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3 Simple Yet Effective Ways to Tenderize Meat Before Cooking

Author: Souped Up RecipesTime: 2024-01-19 15:15:00

Table of Contents

Introduction to Meat Tenderization Techniques

Tender and juicy meat is always desirable, but premium cuts can be expensive. Knowing how to properly tenderize budget-friendly meat before cooking is an invaluable skill for any home cook. In this post, we will explore several simple yet effective techniques to turn tough, cheap cuts into fork-tender morsels. From proper slicing to chemical and enzyme marinades, you'll gain the knowledge to serve gourmet-quality meat dishes on a budget.

We'll start by understanding how the structure of muscle fibers affects meat texture and how cutting against the grain shortens these fibers. Next, we'll use baking soda to break down proteins for chemical tenderization. Chinese velveting technique will also be covered to preserve moisture during high-heat cooking. Finally, fresh fruit enzymes provide a tasty way to tenderize. With practice, you'll be able to cook budget meat so tender and flavorful your guests will never know the difference.

What is Meat Grain and Why Cut Against It?

Meat is comprised of bundled muscle fibers running in the same direction known as the 'grain'. When sliced against the grain, these fibers are shortened which makes the meat easier to chew. If sliced with the grain the fibers remain long and chewy. For example, flank steak has a clearly visible linear grain. Cutting across diagonally slices the fibers into smaller pieces. This simple step makes a dramatic difference in perceived tenderness when eaten. Examining the meat closely will reveal the direction of the fibers. Always take care to cut perpendicular to them for a pleasantly tender texture in the final dish. While time consuming, properly slicing meat against the grain before cooking is one of the easiest ways to improve tenderness.

How Does Pounding Meat Help Tenderize It?

In addition to cutting meat against the grain, physically pounding helps break down the tough muscle fibers. Using a meat mallet, pound the meat until it becomes slightly flattened and "fluffy". The force helps break down the dense structure. This technique works best on relatively thin cuts destined for quick cooking like pork chops, chicken breasts, or thin steaks. Aim to pound the meat to an even 1/2" thickness. Be careful not to overdo it and turn the meat to mush. Proper pounding can exponentially improve the tenderness of inexpensive steak cooked to medium or well-done for those who prefer less pink meat.

Use Baking Soda to Break Down Meat Fibers

While slicing and pounding affect meat texture physically, baking soda works chemically to break down the tough muscle fibers. It may seem unorthodox, but baking soda is highly effective at tenderizing meat before cooking. It works by raising the pH which denatures meat proteins, essentially "ungluing" the bound fibers.

For large cuts destined for grilling or pan searing, coat the exterior generously with baking soda. Allow to sit 3-5 hours in the refrigerator, then rinse thoroughly before cooking as directed. This lengthy process provides intense tenderization perfect for stubborn cuts like round steak. For quicker marinades, add 1/2 tsp baking soda per pound of meat directly to the mixture. Allow to sit 20 minutes before cooking. Overuse of baking soda can lead to off-flavors, so exercise restraint. Also avoid pairing with acidic ingredients like vinegar or citrus which neutralize the tenderizing effects.

How Much Baking Soda Per Pound of Meat?

As a general guideline, use 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda per pound of meat when marinating for a shorter duration. Mixing directly into a marinade allows the baking soda to penetrate and begin tenderizing while the other flavors are absorbed. When coating larger cuts, sprinkle on a generous layer across all surfaces, aiming for around 1 tablespoon per pound of meat. The greater surface area coverage is needed for the extended tenderizing time in the refrigerator. Always rinse thoroughly before cooking to avoid any soapy flavors.

Important Notes When Using Baking Soda

While highly effective, there are some important caveats when using baking soda for meat tenderizing. First, overuse can lead to a bitter, chemical taste. Start with smaller amounts and increase incrementally. Thorough rinsing before cooking is mandatory. Avoid adding baking soda to any marinades containing vinegar, lemon juice, or other acids which will cancel out the tenderizing effects.

Velvet Meat to Preserve Moisture During Cooking

Velveting is a Chinese technique of coating meat in a starch slurry before cooking. It seals the exterior to prevent moisture loss and keep the meat succulent, even with high-heat methods like stir-frying. The thin layer also allows more sauce to cling to the meat, boosting flavor.

To velvet, combine egg white, cornstarch, wine, and seasonings. Marinate meat for 30 minutes, then cook via stir frying, deep frying, or poaching per recipe directions. For stir fries, residual starch in the hot pan helps thicken the sauce nicely. Velveting works with nearly any type of meat or poultry to enhance tenderness and moisture.

Typical Ingredients Used for Velveting

While recipes can vary, a basic velveting marinade contains:

  • Egg white - Provides a sealing/binding effect
  • Cornstarch - Light coating to seal moisture
  • Wine - Adds flavor
  • Soy Sauce - For flavor and saltiness
  • Ginger/Garlic - Extra flavor

Best Cooking Methods for Velveted Meat

Velveted meat can be cooked in various ways with great success:

  • Stir-frying (classic technique)
  • Deep frying for crispy exterior
  • Poaching in flavorful broth

Use Fresh Fruit Purees to Tenderize and Flavor Meat

In addition to the tenderizing effect from enzymes, fresh fruit purees and juices also impart bright, tangy flavor to meats. Pineapple, papaya, kiwi, and orange are all good choices. The meat can marinate briefly in fruit juice. For faster tenderizing, rub with fresh puree and allow to sit at room temperature 15-20 minutes before cooking.

The enzymes and acids in certain fruits act as natural meat tenderizers. Choose fully ripe fresh fruit rather than canned or jarred products which lack active enzymes. Papain in papaya and bromelain in pineapple do the best job of breaking down tough strands. Always thoroughly cook marinated meat to avoid potential health issues.

Conclusion and Final Tips for Tender Meat

With this wide range of techniques, you can transform even the cheapest, toughest cuts of meat into fork-tender deliciousness. Slice against the grain, pound thinner cuts, use baking soda or fruit enzymes to marinate, and velvet when stir-frying. Combining methods like pounding with baking soda yields extra tender results.

The next time you find an inexpensive pack of stew meat or chicken thighs, put these tricks to work. Your guests will enjoy gourmet quality dishes and never suspect the bargain price. With practice, you can become an expert at delivering tender, juicy meat on a budget.


Q: What are some naturally tender cuts of meat?
A: Naturally tender cuts of meat that don't require special preparation to become tender include filet mignon, tenderloin, rib eye steak, and pork tenderloin.

Q: How long does meat need to marinate?
A: For best results, meat should marinate for at least 30 minutes but can be marinated overnight in the refrigerator for maximum tenderization.

Q: Can I reuse marinades after marinating raw meat?
A: It is not recommended to reuse a marinade after it has been in contact with raw meat due to potential food safety issues.

Q: What fruits work best to tenderize meat?
A: Papaya, pineapple, kiwi, and orange are some of the best fruits to use for tenderizing meat before cooking due to natural enzymes.

Q: Should meat be pounded while frozen?
A: Yes, pounding meat while still partially frozen can help break down the muscle fibers more easily compared to room temperature meat.

Q: Is baking soda safe to consume after tenderizing meat?
A: While small amounts of baking soda are safe for consumption, it's important to rinse off any visible baking soda residue before cooking tenderized meat.

Q: Can these techniques be used on all cuts of meat?
A: Yes, meat tenderization techniques like pounding, marinating, and velveting work well on tougher, cheaper cuts of meat like chuck roast, pork shoulder, and chicken thighs.

Q: Should acidic marinades be avoided with baking soda?
A: Yes, baking soda should not be paired with acidic ingredients like vinegar or citrus as it will neutralize the tenderizing effects.

Q: How do you know if meat has been tenderized enough?
A: Check for visible breakdown of muscle fibers and that the meat feels softer and mushier to the touch once it has been sufficiently tenderized.

Q: What meat dishes work well with tenderized meat?
A: Stir fries, stews, skewers, sous vide recipes, and grilled meats all benefit from properly tenderized cuts.