Tenderizing Beef

In most other countries, beef doesn’t have as high a fat content as in the US.  That’s great news for your health, but not so great for tenderness, as fat is part of what makes beef tender.

The other factor is the inherent toughness of the muscle fiber in a particular cut.  And there are a number of ways that you can make that fiber more tender.

In all these methods, however, the bottom line is that you can’t make a cut into something it’s not.  No amount of tenderizing will turn a chuck steak into a rib eye – it will simply make it a more tender chuck steak.

Long, Slow Moist Cooking

The best way of tenderizing a tough cut of beef is simply to choose the correct cooking method:  long, slow, and moist.  That’s why the tough cuts are used for pot roasts, stew and Swiss steak.  Cooking the meat over low heat for 3 or 4 hours in a liquid will make almost any cut tender.  Using a pressure cooker can cut down the time by 50% or more, saving propane and lessening the heat in the boat.

To know the best cooking method for the cut you have, check out the free PDF beef charts that show the best cooking methods for various cuts (also available in Spanish, which are very helpful if cruising in Spanish-speaking areas).  If a given cut is shown as best stewed, it really isn’t a candidate for grilling!

Pound the Meat

Pounding the meat with a tenderizing mallet is the second-best method, and often combined with long slow cooking.  A tenderizing mallet looks a bit like a hammer with a waffle face (if you’re interested in buying one, the one shown by OXO Good Grips is a good choice, available at Amazon).  If you don’t have one, a regular hammer will also work.

Place the meat in a Ziploc bag and seal it, getting as much air out as possible (you don’t have to use a bag, but it makes clean up much easier and there is less chance of contamination and food poisoning).  Put it on a sturdy, solid surface and begin pounding.  Be firm, but no, don’t pound as hard as you can.  You’re not trying to flatten the cut.  Thick pieces will take a little more pounding than thin, but generally just go over the meat once, flip it over, and do the same on the other side.

Grind the Meat

Ever wonder why hamburger is the cheapest beef?  It’s made from all the really tough pieces.  Ground up, they’re perfectly acceptable.  If you have a meat grinder aboard, you can do the same thing.  Otherwise, simply chop, dice and mince the meat finely, throwing away the tough pieces of fibrous tissue you come across.

Marinate the Meat

Any marinade with an acid in it – vinegar, citrus juice, and yogurt are common – will weaken the muscle tissue and tenderize it.  Some marinades are specifically designed to tenderize as well as add flavor, such as my favorite meat marinade, which will tenderize to a certain extent.  The reality, however, is that marinades just don’t do as much good to a really tough cut as pounding and slow cooking will – but you can combine all three and almost any meat will be good.

Pineapple, papaya and kiwi contain chemicals that will also tenderize meat.  Marinades containing any of these can be quite effective, but you have to be careful not to marinate the meat too long or the outside can become mushy.

Use Meat Tenderizer

Many people don’t like to use commercial meat tenderizer, myself included, as it can make the outside of the meat mushy while the center remains tough.

If you want to try it, however, you can find meat tenderizer near the other spices in most supermarkets and simply follow the instructions on the jar.  Outside the US and Canada, meat tenderizer can be hard or impossible to find.

Frankly, the best use for meat tenderizer is to take the pain out of bee stings and many insect bites – just sprinkle it on or make a paste with a little water.  For this reason, you’ll find a jar on many boats!

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  • ben
    Posted at 01 August 2011 Reply

    Not sure when this was posted (I’m a new reader), but chemical meat tenderizers are a cooking no no.

    Chemical tenderizers usually use a chemical called papayin(sp?) which is found in papaya and pineapple. It’s an enzyme that dissolves meat tissue except that it only really works on the very outside surface. Your cut of meat will never be more tender by using it, it will only become slimy. Adding tropical fruits to your marinade would be an awesome flavor addition in some dishes, but because of the papayin be very careful about not letting it marinade too long.

    I’d like to add to your physical tenderizing techniques (grinding and hammering) to use good knife cuts. Cutting against the grain shortens the tissue fibers, and the shorter the fibers the more tenderness. Bite sized pieces of tougher cuts will be more tender than big chunks.

    Also to comment on the blog in general, I’m absolutely loving it.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 01 August 2011 Reply

      Ben –

      Thanks for explaining the result from chemical meat tenderizers much better than I did!


  • Behan Fravel Gifford
    Posted at 09 March 2014 Reply

    It’s like your posting these for me and my 13 lbs of “what will I do with all this” cow. 😉

  • Behan Fravel Gifford
    Posted at 09 March 2014 Reply

    Developing countries don’t sell aged meat so unless it’s imported (=expensive) this is an excellent cruising skill to have.

  • Germain from glasgow, scotland.
    Posted at 02 September 2014 Reply

    Short and clear: exactly the advice I needed today. Thanks Caroline!

  • Don McCale
    Posted at 09 December 2016 Reply

    Please add me to your mailing list as I believe I missed where you sign up. I am in Costa Rica (Atenas) and have discovered exactly as you have the beef here is terrible. It is extremely tough with very little flavor. The national diet is chicken or fish. I am told the beef is so tough because the cows (white cows) are always climbing the mountainside to eat which makes them tough to eat.
    I will try your marinade tomorrow!

  • Nikki
    Posted at 20 September 2017 Reply

    Thanks for your great information and tips. I am meat dishes fan and intended to buy meat tenderizer. I Just wonder which one is better for meat dishes: a meat mallet or tenderizer power. Thanks all!

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