Nothing ruins a dinner faster than a tough cut of meat. However, a meat scientist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences says even the most unforgiving meats can be tenderized, given enough time and the right marinade.
Give it time!
"Giving a marinade time to work is the key," says Ed Mills, associate professor of dairy and animal science. "The ingredients that break down the connective tissue in the meat must be able to penetrate all the way through the cut. Cooks should prepare the marinade the night before, put the meat in, and let it marinate overnight in the refrigerator."
Although would-be gourmets can soak meat in anything and call it a marinade, Mills says any marinade must contain some type of acid to be an effective tenderizer. Acidic molecules in fruits, vegetables and vinegar break down and soften the connective tissue in meat over time. The alcohol in wine works in much the same way, but it is not as effective as stronger acids.
"The idea behind marinating meat is to add flavor and to tenderize," Mills says. "If you marinate a steak for 20 minutes right before you cook it, the flavor will be enhanced, but that isn't enough time to improve tenderness."
Mills recommends that every marinade include three essential elements:
Flavor -- Using seasonings and spices, cooks can give a variety of meats unique flavors.
Acids or alcohol -- Effective acids are found in tomato products, lemons, fruit juices and vinegar. Almost all marinades containing alcohol are made with wine, Mills says.
Salt -- The acid in a marinade may cause meat to lose its ability to retain water, Mills explains. Adding salt improves juiciness and allows the meat to retain the marinade's flavors. "Marinades aren't limited to less tender cuts of meat," Mills says. "All cuts of beef, pork and poultry can benefit from a marinade. It's also an easy way to add unique flavors to the dinner table."
Mills says home tenderizing products also work, although marinades can penetrate through meat more quickly. "Commercial home tenderizers usually contain papain, a derivative of the papaya," Mills explains. "Papain takes longer to penetrate into the meat because the tenderizing agent is a protein, which is much larger than the acids in fruit juices, vinegars or alcohol. Given enough time, it will penetrate and tenderize the meat but by then the surface will be soft and mushy. When using either marinades or meat tenderizers, it is helpful to use a fork to make small holes that speed up penetration.
"If you give a marinade enough time to work, you'll end up with a flavorful and tender meal," Mills says.