Nothing takes the wind out of your sails quite like biting into a hunk of steak only to find out the sucker is chewy. Really, what’s worse than tough meat? Now that we’re at the peak of grilling season, there’s simply no excuse to still be eating tough meat — especially when there are so many ways to turn it into a restaurant-quality piece of protein.
It has happened to the best of us — and it’s usually because we didn’t splurge on that pricey cut (or sometimes it’s because you went with a leaner organic cut, which can actually be more expensive). Either way, you don’t have to suffer the tough consequences. There are methods for tenderizing your meat that don’t require an overnight marinade.
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1. Beat it
Pounding meat with a mallet is a surprisingly effective way to tenderize it. The downside is that it can actually work too well, turning your meat into mush. Special tenderizer tools made up of dozens of sharp needles or points that pierce the meat (like this KitchenAid meat tenderizer or this Jaccard meat tenderizer) are a more delicate way of mechanically tenderizing your meat. This does less damage to the meat fibers.
2. Marinate with acid
Acids can help break down tough meat. Soaking meat in a marinade made with lemon or lime juice, vinegar, buttermilk or even yogurt can help tenderize tough proteins. The key is to not leave the meat in the marinade for too long, as acids can weaken the protein structure of the meat too much, making it too soft and mushy. Aim for 30 minutes to two hours, but check periodically to see if the meat is starting to look cooked around the edges. That’s how you’ll know it’s been marinating too long.
3. Marinate with enzymes
Several fruits, such as papaya, pineapple, kiwi and Asian pear, contain enzymes that help tenderize meat. Try puréeing these fruits and adding some of your favorite seasonings to make a marinade that will leave you with juicy, tender meat. Just don’t leave any meat in pineapple too long. Bromelain, the powerful enzyme found in this fruit, can work a little too well.
4. Salt it
Heavily salting a tough cut of meat and letting it sit an hour or two before you cook it is an effective way to break down tough muscle fibers, no fussy marinade needed. When you’re ready to cook, just rinse off the salt, pat the meat dry and add it to a hot skillet.
5. Slice it right
There are a couple of clever knife tricks that can make meat seem more tender. One is scoring. That’s when you make shallow cuts (not cutting all the way through) across the surface of a thin steak like skirt or flank. This method can help break up tough proteins and also helps the meat absorb tenderizing marinades more easily.
The second meat-tenderizing knife trick is slicing cooked steak thinly, across the grain. The idea is to break up the long, tough meat fibers so they are shorter and thus easier to chew.
6. Slow-cook it
Cooking tough cuts of meat with low-temperature heat over a long period of time is a great way to tenderize it. Tough fibers, collagen and connective tissues will break down, leaving you with tender meat. Try using a slow cooker, or braise with broth or other liquids in a covered dish in the oven.
A version of this article was originally published in February 2016.