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Choosing the best meat tenderizer is usually a matter of knowing the results you want to achieve as well as having an awareness of the different methods and tools available. One of the most common ways to tenderize meat is to actually pound it out, usually with a dedicated tool known as a meat mallet. Often these tools have textured edges that can help the fibers in the meat break down as the surface flattens, which can speed cooking time as well as allow better penetration of different flavors or sauces. Pounding isn’t the only approach, though, and it isn’t necessarily appropriate for all cuts of meat. Sometimes, you can get the same tenderizing effects by soaking your meat in a marinade for a few hours or even overnight. Especially if your marinade is acidic, the meat will soften and will often be more juicy and succulent after soaking. Rubs and salts that you apply to the outside of the meat before cooking can work the same way. These tend to be more pronounced in terms of the flavor they impart and may require more time, but not always. In some cases, you might also want to combine approaches. In most instances, the tenderizing approach that’s “best” is pretty subjective, and often depends more on the meat at issue and your individual tastes than any universal rule or understanding.
There are many reasons to marinate meat, and knowing a bit about what you want your result to be will normally help you make a choice when it comes to technique. Most cuts of meat are relatively tough to begin with; they normally contain partially if not exclusively muscle fibers, which, depending on function, are often lean and fibrous. This makes them useful to the animal in life, but can take a bit of work to be soft and moist on the plate. The main goal of any tenderizer is to break down the dense protein bonds in the meat to allow moisture to penetrate. It’s especially important for long cooking or cooking over very high heat, which can exacerbate toughness and can encourage dryness.
One of the first things you’ll want to do is identify the sort of meat you’re working with. Chicken fillets normally require a different approach than ham hock, for instance, and steak can vary tremendously depending on where on the cow it was cut. You’ll also want to determine how you’re going to cook the meat before choosing an approach. Sauteeing or pan frying often works best with thin slices of meat, whereas roasts and grills often maintain their flavor more if they stay thick and are tenderized primarily from the outside in. If you aren’t sure about the best way to cook a particular type of meat, you can usually ask your butcher for recommendations at the point of sale. Recipes sometimes also specify a specific method or recommended tenderizing approaches.
A meat pounder or meat mallet is a good meat tenderizer to use when dealing with inexpensive cuts of meat, which can sometimes be tough and hard to eat otherwise. Made of either metal or wood, a meat mallet often resembles a hammer with a short handle. On the head of the mallet, which can have several sides, there will be at least one side covered with rows of pyramid-shaped teeth. When meat is pounded with this side of a meat mallet, the teeth cut into the fibers that can make meat hard to chew.
Another and very different option is the marinade, which is a good option when dealing with meat that has little flavor. A marinade is basically a liquid-based soak that typically contains an acidic, wet ingredient — like vinegar, wine, lemon juice, or some other citrus fruit juice — as well as a cooking oil and various herbs, spices and seasonings. Meat soaked in marinade is not only tenderized, but also absorbs the flavors from the liquid. This method doesn't always work well with thicker meats, however, since the marinade may not be able to get all the way inside the meat; injecting the marinade may help with this.
One popular ingredient used in marinades is fresh pineapple juice, which contains an enzyme called bromelain, an extremely effective meat tenderizer. When using pineapple juice to tenderize meat, however, make sure it is fresh, because canned pineapple juice, and pineapple juice that has been heated or cooked, has a tendency to lose its tenderizing properties. Bromelain is a common ingredient in powdered meat tenderizers as well.
Rubs are another option, especially when cooking meat on a grill. Like marinades, rubs can add flavor to meat while also tenderizing it, although they may not work as well as some other methods. They can be made at home by combining various dry spices and herbs, or they an readily be purchased from many grocers and butchers. It can help to leave the rub or paste on overnight to allow the ingredients to penetrate into the meat.
Salt is one of the oldest ways to tenderize meat. Liberally coating a piece of meat with kosher or sea salt causes the water to be drawn out; as the salt dissolves in the liquid, some of it is pulled back into the meat, adding to the flavor and changing the protein so that the meat becomes more tender. It's important to rinse most of the salt off and dry the meat before cooking it to avoid an overly salty meal, however. The salting method typically works well for thicker cuts of meat.
I like using an old fashioned meat mallet. I've found the cubed side works very well, and the flat side is fine if you cover the meat with some plastic wrap.
My dad had a novel method of tenderizing meat: he used the edge of an old saucer! It actually worked very well. The edge of the saucer really broke up the meat without pulverizing it. He just came up with that idea when he wanted a faster way to tenderize some steak. I've done it myself and it does work. So, if you don't have a meat mallet, by all means, use the edge of a saucer! It does pretty well.
I've used the commercial meat tenderizers before, and they work OK. I tend to choose the ones that are lower in sodium.
Pineapple juice is a good natural, low sodium tenderizer. The enzymes in pineapple help soften the meat, and you can add other flavorings to a pineapple juice based marinade.
Rubs and so forth are OK, but they really don't do much to actually tenderize the meat. You have to have something that breaks it down a little, and the pineapple juice does that very well. Just don't leave the meat in the juice too long, or you'll end up with mush!
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