Gabriel Woods
Published by Gabriel Woods
Last Updated On: May 22, 2023

No one enjoys a tender, juicy steak more than I do. And while some cuts are naturally more tender than others, there are a few tricks to making sure any steak is melt-in-your-mouth good.

From my years of grilling experience, I can tell you that the best of those tricks is using a meat tenderizer. But with mechanical and chemical options on the market, it's challenging to know which to choose.

Let's look at what meat tenderizers actually do and how you can use them to make the perfect steak every time.

Quick Summary

  • The purpose of tenderizing meat is to break down the fibers that make it tough to chew.
  • Meat tenderizing can be done via physical or chemical means.
  • Mechanical tenderizing is the most effective method, but chemical tenderization can add flavor to the meat.

Why Do People Tenderize Meat?

A close up image of meat and meat tenderizer

There are two reasons why people tenderize meat: to break down the proteins in meat that can make it hard to chew and to help the meat absorb flavors more easily.

The first reason is self-explanatory—tenderizing meat makes it less tough and thus easier to eat. This occurs because the tough connective tissue that holds the muscle fibers together is degraded, which makes the meat more tender.

The second reason is less apparent but also important. When you pound the meat with a hammer (or any other blunt object), you're essentially creating thousands of tiny pockets or crevices on the surface of the meat.

These crevices act like sponges, soaking up rubs so that your food is infused with a flavor all the way through.

Mechanical Tenderizers

A close up image of meat mallet

Mechanical tenderization is when you physically break down the connective tissues in the meat. The most common mechanical meat tenderizer is a meat mallet with blunt or spiked heads.

However, some meat pounders have a series of sharp blades that make small slices in the meat fibers and connective tissue.

Instead of a blade tenderizer, some units are made up of needles that puncture holes in the surface of your pork, poultry, or beef.

If you don't have a mallet, you can use a rolling pin or even a cast-iron skillet to do the job.

Using a mechanical meat tenderizer correctly is pretty straightforward; you simply pound the meat with the textured side or the flat side of the hand-powered tool on a cutting board until the food reaches the desired level of tenderness.

Some people like pounding meat for only a few minutes prior to cooking the food. In contrast, others will let it sit overnight in the refrigerator after tenderization to really break down the fibers.

When using a mechanical tenderizer, you'll want to be careful not to overdo it.

If you use the meat pounder too much, you'll end up with mush instead of steak. Also, ensure you evenly distribute the hitting so that the steak is of even thickness throughout.

The primary advantage of the meat mallet method is that it's relatively quick and easy to do. The downside is that it will cause the meat to lose some of its juices, drying it out and making it less flavorful.

Chemical Tenderizers

A close up image of chemical meat tenderizer

A chemical meat tenderizer is a powder or marinade that contains enzymes that act as catalysts to speed up a chemical reaction.

When it comes to tenderizing meat, enzymes break down the proteins and tight muscle fibers, making the meat more tender.

There are two main types of chemical meat tenderizers: powders and marinades.

A powdered meat tenderizer usually contains enzymes from papaya or pineapple.

These fruits contain enzymes called papain and bromelain, which are especially effective at breaking down protein cells in the muscle tissue of the toughest meats.

"If you really want to use a cheap kind of meat, you need to tenderize it first, and one of the great ways to tenderize a steak is by using natural enzymes from fruit."
- Gustavo Tosta, Chef

You simply sprinkle the powdered meat tenderizer over your steak and then massage it into the meat. Leave the steak to sit for thirty minutes to a few hours before cooking.

One word of warning: many commercial meat tenderizers contain lots of salt and monosodium glutamate.

This meat tenderizer powder will tenderize steak and other tough meats, but those additives have been associated with high blood pressure.

Marinade tenderizers usually contain acids like apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice, pineapple juice, or buttermilk.

The acid in this sort of natural meat tenderizer works similarly to enzymes by breaking down proteins and making the meat more tender.

Other chemical tenderizing options for tougher cuts of meat include marinades made with:

  • Tea
  • Soy sauce
  • Baking soda
  • Kosher salt
  • Red wine
  • Coffee

To marinate steak, simply submerge the tough cut of meat, cover with plastic wrap, and leave it to sit in the refrigerator for at least an hour before cooking. This method works well for tough meat cuts like flank steaks, skirt steaks, sirloin steak, and tri-tip steak.

The Most Effective Type of Tenderizer

A top view image of meat and meat mallet

Overall, mechanical tenderizers are more effective than powdered meat tenderizers.

They are good meat tenderizers because they physically break down the connective tissues in the meat rather than just weaken them.

Further, a mechanical mallet can disrupt tissue deep within the cuts of meat, while a chemical tenderizer can only reach the depth of the marinade or powder.

Both methods can be effective at tenderizing meat if used correctly. A mechanical tenderizer will work best if you're aiming for maximum tenderness.

But if you're looking to add some taste simultaneously, using a marinade or powder would be the better option.

A final option, slow-cooking meat, is also available. A slow cook over low heat can help the toughest meats lose their chewy texture.

This tenderizing method can be added to pounding meat or powdered tenderizers to break up the muscle tissue on tough cuts of meat. This can be done either in a slow cooker or a smoker grill.

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Is Meat Tenderizer Necessary?

Whether meat tenderizer is necessary depends on the cut of steak you are cooking. Some cuts are naturally tender and do not need any mechanical or chemical help. These include tenderloin, filet mignon, sirloin, ribeye, and T-Bone steaks [1]. However, some tough cuts of beef benefit from tenderization, including flank steak, skirt steak, brisket, chuck roast, and tri-tip.

Does Meat Tenderizer Make Meat Cook Faster?

Yes, meat tenderizers will make your meat cook faster. This is because the mechanical process of tenderizing meat thins it out and makes it easier for heat to penetrate the food and reduces the cooking time.

Does Worcestershire Sauce Tenderize Meat?

Yes, Worcestershire sauce can tenderize meat. This is because it contains vinegar, an acidic ingredient that breaks down proteins [2]. It also is concentrated so that it penetrates the food quickly and efficiently.

Tenderizing Your Meat the Right Way

As you can see, tenderizing meat is more complicated than you might imagine. However, whether you choose to use a mechanical or chemical tenderizer, the results are worth it on the correct pork chop, chicken, or cut of beef.

Of course, getting the right cut of meat in the first place is essential. To help with that, click here for our roundup of the best meat delivery services. We've included everything from budget-friendly options to premium delivery services.


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