When pork is cooked perfectly, it's flavorful, tender and juicy. Look away for just a few minutes, and that same meat can quickly turn tough and chewy. Pork steaks typically come from the Boston butt and are favorite among many barbecuing enthusiasts. Tenderizing techniques can be used along, or in combination with each other to help you cook a pork steak so tender you can practically cut it with a fork.
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Tenderizing the Meat
You may want to try a little tenderizing before you prep your pork steaks for cooking. Techniques include:
- mechanical tenderization, or pounding the steaks with a mallet to break down the tough fibers. This method works best when you're also trying to flatten the meat.
- heat tenderizing, also known as thermal tenderization. This is the technique also known as "low and slow" -- it relies on the heat to slowly break down the collagen in otherwise tough cuts. As the collagen breaks down, it leaves the meat incredibly tender.
- enzymatic tenderization, which includes adding enzyme-rich fruits such as kiwi, pineapple or papaya to the marinade. The enzymes work to break down the pork steak's tough connective tissues, leaving the meat tender. Pineapple tends to work very quickly, while kiwi provides slower results. Generally speaking, the steaks don't need to marinate for too long to get good results -- 30 to 60 minutes typically is sufficient.
Brining Pork Steaks
After brining, pork loses less moisture during the cooking process, giving you juicier, more tender pork steaks. Traditional "wet" brining has gotten a lot of buzz in recent years, but dry brining is an equally effective technique.
The traditional method for brining -- often used to prepare turkeys before roasting them -- involves soaking the meat in a salt water solution. The salt in the solution works to prevent the muscle fibers in the pork from tightening as the pork cooks, leaving the steaks more tender as a result. To make a basic brine, combine 1/4-cup kosher salt with 3 cups water and 1/4-cup brown sugar in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a simmer and stir it until the sugar and salt dissolves. Add approximately 2 cup of ice to cool the mixture to 45 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler. Add the pork steaks and the brine to a resealable bag and let the meat soak for two to six hours in the refrigerator. Before cooking, take the steaks out of the brine and pat them dry.
Stir in seasonings such as peppercorns, garlic cloves, shallots, bay leaves or other herbs such as thyme or rosemary.
Although wet brining does infuse meat with moisture, it also tends to dilute flavor. Dry brining leaves the pork equally tender, but with a richer, bolder flavor. The process draws moisture out of the meat initially, creating a surface layer of brine that then dissolves the muscle proteins in the meat to keep it tender. To dry brine pork steaks, salt them on both sides, add optional seasonings such as garlic, onion powder or herbs, and arrange them on a rack set over a baking sheet or a plate. Pop the steaks into the fridge and let the dry brine work for a few hours or overnight.
Preparing the pork steaks is the first step, but how you cook them can mean the difference between tender, juicy meat or hard-to-chew shoe leather. According to The Complete Meat Cookbook, pork steaks can be cooked using dry or moist heat. Although you can cook the steaks over direct heat by pan-frying or grilling them, you'll get the most tender results by cooking them "low and slow." Grill them over indirect heat, bake or braise them with a liquid such as stock or wine or cook them in the slow-cooker. The National Pork Board recommends cooking pork steaks until they are tender -- typically between 145 F and 165 F.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends cooking all cuts of pork to a minimum internal temperature of 145 F.