Tough situation not only makes the best of us. Tough meat too. You don’t have to suffer a tough bite in your mouth. Honestly, there is not much on this planet that can compare to a bite of soft, tender, and flavorful meat.
Here is how you can tenderize your meat without splurging on expensive cuts.
Why Is My Meat So Tough?
Meat, especially Beef, is known for its hardiness. Even in beef cuts, there are some that are tougher than the other. These are the factors that can cause the meat to be tough.
The first reason put simply, most of what you see in a slab of meat is dense muscle; a bundle of protein fibers. And with muscle, the more you strain it, the tougher it gets. Therefore, the cuts that are used more by the animal will be stronger – hence tougher, like shoulder cuts.
While microscopic cells are mainly responsible for tenderness. Stress in the animal also causes the meat to toughen. Why? It is a natural fight or flight reaction to a threat. With a perceived threat or actual threat, the body produces adrenaline and it causes muscles to tense up. Not only that, stress causes a change in the pH level of the eventual meat, resulting in increased acidity.
Age of the animal plays a part too. It is undeniable that meat gets tougher as an animal age. Considered an extension of the muscle usage theory. It does make sense that meat toughness increases with age.
The next reason for meat toughness lies in the way you cook it. Over-cooked meat tends to be tough as most juices or moisture are lost in the prolonged process. Also, heat will cause the proteins to be hard – the proteins gain energy to form a new stronger covalent bond with molecules. Alright, I digressed.
Then, Why Is My Meat So Hard To Chew Apart, Like Rubber?
The rubber-like texture is caused by the connective tissue, most often referred to as collagen and elastin. Collagen is the tissue that surrounds, unites and bundle the muscle fibers that makes up muscle themselves. Collagen can be broken down when cooked properly.
On the other hand, the tissue known as elastin is chewy or rubbery and does not break down when the meat is cooked. This is called the gristle.
During the preparation work, if you do not cut away the lumps of gristle, what you get would be rubbery, chewy meat.
Methods to Tender Meat
Here, we are going to show you methods to make that slab of meat more tender.
#1. Slicing Against The Grain
More accurately, this calls for you to slice the muscle fiber. Not to be confused with grains like barley. The grain refers to the direction the sinews lie on the cut of the meat.
While slicing along the grain may make it easier to cut the meat into smaller pieces. It will be detrimental to your teeth almost immediately afterward in the form of chewy meat.
Look out for the by visually inspecting the direction of the lines across the slab of meat. Although, the grain of the meat is easier to identify in certain cuts of meat, such as flank or skirt. It is harder to see in lean cuts, such as tenderloin.
Once you find the grain, slice perpendicular to it. Do not confuse it with grill marks or natural faults. A little additional tip here, the first slice should always be small such that if you made a mistake, you can remedy it the next slice.
Here is an additional illustration.
#2. Dry-Age Meat For Additional Tenderness
If you ever had the opportunity to taste dry-aged beef before, you would agree that it has a remarkable flavor – some called it a funky taste.
Dry-aging is a process where the meat is stored at refrigeration temperature for days to weeks, without protective packaging. This will allow the natural enzyme to break down the muscle fiber, resulting in improved tenderness and of course, flavor.
However, you should take note that dry-aged meat will shrink due to the loss of moisture and trimming.
There are a couple of conditions to note to dry-age beef.
1. The Number Of Days
This is highly debatable. Recipes that I have seen can range from 4 days to 4 weeks. These are the suggested days, along with the research.
Campbell et al (2001), in their comparison of dry age periods of 7, 14, and 21 days found that there is minor palatability (read: such as tenderness) traits for increased aging but no real advantage beyond 14 days. [Ref.1]
I would suggest aging the meat for 14 days for a start and increase it if you do not find it tender enough.
2. The Storage Temperature
No research has been done to date to evaluate the effects of different temperature have on the palatability, quality, and shrinkage of meat. However, any studies that have been conducted on aging meat generally has been conducted between the range of 0 to 4°C (32°F to 39°F).
Hence, keep the temperature between these temperatures would be okay.
3. The Humidity
This is important as if the relative humidity is too high, bacteria can grow, and your fridge will smell like it has a rotten corpse. On the other hand, if the humidity is too low, excess shrinkage will occur – the resultant meat will be smaller.
According to studies conducted, the humidity used ranges from 75% to 90%. To that, we suggest erring on the safe side. A humidity of 80% to 85% would suffice.
Can I Use My Fridge To Do That Then?
Fortunately, yes. While the conditions to age meat look kind of lengthy, you can use your home fridge to do it.
Here is a video to do that.
Also, be cautious that the home fridge does not have the same consistency of humidity and temperature as compared to a commercial fridge. You will do well to have a thermometer to take measures frequently.
#3. Use Baking Soda
This may sound odd to some. Briefly soaking meat in a solution of baking soda increases the alkalinity of the surface of the meat. This chemical reaction makes it hard for proteins to bond excessively. When that happens, the meat will stay soft and tender – everyone is happy.
To do this, prepare a solution of 1 cup of water and a ½ teaspoon of baking soda. Soak the meat in the brine for 15 to 20 minutes. Rinse.
Here is a video.
This method will not work as well for large cuts. By that, I mean thick slabs of meat more than one inch thick. This is because this chemical reaction only works on the surface of the meat, it will not penetrate the meat to the core.
#4. Use Salt Brine
Salt can do more than just flavoring the meat. Salt helps to break down the protein on the surface of the meat to make it more tender. However, seasoning meat with salt will draw out all the moisture, resulting in dry meat over a long period of time. Hence, there is a give and take here.
To do the salt brine method. Rub the salt on the meat and let it sit for an hour. For every inch of meat, sit for an hour. After, wash off the salt and off to the grill.
#5. Pulverize It
Simple and easy. Pounding the meat with a mallet is an effective way to tenderize the meat. Careful with that the strength – it can work too well and what’s left would be a pile of mush. The other reasoning for not pulverizing it into oblivion is that for every pound, some moisture will be forced out of the meat. It is very insignificant but adds up over hits.
#6. Crisscrossing The Surface With A Sharp Knife
The idea is largely similar to the first, just done beforehand. By drawing crisscrosses, you are cutting up the muscle fibers that make the meat tough. The downside to this method? Kind of an ugly steak you got there.
#7. Cook It With A Low Heat Over Long Period Over Time
At the first instance, this method doesn’t work if you are looking to grill your meat. Grilling over a longer period will cause the meat to be dry. Also, isn’t the point of grilling to sear the meat over high heat for that browning effect?
This method is also called braising, would be better used with liquid. Braising will break down the connective tissue, collagen, and make the meat tender.
Here is how.
#8. Tenderize With Fruit Enzymes
Some fruits like pineapple contain enzymes that cut up the collagen in meat, making it tender. Like the concept of not adding pineapple to gelatin, proteases prevent the collagen from holding together, effectively softening it.
Some other popular fruits to achieve the same results are a kiwi, papaya, mango, and lemon.
To do this, mash up your preferred fruit and rub it on the meat. Keep it in a bag and leave it in the fridge for about half a day to a day. Careful not to leave it for too long as the meat might turn into mush.
#9 Marinate with An Acidic Compound
This method is often controversial. Some say it does, some say it doesn’t. The thing is life does not have to be so Boolean.
While it does not penetrate the meat, making the entire slab tender. It does, however, penetrate the surface of the meat. Goldwyn found this to be not more than 1/8 of an inch.
Hence, the key takeaway here is to use this method on thin slices of meat, not on large, thick cuts, much like using salt.
Love Me Tender, Love Me Not
Several factors contribute to the toughness of the meat. From the cut, the age, the breed, and even their psychological well-being calls into account. We have provided you with various methods where you can make that meat taste surprisingly premium. Hope you have had fun as much as I do writing this.