There are many different cuts of steak, as you’re probably aware. Some are more tender than others. But even if the steak is naturally tough to begin with, is it a good idea to tenderize it?
Should You Tenderize Steak?
Whether or not you tenderize steak depends on the cut you’re using. Cuts like filet mignon and ribeye are tender to begin with, so there’s no reason to waste time breaking down the muscle fibers. Others, like flank steak and eye of the round, would benefit from a little extra help in this department.
What exactly does tenderizing do to the meat? As the name suggests, it makes it softer to the bite. But how does that work?
Here’s what happens when you tenderize meat. The muscle proteins and connective tissue that bind the meat together will break down. The more they break down, the more tender the steak gets.
In fact, it’s possible to carry the tenderizing process too far, and wind up with mushy meat. This is often the case when you leave the meat in a marinade for too long, especially if there are acidic ingredients involved. We’ll talk more about that later on.
Now that you know what makes the meat more tender, how do you make it happen? Try one of the following methods.
The most common—and easiest—way to tenderize steak is to cook it. When the meat’s protein fibers are exposed to heat, they’ll break down naturally. The heat also converts the connective tissue to gelatin, so the meat will be juicier.
Though steaks become easier to chew as they cook, this only goes so far. If the steak is overcooked, it will toughen and dry out—the exact opposite of what you’re going for.
Though low-and-slow braising works for some tougher cuts like eye of the round, it’s not the best fit for most steaks. If you’re grilling the meat, you want to sear it quickly over a medium-hot fire. When you overcook steaks in this manner, it’s a disaster.
For best results, grill steaks to medium rare. Most cuts can cook to medium and maintain an appealing texture, but the meat will be juicier if you stop at medium rare.
Those of you who prefer very rare steak should stick to cuts like tenderloin. Some steaks are too chewy if you undercook them, but tenderloin will be soft to the bite even if it’s just lightly seared on each side.
Using a Tenderizing Tool
Have you ever seen one of those large hammer-like objects with a square-shaped object on one end? One side of the square is usually flat, while the other is marked with ridges. That’s a meat tenderizer.
You can use the flat side of the square to pound the meat flat, but the ridged side works by breaking down the fibers. As we’ve discussed, that’s essential when it comes to tenderizing meat.
Keep in mind that tenderizing tools are meant to be used on steaks that are naturally tough to begin with, like the aforementioned round steaks. It also helps if the cut is already fairly thin—the tool isn’t the best choice for tri-tip steaks or shoulder petite.
When you’re starting with a steak that’s on the tougher side, consider using a marinade. These mixtures contain acidic or enzymatic ingredients that soften the muscle fibers. Just be careful not to marinate steak for too long, or it will turn to mush.
Though marinating can be effective, we should point out that the marinade mixture doesn’t penetrate very far beneath the surface—just a few millimeters at most. It’s more effective at imparting flavor than at promoting tenderness, though it’s used for both.
After removing steaks from a marinade, be sure to pat them dry with paper towels. If the surface of the meat is still wet, it won’t sear properly.
A simpler method involves sprinkling salt on the surface of your steak. This will draw out moisture, creating a layer of brine on the exterior. As the meat’s fibers reabsorb this brine, they’ll work in the same way a marinade would.
This method is also known as dry-brining. When you use a wet brine, you soak meat in a saltwater solution for several hours, or overnight. The brine plumps up the muscle fibers, keeping the meat moist as it cooks.
Use about 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt for each pound of steak. There’s no need to rinse the meat before salting it, but you might want to pat it dry if it looks too wet.
Let the salt do its work for about 1 hour per inch of thickness. For example, if you’re salting a ribeye that measures 2 inches thick, it should sit in the dry brine for 2 hours.
On a related note, keep the steak in the fridge if you’re going to be dry-brining it for longer than 2 hours (or 1 hour in hot weather). Just take it back out of the fridge for about half an hour before you start to cook.
There’s no need to wipe the salt off before you season and cook the steak. Most of it will have absorbed into the meat anyway. If the surface looks very wet, though, feel free to pat it dry with paper towels.
Should You Tenderize Steak?
It’s important to note that some steaks don’t require any help in order to become nice and tender. For these, tenderizing would be a waste of time.
Filet mignon, or tenderloin steak, has a soft, buttery texture. There’s no need to tenderize it. In fact, doing so would cause more harm than good. You want to grill these steaks over high heat so that a nice brown crust forms on the exterior.
Flat iron steak is regarded by grilling aficionados as the second-most tender steak on the steer. In fact, it’s tender enough to be dubbed the “butter steak cut,” and indeed, you can use a butter knife to slice through it.
T-bone and Porterhouse steaks don’t need tenderizing either. These are New York strip steaks sold on the bone. The T-bone will have a small piece of tenderloin attached, but the Porterhouse includes a substantial chunk of it.
Ribeyes, which are cut from the rib primal, are also tender enough on their own. The meat contains a great deal of marbling, which improves the texture. If you’ve ever eaten a perfectly cooked ribeye steak or cut of prime rib, you’ll know what we’re talking about.
Which Cuts Need Tenderizing
So, which steaks would benefit from tenderizing? Here are a few examples.
Flank steak, with its broad grain and lean texture, takes well to marinades. Though the fibers don’t absorb the liquid as well as skirt steak, you should still be pleased with the results.
Speaking of skirt steak, this is another steak that you should tenderize, preferably by marinating. The chewy texture is one of the hallmarks of the cut, but you can offset this by marinating the steak and slicing it across the grain once it’s cooked.
Tri-tip, or bottom sirloin, is low in fat, which usually results in a lack of flavor. In fact, this cut has plenty of beef flavor, and it’s fairly tender as well—though it’s still a good idea to marinate the meat before grilling.
Cuts from the chuck or round should be given the royal treatment with the tenderizing side of the mallet. You can apply a dry brine or marinade afterward if you really want to go all out.
Ditto for top sirloin steaks. These are leaner than ribeyes and much less tender. Using a meat tenderizer will create crevices in the surface of the meat, so if you use a marinade, the mixture will be able to penetrate deeper.
The Bottom Line
Should you tenderize steak before cooking it? That depends on the cut. Many of the best grilling steaks don’t need to be tenderized. If it’s naturally tender, there’s no reason to take this extra step.
Hi there! I’m Darren Wayland, your BBQHost. My love of great barbecue inspired me to curate this site as a resource for all my like-minded fellow pitmasters out there. When I’m not researching and learning all I can about the latest tips and techniques, you can find me at the grill—that is, if you can spot me at all through the clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. And since you asked, yes, that probably is barbecue sauce on my face. Welcome to the party!