When it comes to grilling meat, there’s a lot of debate about the best way to easily and reliably turn out tender steaks. You can always splurge on a premium cut that’s naturally tender, like filet mignon, but that may cost you a pretty penny. Are there ways of tenderizing steak that are more budget-friendly?
There are several quick and easy methods to tenderize a tough cut of meat without sacrificing the flavor or texture of your steak. You don’t have to drop all your dough on an expensive steak to get tender results, either.
Just pick one of our steak tenderizing methods below and you can enjoy the perfect meal every time, even if you’re grilling a cheap cut!
- 1 What is Tenderizing?
- 2 Does My Steak Need to be Tenderized?
- 3 Best Way to Tenderize a Steak
- 4 Tips and Tricks for Tender Steaks
- 5 Conclusion
What is Tenderizing?
What does it mean to tenderize a piece of meat?
When you’re tenderizing a steak, you’re breaking down some of the protein (muscles) and connective tissue that hold the meat together. The more these are broken down, the more tender your steak will be.
Cooking as a Method of Tenderizing
Cooking is the original way to tenderize meat. Heat naturally breaks down some of the bonds between muscles and helps convert the connective tissue to delicious gelatin. Your steak will become tender as it cooks, up to a point.
This is the reason folks slowly smoke or braise big, tough cuts like beef brisket or BBQ pork shoulder. The low-and-slow approach gives the connective tissue and muscle fibers enough time to break down without overcooking them.
Grilling a steak is a different matter, however. Typically, steaks are seared directly over the flames and finished quickly on a hot grill. Even a steak cooked from frozen isn’t on the grill long enough to convert over all of the connective tissue.
Collagen turns to gelatin between 160°F and 190°F, while steak is considered well done at 180°F. You’d really have to overcook your steak to convert all the connective tissue over, and the results would not be very tasty.
So how do you quickly turn a cheap, tough steak into a tender mouthful?
Tenderize Before You Cook!
The solution to grilling a tender steak from a tough cut is to break down the muscles and cartilage a bit before you cook it. If you prep your steak in advance, you can easily make a tender steak at any level of doneness. I’ve covered the various methods for doing this below.
All of these techniques have a few things in common, even though they may produce different results. They either rely on using chemistry or direct mechanical action to break down some of the proteins in your steak. Then you can finish the process as you cook your steak on the grill.
When you grill a tenderized steak, you don’t have to worry about hitting a certain cooking temperature in order to have tender results. The fibers are already partially broken, so you can easily make a tender steak from rare to well done.
Does My Steak Need to be Tenderized?
You don’t have to tenderize every steak you grill. That said, the flavor of your steak may well benefit by taking the time to salt or marinate your meat before you grill it.
I usually salt my steaks prior to cooking, for instance, even the naturally tender premium cuts. They just taste better this way!
Flavor aside, while you can easily grill filet mignon or rib eyes without tenderizing in advance, the same can’t be said for other steaks.
Which Steaks to Tenderize
You should definitely consider tenderizing skirt steaks, flank steaks, and tri-tips.
These cuts have large, long muscle fibers that often turn tough on the high heat of a grill. Tenderizing these steaks prior to cooking, and slicing the meat against the grain will help yield tender results.
Chuck, round, London broil, and top sirloin steaks often benefit from tenderizing as well. These inexpensive cuts often have less fat than premium cuts. Tenderizing helps break the muscle fibers apart so your steak stays tender and juicy.
Cheap, lower-quality steaks usually benefit from tenderizing for the same reason, even if they are a more premium cut. Budget steaks often have less fat marbled through their meat and may have a lot of chewy connective tissue.
Tenderizing a budget ribeye or NY strip steak, for instance, will help break this cartilage up so you can grill it quickly. That way it won’t dry out before it reaches your ideal level of doneness.
Tough Meat vs Chewy
A quick note about the terms tough and chewy. We often use them interchangeably, but when it comes to steak they do mean different things. Personal preferences also vary widely, which can add to the confusion.
Steaks are tough for two reasons. They may be tough because they naturally have long, thick bundles of muscles, like flank steak and chuck. Tenderizing can solve this type of tough-steak problem.
Alternatively, a steak can become tough if it loses too much moisture while it’s cooking. The loss of moisture tightens up the muscle fibers and makes it harder to cut and chew. Don’t overcook your steaks, and make sure they are well-rested before you slice to avoid tough results.
Steaks are usually chewy because the cut has a lot of connective tissue. Even the highest quality ribeye steak will be a bit chewy in texture, and this isn’t a bad thing. Beef tenderloin steaks (filet mignon), on the other hand, have little connective tissue and are rarely a chewy cut.
So you can have a steak that is tender AND chewy. A tender steak doesn’t have to be soft, like cutting through butter. Truthfully, I find the chewier cuts like chuck and ribeyes have a lot more flavor than so-called “cuts like butter” steaks such as tenderloin.
Best Way to Tenderize a Steak
The best method for tenderizing your steak depends on the cut and how you plan on cooking it. Obviously, you can slowly cook some cuts on a smoker, or braise them in a flavorful liquid in an oven, slow cooker or pressure cooker.
When it comes to firing up your grill, however, these are the 5 best options for tenderizing a steak. These methods are ideal for the high-heat searing and grilling that produce the most flavorful and delicious BBQ steaks.
My go-to method for tenderizing steak is always salt. Even if you opt to mechanically pound or score your steak, you should still use salt to tenderize your meat if you have the time. Salt is usually a component of a marinade as well.
Not only does salt boost the flavor of your meat. It also acts to break down the proteins in your steak and dry out the surface as it cooks. Salt helps your steak stay juicier on the grill too since salted meat loses moisture at a slower rate.
Tenderizing a steak using salt is a version of a technique called dry brining. You may have heard about brining a turkey for Thanksgiving, but these are usually done in a saltwater bath over several days. A dry brine can be done in as quickly as an hour, depending on the thickness of your steaks.
How Does Salt Make Steak Tender?
Why does sprinkling salt on a steak make the meat more tender?
As the salt sits on the surface, it will begin to draw moisture from the inside of your steak. This moisture mixes with the salt and creates a thin layer of meaty, salty brine on the surface of your steak. The brine is reabsorbed into your meat where it begins to break down the muscle fibers.
Thus, after about an hour you have a tender yet flavorful steak that just needs to be grilled to perfection. It’s like magic!
The great thing about salting a steak is that it doesn’t require precision or a lot of time and effort to pull off. You can leave a prepped, salted steak in the fridge for a day or so until you’re ready to cook your meat.
But if you’re in a hurry, you can adequately dry brine your steak by salting and letting it sit at room temperature for 1 hour per inch of thickness. Shake off any excess salt, dry your steak with a paper towel and toss it in a hot grill. That’s it!
How to Salt a Steak
- Take your raw, defrosted meat out of the fridge, unpackage it and dry it off with a paper towel. Some folks rinse their meat first, but I don’t find the extra step necessary.
- Cover each side of the steak with salt. Kosher or flake salt is ideal, but you can use table salt too. Just adjust the amounts, since grains of table salt are smaller in size than the kosher or flake versions. You’ll want to use about ½ teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat (¼ teaspoon of table salt), but you don’t need to be exact.
- Rub the salt evenly into both sides of your steak and along the edges. You have some leeway here, so if you prefer well-salted food you can use more than I recommend above. You may need to play around to find your ideal level of saltiness.
- Lay your salted steaks on a cooking rack in a sheet pan or elevated on a plate to catch any drips. Don’t cover your meat. You want the steaks to have some air flow around and under them, to help dry out the surface for a better sear.
- Let your steaks sit salted for about an hour per inch of thickness. A 1.5-inch ribeye would take about an hour and a half to salt. You can leave your salted meat for a day or two in your fridge, uncovered, before you cook if you want. I usually salt my meat at room temperature, but if you’re making really thick steaks you can always do this in the fridge. Just pull the steaks out a half-hour before you plan on grilling them to bring them up to room temperature.
- When you’re ready for the grill, there’s no reason to rinse the salt off. Most of it absorbs into your meat anyway. If your steaks look wet, you can dry them with a paper towel right before they go on the grill.
Some folks also add garlic or other aromatic herbs to their salt mixture, and you can certainly do this if you’d like to. The herbs and spices won’t penetrate your meat, however, but will add some extra flavor to the surface of your steak.
You can also sprinkle some herbs, garlic, or onion powder on your steaks right before you grill them if you want to boost the flavor too.
Another option for tenderizing a steak is to marinate it in a flavorful liquid. This is the ideal tenderizing method for thinner steaks and flat cuts like skirt, flank steak and London broil.
The one problem with marinating steak is that these liquids don’t penetrate very deeply into the meat on their own. They usually just hang out on the surface layer. That’s why this method works best for thin steaks and those that have been mechanically tenderized.
It’s often a good idea to score or pound your steak before you place it in your marinade. This will increase the surface area and create “holes” in the muscle fibers so the marinade penetrates a bit further into your meat. I cover this in detail below.
I’ve got to warn you that marinating steak in and of itself won’t make your meat tender. It all depends on what you add to your marinade.
Salty liquids like soy sauce make a great marinade base and the salt will help tenderize and flavor your meat. Citrus juices contain acids that can break muscle fibers apart, which is why lemon, lime, and orange juice often appear in marinades. Apple cider vinegar is a popular choice for the same reason.
These acids can also turn the surface of your meat into mush if it’s in the marinade for too long. I recommend marinating steak for no longer than 2 to 3 hours if you’re using citrus juice or vinegar in a marinade. Otherwise, it may be difficult to get a good sear on your steak.
Some folks swear by the tenderizing effects of papaya. Papaya contains an enzyme called papain that breaks down proteins and is often used as a natural meat tenderizer. You can mash a ripe papaya and add some straight to your marinade.
Pineapple is rather famous for its tenderizing effects as well. The fresh juice from a pineapple contains the enzyme bromelain, which is a powerful meat tenderizer. In fact, many commercial meat tenderizing powders contain bromelain.
Be Careful When Using Pineapple Juice!
The challenge of using papaya or pineapple as a meat tenderizer is two-fold.
First, the enzymes in these juices are heat sensitive and break down at cooking temperatures. So canned juices, which have been heat-processed, won’t work as a tenderizer. You’ll get better results using mashed fruit or fresh-squeezed juice instead.
The second challenge is that these tenderizers are almost too effective. Adding even a tablespoon of pineapple juice to a marinade can quickly turn your steak into mush. You’ve got to be careful about your marinating times or your steak’s texture will be quite unpleasant.
For steaks under an inch in thickness, I recommend using a papaya or pineapple based marinade for no longer than 10 minutes. Thicker 1-inch steaks can usually handle up to 15 minutes in these types of marinades. I don’t recommend marinating steaks thicker than an inch since you’ll get better results with dry brining them.
When you pull your steaks out of the marinade, it’s best to dry them off with a paper towel before you cook them. This will help your steak develop a nice sear when grilled over the fire.
Commercial meat tenderizing powders are an easy and quick way to turn a tough steak into a tender meal.
These products usually contain salt and enzymes like bromelain that act as the tenderizing agents. They take a lot of the guesswork and brute-strength out of the steak tenderizing process and are easier to use than fresh fruit or juice.
You usually sprinkle the powder on your meat directly or add it to a marinade. Since there are many different products on the market, I recommend following the instructions on the package for the best results.
To get the most out of your meat tenderizing powder I definitely recommend scoring or mechanically pounding your steak before applying. As with marinades, this will help the tenderizer penetrate deeper into the muscles for more even results.
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There are three basic types of mechanical devices you can use to physically break up the muscles and connective tissue in your steak.
Meat mallets, also known as meat hammers, are used to pound raw meat. You literally use them just like a hammer to beat your meat into an even layer and break up the muscle fibers. These are a brute-strength tool for sure.
While these mallets have two surfaces, a flat and a textured side, for tenderizing a steak you’ll use the textured side. When you hit your steak with the hammer the pyramid-shaped dimples break up the cartilage and muscles inside the steak.
Another option is a meat tenderizing tool or machine. There’s no uniform name for these products and they come in a variety of designs. Usually, they are gadgets that have many small needles that poke deeply into your meat.
Meat tenderizer tools break up the tissue fibers in your steak and create “holes” that allow marinades, salt, and powders deeper into the flesh. They are much easier to use than the meat mallets since they don’t require as much physical effort. This is my preferred type of mechanical tool for tenderizing a steak.
The third type of meat tenderizer tool is the meat cuber. These look a lot like a pasta machine, actually, and work in a similar fashion. You slide the steak into one side and crank the handle. The rollers flatten and poke your meat as it rolls through the device.
The trick for mastering a meat tenderizing tool is to know when to stop! You can definitely over-tenderize a steak with these tools if you get too enthusiastic. If you go too far with the pounding or poking, your steak’s texture may be flabby or mushy instead of tender.
Scoring a steak with a sharp knife is a great way to tenderize cuts with the large long muscle fibers. It also works well for thicker steaks like London broil. Scoring creates more surface area for salt, marinades, and dry rubs to work their magic.
I highly recommend scoring for flank and skirt steaks. These steaks have very thick muscle fibers that often turn out tough when grilled. Making shallow cuts along the top and bottom of your steak will help tenderize these cuts.
To score your steak:
- Unpackage the raw, defrosted meat and dry with a paper towel.
- Place on a cutting board and make a series of shallow cuts diagonally across the top muscles.
- Then turn the board a bit and make a series of cuts in the other direction.
- You’ll end up with a diamond-shaped crosshatch of cuts on the top of your steak.
- Flip the steak over, and repeat this process on the other side. Now you’re ready to salt or marinate your meat, or you can put it right on a hot grill.
Some folks score AND pound their steaks, but you need to be careful not to take this too far. As with using a mechanical tool, you can tenderize a steak into mush if you’re not careful.
Tips and Tricks for Tender Steaks
Now that you have the techniques down for tenderizing a steak, it’s time to pull everything together. Here are the tips and tricks you need to know to get the most tender results every time you grill a steak.
Pick the Right Tenderizing Methods
You’ll want to consider the type of steak you’re cooking and how you plan on serving it to pick the best tenderizing method. Thinner steaks, like skirt and flank, lend themselves to marinades while thicker steaks may really benefit from salting.
Sometimes it’s best to use more than one method of tenderizing a steak. Really tough cuts, like skirt and flank steak, often benefit from pounding and scoring. If you also salt or marinate your steaks you’ll get the combined tenderizing effects along with a major flavor boost.
The only methods that don’t work well together are salting and marinating. Since most marinades contain salt, there’s no reason to do both.
Cook at Room Temperature
Unless you really prefer extra rare steaks, I recommend cooking your meat at room temperature instead of straight from the refrigerator.
This way your steaks will cook quickly and evenly, especially steaks that are thicker or have larger muscle fibers. Overcooking a steak will toughen the meat and reduce the effectiveness of your tenderizing technique. It’s much easier to avoid overcooking when your steak goes on the grill at room temperature.
Know Your Limits
The absolute key to a tender steak, no matter your tenderizing technique, is to pull it from the grill at the right temperature.
I recommend removing the steaks when their internal temperature is a few degrees under your ideal temp. Your steak will finish cooking as it rests.
What is the ideal final temperature for a tender steak? It all depends on your personal preferences.
How Do You Like Your Steak?
Extra Rare or Blue: 115°F
Rare: 120° to 125°F
Medium-Rare: 130° to 135°F
Medium: 140° to 145°F
Medium-Well: 150° to 155°F
Well Done: 160°F and up
It’s Best to Rest
Speaking of rest, you should always rest your steak, covered, for at least 5 minutes after you pull it from the grill. 10 minutes is even better for thicker steaks like London broil or tri-tip.
Resting your meat allows the steak to finish cooking and gives the juices time to reabsorb into the meat. If you slice your steak right away, the juices will flow onto the plate, leaving you with a dry and tough mouthful.
Against the Grain
Sometimes you should go against the grain, and slicing a steak is definitely one of those times.
This is especially important for naturally tough cuts like flank and skirt steak (and beef brisket, for that matter). These steaks have long fibers of muscles running through the meat. If you slice them along the grain it will be very hard to chew your meat.
Just identify the direction of the grain, and cut the steak across the meat fibers into thin slices. Then each slice will have tiny, short fibers of meat that are tender to the bite.
As you can see, you have a lot of options when it comes to tenderizing a steak. The best steak tenderizer for you just depends on your cut and how thick the steak is. Steak tenderizing doesn’t necessarily take very long, so it’s a great option for a meal in a hurry.
You can use salt for both flavor and tenderizing, or marinate your steak in a mix of soy sauce, vinegar, or citrus juice. Tender steak is a delightful meal, and you don’t have to break your budget buying fancy cuts to enjoy one! Using these 5 methods, you can tenderize a budget steak into a meal fit for a king.