11 Meat Tenderizers & Why They Work

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.

Salt: We’ve often been warned not to season with this 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, it 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. 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 recipes, 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 product 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 it’s drawn 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 product. Let it sit 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. 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 protein surface from the air.

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

Rule of Thumb:

  • If using a straight acid liquid (say apple cider vinegar, wine or lemon juice), meat shouldn’t be allowed to stay in it 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, 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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What Readers Are Saying: 34 Comments
  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.

    • jeremy says:

      They are just implying that you want to use cola. And don’t use diet because of the of the artificial sweeteners

    • Steven says:

      Just for the record, you CANT use Diet Pepsi, its the Acid in Coke that does the tenderizing , sure Pepsi has acid in it, however what ever floats your boat

    • Jason says:

      NEVER use diet soda or soda with Aspartame where heat will be involved. i.e.. BBQ/Smoking etc. Aspartame breaks down into formaldehyde and other harmful chemicals. Always use soda made with real sugar. i.e. “Mexican Coke” (Coca Cola made in Mexico because it is still made with real sugar) at least as of today

      • Allen says:

        Let’s not scare people, the science community has not found it to have high enough levels to be dangerous. In fact, it actually happens much more in fruit juices (about 2x in a banana, or 6x in an 8oz glass of tomato juice).

  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!

  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.

    • Eizzil says:

      The broth was still warm when the steaks were put back in, but it’s cold now.

      • Sandy says:

        Eizzil, Did you use an acid of some type in your broth? This is the secret to tender meat. Add 1/4 – 1/2 cup of either red wine, balsamic vinegar and 2 TBL Worcestershire sauce, or red wine vinegar. Return broth to high simmer then cover tightly and reduce heat to low simmer for another half hour. Depending on the thickness of the steak, total braising cook time could take 1 1/2 – 2 1/2 hours. Good luck.

        P.S. I often finish the cooking in Dutch Oven, or pan tightly covered in foil, in a 325* – 350* oven.

      • Claire says:

        Maybe you could throw some beer in it?

  8. Goutham Babu says:

    Does Soya Sauce tenderize meats?

  9. mochamadness says:

    Used TaQuin’s recipe for grilled pork chops. Marinated them for 8 hours, rinsed, then sprinkled on a seasoning blend of brown sugar, salt, coarse black pepper, and garlic powder. WOWSA!! Best grilled pork chops I ever had. Thanx TaQuin!

  10. cheryl says:

    The sea salt works great! I always do one side of steak for about 30 mins or until it looks dissolved and then flip the steaks and do the same on the other side. Make sure to rinse really well before cooking or the steaks will be too salty!

  11. Aubrey says:

    Try velveting meat … Slice in strips … For every pound add:

    -1/2t baking soda
    -1T red wine vinegar
    -1T soy
    -2/3t corn starch
    -1T oil

    Shake all with meat in a Tupperware, 30 minutes in the fridge, remove, rinse

    At this point you blanch meat

    Boiling Water – just long enough to turn meat white, remove and drain on paper towels
    Oil – same concept except keep oil at 280 degrees, toss meat in corn starch till you have a very light coating, shake off all excess, blanch in oil till outside is just barely cooked, drain, use

  12. mochamadness says:

    Taquin, thank you so very much. I tried your recipe not too long ago and it was excellent. I can’t remember how I seasoned them (lol) but I do remember my grilled pork chops tasting so flavorful and tender. I always have the ingredients on hand. I will recommend this to anyone.

  13. mochamadness says:

    @Goutham…I have used equal parts soy sauce and apple cider vinegar to marinate beef short ribs. HTH

  14. rachel ngalyuka says:

    Another way of tenderizing meat is as as follows:- just peel raw pawpaw and cut it into small pieces. cut meat also into pieces, fry meat and when it turns brown put the pieces of raw pawpaw. cook for 30 minutes. your meat will be soft and delicious.

  15. Thurisaz says:

    can honey can be used as tenderizer?

    • Andrew says:

      Honey is helpful in cooking steak but is not a tenderizer. DO NOT add honey to your marinade. If you have a shorter amount of time for a marinade add slightly more acid i.e. 50% more lemon juice. Massage meat into marinade frequently over the course of say two hours, but when you’re ready to cook rub the meat is a thin coating of honey. This creates a seal around the meat to hold the juices in when you cook.

  16. Khurshid says:

    I am surprised how one entire concept of tenderising is absent.

    Mechanical tenderising IS the only sure way of breaking down muscle fibres. The chemical methods, all will agree, is often uncertain in terms of duration, amount required and temperature.

    Following are the huge advantage of mechanical tenderising. But before reading that clear any doubt you may have have about this method. You only need one evidence – remember BBQ with minced meat – patty burgers, mince kebab on skewers, sausage etc. There you have meat that DO NOT require tenderising and is soft and mellow.

    1. Not restricted by temperature.

    2. You do not add unhealthy amount of sodium hiding in the non salts like baking powder, soya sauce, cola etc.

    3. You do not add potassium (fruit, cola, soya sauce) which is like taking additional salt or sodium. The kidney manages potassium by preferentially excreting it and taking back sodium from the urine into the body. Trust me on that one, I am a doctor.
    4. You do not add flavours that is not a part of the recipe. Cola in meat? Pineapple in kebab? Really?? You know that it is sugar or sweeteners we are adding there? Are we making a dessert?
    5. It does not need waiting times.
    6. You have visible control to the desired extent. No more mushy or hard chewy meat.
    7. When you stop, it stops. Unlike all forms of chemical tenderising.

    So there you go, 7 reasons why should prefer Mechanical over Chemical when tenderising meat.

    • Dustin says:

      Tile sure you can use the old mechanical method this however doesn’t work in all cases. Bone in ribs for example.. I use a mix of apple cider vinegar and soy sauce for ribs.

    • Doctor Smoktor says:

      Tenderising with fruits like pineapple and papaya at room temperature between 1 and 2hrs
      Tenderise well and add valuable enzymes to your diet .
      No need to be afraid just wash of the marinade and cook .

    • Erik says:

      Khurshid is wrong and boring for sending these bold statements. I am an executive chef, have been for over a decade. Have worked on both coasts, have worked for celebrity chefs we all know, fed celebrities and politicians, and currently feed over 4000 people a day in silicone valley. Cooking is not mechanical. Baking is. Cooking is about exploration and solving problems. Experiment with your marinades and figure out what works for you. Write down recipes that you make through experiment and make the process your own. Tendorizing meats can be done several different ways. Acid, salt, mechanical, through correct cooking and slicing process, etc. You do you. Don’t let anyone tell you anything black and white about cooking. It’s a puzzle with no absolute answer. Just have fun

  17. David says:

    I read some great options to tenderize beef. With wine or any other acidic agents, does it give off a taste of sort when cooked for the better? Or does it burn off?

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