Not to be confused with marinating, tenderizing meat is a step that easily may get lost in the rush to season -- but is overlooked at your peril. Using either mechanical, enzymatic or thermal methods allows you to transform cheap cuts such as bottom round, brisket, shoulder or top sirloin into expensive-tasting servings.
Commercially produced beef usually is tenderized at the processing plant by puncturing with needles. While repeating the method at home does not necessarily make a tough cut tender, it considerably improves the texture.
Lay the steak or strip flat on a chopping board and repeatedly stab it with a Jaccarding tenderizer, which pierces the meat with rows of sharp needles. Of all the tenderizing methods, this is the only fast one that penetrates below the surface of the meat, making it a favored approach for professional chefs.
An alternative approach with slightly less finesse, pound away at the meat with a tenderizer, a culinary hammer with a flat side and a textured side. Lightly pummeling a steak breaks down the tougher fibers and connective tissue, but too much can cause it to disintegrate. Nevertheless, this is the best tenderizing method for steaks when the cooking time is too short to break down the toughness by heat.
Mallet tenderizing is ideal for flattening schnitzel or chicken breast prior to pan-frying. To protect the delicate flesh, place the chicken or veal in a resealable plastic bag or under a sheet of plastic wrap and hammer it gently until the meat is flatter. In the case of poultry, the aim is to give the breast a uniform thickness for even cooking rather than tenderizing the meat, since lean chicken breast or veal is hardly tough to begin with.
Tenderizing meat with enzymes -- not to be confused with marinating in acid-based solutions -- is an effective way to break down tougher fibers. The aim is to achieve in a matter of minutes what dry-aging achieves in around 20 days.
Meat tenderizing powders usually contain natural enzymes such as bromelain, also found in pineapple, which render the tougher fibers more supple. Mix the powder with water and pour it over the meat, leaving the meat in the refrigerator for approximately 15 minutes. Pat dry the meat before cooking.
Powders are unnecessary if pineapple, kiwi fruit or papaya used. Each fruit contains enzymes that tenderize meat. In the case of pineapple juice, the marinade should not be left too long -- no more than 30 minutes -- or it will turn some steaks and chicken breast mushy. Alternatively, rub half a kiwi fruit on short ribs or flank steak until the liquid is absorbed before transferring the meat to a grill.
Buttermilk and yogurt perform well when tenderizing meat, particularly poultry. Since they are mildly acidic, they do not damage the meat if they are left too long on it, and produce significant results in game, lamb and goat. Buttermilk also is handy if the meat is going to be breaded, as it gives the breadcrumbs something to which to adhere.
Acid-based marinades are great for adding flavor but not so effective at tenderizing meat. No marinade penetrates more than approximately ¼ inch below the surface, even after a few hours. In some cases, acid-based marinades toughen the meat by forcing the proteins to re-knit even stronger.
Tenderizing meat through heat is not the fastest method, but in some cases, it is the only option. For fatty, tough beef, slow cooking higher than 160 degrees Fahrenheit allows the collagen to convert to gelatin, yielding so-called fork-tender meat.
The thermal approach is ideal for ribs, brisket and pork shoulder, where beating the section with a mallet is not appropriate and marinating with an enzyme does not penetrate deep enough. The key is to cook slowly or the outer surface will dry out and char.
A final trick, particularly with flank or skirt, is to slice the meat fine, against the grain once the meat has rested and the juices consolidated. Cutting against the grain eliminates some of the need to wrestle with the steak with a knife and fork.