8 Simple Ways to Make Tough Meat Tender
Not every cut is melt-in-your mouth tender. We have the scoop on how to make tough meat tender with just a few simple steps.
Photo: Shutterstock / Razmarinka
I think we’ve all been there: a new recipe or an unfamiliar cut of meat leaves us with a tough, chewy meal. It feels wasteful and it can be pretty embarrassing if it happens during a dinner party. So what’s the cause, and how do you make tough meat tender?
Well, tenderizing meat isn’t as difficult as you might think! With a few tricks, like the ones we’ve got below, you can have even budget-friendly and unfamiliar cuts super tender with just a little extra effort. Find out how below, and don’t forget to ask your butcher about these cuts.
1. Physically tenderize the meat
For tough cuts like chuck steak, a meat mallet can be a surprisingly effective way to break down those tough muscle fibers. You don’t want to pound it into oblivion and turn the meat into mush, but a light pounding with the rough edge of a meat mallet will do the trick. If you don’t have one, you can lightly score the surface in a crosshatch pattern with a knife or use a fork to poke tiny holes into the meat.
2. Use a marinade
Cuts like flank or skirt steak make excellent grilling steaks, but they’re so tough you won’t want to eat them without a little marinade action. Using acidic ingredients like lemon juice, vinegar or buttermilk not only add flavor but also break down tough proteins, giving the meat a “pre-cook” before it hits the grill. Just make sure you don’t let it sit on the marinade for too long (30 minutes to two hours should be sufficient), or it’ll become soft and mushy.
3. Don’t forget the salt
Whether you’re marinating or not, at least make sure to salt the meat before cooking. Salt draws out moisture from inside the meat, concentrating the flavors and creating a natural brine. You know it’s working because the meat will take on a deeper, red color. Unlike marinades, you can salt your meat for up to 24 hours in advance.
4. Let it come up to room temperature
This is especially important with grass-fed beef and other lean cuts of meat. Since there’s not a lot of fat on these cuts, they’re less forgiving if slightly overcooked. Letting the meat sit on a room temperature counter for 30 minutes before cooking will help it cook more evenly.
5. Cook it low-and-slow
More expensive cuts of meat can be flash seared over high temperatures, but many budget cuts, like pork shoulder or chuck roast, require low-and-slow cooking techniques (like these slow cooker sandwiches). When braising tough cuts of meat, the collagen breaks down in the cooking liquid and really lets those tough muscle fibers separate. Make sure you give yourself enough time to let those cuts break down, which could take four or more hours in a Dutch oven or slow cooker.
6. Hit the right internal temperature
Overcooking can make your meat dry but undercooked meat can be quite chewy. Don’t be afraid of an instant-read meat thermometer and pull your meat when it’s ready. For naturally tender cuts like beef tenderloin, that can be as rare as 125ºF, whereas tougher cuts like brisket should be cooked to 195ºF.
7. Rest your meat
No matter how well you prepare and cook your meat, it will turn out dry and tough if you don’t let it rest. A general rule of thumb is five minutes per inch of thickness for steaks, or ten minutes per pound for roasts. This allows the juices to redistribute within the meat instead of spilling out onto the cutting board—that means your meat will be dry and tough.
8. Slice against the grain
All cuts of meat have long muscle fibers that run throughout them. If you make cuts parallel to the muscle fibers, you’ll end up using your teeth to break through them as you chew. That sounds like a workout! Instead, cut crosswise against the muscle fibers so they come apart easily and effortlessly.