11 Meat Tenderizers & Why They Work

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Do you ever wonder why certain ingredients are regularly called for in marinades? Or are you forever on the hunt for a clever way to improve the texture of that cheap cut of meat? Here are several different ingredients to try (some may surprise you) along with a few tips.

Brushing SauceSalt: We’ve often been warned not to season with salt before cooking or the result will be a tough and dry result…but Steamy Kitchen says that’s just not so! “The Steak Secret: massively salt your steaks 1 hour before cooking for every inch of thickness”.

I’ve tried it and yes, it works (use Kosher or sea salt, not table salt). Why? As the meat draws some of the salt back in, the salt breaks down the protein and improves the steak’s texture. See Turning Cheap “Choice” Steak into Gucci “Prime” Steak for all the details.

Tea: Contains tannins which are a natural tenderizer. Make a cup or two of strong black tea, allow it to cool and then use to marinate.

Wine, Citrus Juices, Vinegar: These are acidic liquids that soften muscle fibers (and add flavor too). For citrus juice, try lemon, lime or pineapple. Vinegar can be apple cider, balsamic or regular household vinegar. Red wine is a good choice since it also contains tannins.

Tomato Based Sauces: Tomatoes are acidic which is why you’ll find many barbecue sauces made from them (it’s not just for their great flavor and tantalizing color). They also typically include vinegar which helps increase the acidity level.

Beer: Great for adding flavor but beer also contains alpha acids and tannins so it’s a workhorse when it comes to tenderizing meats. Marinate for at least an hour before grilling.

Cola: Marinate steak in Coke (not diet) for a minimum of 30 minutes and up to 24 hours. Why does it work? The acid content.

Ginger: You’ll often find ginger listed as an ingredient in marinades, did you know it’s not just for its flavor? Ginger contains a proteolytic enzyme that naturally breaks down protein.

Coffee: A natural tenderizer that also adds flavor. To use, brew a strong pot of coffee, chill and then marinate meat for up to 24 hours before grilling.

Buttermilk & Yogurt: These contain some acidity but they are also dairy items with calcium content, this activates enzymes within the meat that also that helps break down protein.

Figs, Pineapple, Kiwis, Papaya: These contain vegetable enzymes that dissolve protein and connective tissues. Apply a fruit mash or slices over the meat and leave for a few hours. These work best on thin cuts.

Baking Soda: Just like salt, baking soda will break down proteins as the meat draws it in. Two different ways to do this: Sprinkle baking soda all over, rub it in a bit and then let sit (refrigerated) for several hours. You could also make a baking soda/water paste and slather it over the meat. Let it marinate for several hours. Rinse well before cooking to remove all the baking soda. From 50 Quick Tips For The Kitchen.

Did you know: Marinade recipes typically contain three things: An acid, an oil, herbs and spices for flavor. Why?

  • Acid is used for their ability to tenderize;
  • Spices & Herbs are used for flavor;
  • Oil is used to moisturize and carry flavor, it also seals the meat surface from the air.

Tip: When using a strong acid based marinade, use glass dishes since stainless steel can react to the acid which will affect the meat.

Rule of Thumb For Using Marinades:

  • If marinating in a straight acid liquid (say apple cider vinegar, wine or lemon juice), meat shouldn’t be allowed to marinate for longer than two hours since the acidity will then begin to toughen it.
  • If you want to marinade for a longer period of time (for more flavor), use a recipe that includes oil rather than a straight acidic liquid.

Looking for some recipes to try? See this page for over a dozen ideas.

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Published: February 8, 2012

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10 Comments to “11 Meat Tenderizers & Why They Work”
  1. sandra says:

    Just for the record, you CAN use diet soda to marinate. And you don’t have to use Coke, either, Pepsi works just fine, as does the store brand. Awesome marinade for tender ham, though I’ve never used it on any other cut of meat I always use Diet Pepsi.

  2. Christina@edibletimes.com says:

    A friendly note – cooks should be careful with the fruit-based tenderizers. Only use a small amount and for a short amount of time. Wash before cooking – otherwise the meat will break down too much, and simply be mushy when cooked because the enzymes are more active at higher temperatures. Happy eating!

  3. Erin says:

    I have used Dr. Pepper for pork roasts, then put it in the crock pot (with the marinade. It comes out AWESOME! Very tender and tasty enough to impress my VERY picky son.

  4. Rachel says:

    A bottle of italian salad dressing makes meat amazingly tender when allowed to sit overnight, and gives it a tangy flavor, too!

    • totty says:

      I very much agree. We use Kraft Zesty Italian to marinate london broil for 24 hours, then grill it. Always compliments!

  5. TaQuin says:

    On pork chops mix 2T corn starch, 2T soy sauce and 2/3 cup water, marinate overnight and rinse before cooking – then use whatever recipe you want – amazing fork tender eating! Never fails!

  6. BBQ says:

    Citric Acid.

  7. Eizzil says:

    I already braised (2+ hours) two bottom round roast steaks. They are tough as leather. Is there any way to fix this? I have them back in the broth now.

  8. Goutham Babu says:

    Does Soya Sauce tenderize meats?