator from 2 to 24 hours.
Which cuts should be marinated?
Thin pieces of the toughest cuts work best. Flank, skirt, sirloin, round, and hanger steaks, for example. Don't bother marinating a high quality steak: it doesn't need any help to make it tender and tasty, so you'll probably ruin it.
Which acids work best in a tenderizing marinade?
- vinegar (any kind, but be aware of its effect on flavor)
- Worcestershire, tomato, teriyaki, or soy sauce
- wine or beer
- lemon or lime juice
- yogurt or buttermilk
Consider combining these acids with the protease fruits described in #3 above.
Which Cuts of Meat Are the Toughest?
The trick is knowing where that meat came from on the animal. A hardworking, often-used muscle (like on the leg) will generally be tougher than a seldom-used, low-activity muscle (like in the loin). These are the toughest:
- Bottom round
- Chuck roast
- Eye of round
- Flank steak
- Hanger steak
- Round or rump roast or steak
- Short ribs
- Skirt steak
- Shoulder roast
- Top round
These might also be tough:
- Chuck steak
- Top blade steak
Hard-working muscles have more collagen, which holds the muscles together and keeps them attached to the bone. It's the collagen that makes them tough. But if you apply one or more of the methods described above, the collagen will transform into gelatin, which gives meat a delicious succulence.
Kitchen Controversies & Frequently Asked Questions
Why doesn't everyone use baking soda, since it's so cheap?
Of all the methods I've listed here, baking soda is the most questionable, since it can make the meat's texture kind of gummy and its flavor bitter. On the other hand, when it's done properly, it can be quite delicious!
What about commercial tenderizers?
Many reputable chefs seem to use them. Although I've never used one, the brand I saw mentioned most in my library of cookbooks was Adolph's Original Tenderizer, which uses pineapple fruit extract as an enzyme, plus natural sugars and sea salt.
But I heard that salt makes meat tough.
I know, I know, it doesn't make sense, but the greatest cooks have been using it for centuries, so you'll just have to suspend your disbelief and give it a try.
I think marinating makes meat tougher, not more tender!
If you leave cooked meat in acid, it can get tough, but if you leave raw meat in a marinade too long, the acids can digest the meat so much it's no longer edible.
What do you think?
© 2017 Jo Tucker
Brianna on April 05, 2020:
I REALLY appreciate you going into detail describing the anatomy and science behind all of these methods!!! You’re the best!
Brent Gay on September 19, 2019:
Would needling be considered a decent way of tenderizing tougher cuts of meat?
"Genius" is such a high bar to set.
Jay on August 23, 2019:
What about the magical way Chinese 'velvet' meat with cornstarch!? That is the ONLY way i eat chicken breast meat. Beef it's almost sulky and more flavorful!
Besarien from South Florida on July 14, 2019:
Great article! This looks pretty comprehensive. You've covered most of the ways I know. I'd add kelp, garlic, asafoetida, coffee and green or black tea.
Fumiko on July 08, 2019:
My dad had drenches, what is good meat for him to eat or prep to eat steaks besides stew,
Sam on June 07, 2019:
I have been researching this topic for weeks. It is the most comprehensive collection of ways to approach the subject matter I have found and intend to use it as my benchmark going forward. Agree with folks that see health concerns with various methods. If health is your priority, there may be issues. Meat itself may be a concer. If you are looking to achieve restaurant quality results at home. It all comes down to process and science. Thanks for putting the alternatives in layman’s context!
someone on May 01, 2019:
i dont get it at all it looks nasty
Cynthia Thibodeau on March 12, 2019:
Everytime ,I cook Spare Ribs I always add adobo spice and accents, plus I also add a can of beer. It doesn't have to be an expensive can of beer, just one can and I let it cook for 1hour to 1 1/2hr.until it's done.
Barbara Mazzei on April 02, 2018:
I was disappoints that many of your suggestions had high levels of sodium. For many people with heart or cardio conditions or kidney problems, you left little for them to use. Commercial Papain is available and very easy to use instead of highly salted Adolphs. It work extremely well without the taste or mess of fruit.