Tender Is the Steak
It was a two-line email—the kind that makes you sit up and think—because it addressed an issue faced daily by millions of grill masters around Planet Barbecue:
“Sometimes we buy cheap beef because we are on a budget,” wrote Diane Q. “These steaks are often tough. We have tried salt, meat tenderizer, and marinades. Could you please tell me the best way to tenderize the steaks?”
I immediately thought of my last trip to Southeast Asia, and in particular, to steaks I ate hot off the grill in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Both were explosively flavorful thanks to complex marinades and polymorphic condiment spreads. And both were tough as proverbial shoe leather.
We North Americans and Europeans are spoiled when it comes to steak. Our notion of a “fork-tender” filet mignon or a “silver butter knife” sirloin (the signature steak at Murray’s in Minneapolis—so named because it’s so tender, the steak knife glides through the meat as though it were butter) are the stuff of dreams on much of Planet Barbecue.
Throughout Asia and Africa, not to mention in some parts of South America and even Europe, livestock is scrawny, feeding on a hardscrabble diet. Red meat of any sort is considered a luxury and no one demands it be tender.
In the West we are blessed with great steaks—some intrinsically tender (like filet mignon, strip steak, or rib steak). Other steaks, like flank or skirt steak, are comprised of tough meat fibers, but even here, strategic serving (sliced paper-thin across the grain) makes them as tender as you could wish for. Added advantage here: intrinsically tough steaks usually have more flavor than the butter-soft, so-called “noble cuts.”
So how do you make even tough cuts of steak tender? Here are 7 strategies for grilling and serving a tender steak every time.
- Chemical tenderizers. Season steaks with a papaya- or pineapple-based rub or marinade. Papaya contains a natural meat tenderizer called papain, while pineapple contains enzymes called bromelain.
- Acidic tenderizers. Vinegar, lemon juice, and even yogurt have a softening and tenderizing effect on meats.
- Mechanical tenderizing. Mechanical tenderizers, like my Marinade Turbocharger, use a series of razor sharp needles to cut tough meat fibers, thereby tenderizing the meat. You can also break down meat fibers by pounding with hammer-like meat tenderizers or even a cast iron skillet.
- Scoring. This is another mechanical method of tenderizing steaks, especially flat, fibrous steaks like skirt and flank steak. Using a sharp knife, make a series of shallow (1/8-inch) incisions 1/4 inch apart in a crosshatch pattern. Do this on both sides. The cuts sever tough meat fibers and speed up the absorption of the marinade. They also help prevent the steak from curling during cooking.
- Resting and slicing. Let the steak rest on the cutting board a minute or two before you slice it. (This “relaxes” the meat, making it juicier.) Then slice it very thinly across the grain. Thin slices mean short meat fibers, making even a fibrous steak like a skirt steak seem tender.
- Try a lesser-known “alternative” steak. The flatiron, for example, is a lean, full flavored steak cut from the center of the chuck. It looks and cooks like a skirt steak, but it cuts like a tender steak from the loin. Other alternative steaks include the ranch steak and petite tender (also called mock tender), both from the shoulder clod, and tri-tip steaks from the bottom of the sirloin primal.
- Invest in a good steak knife. If all else fails, a sharp serrated edge will make any steak seem tender. Extra points if it feels heavy and substantial in your hand. Perhaps I’m prejudiced, but I’m partial to our Best of Barbecue steak knives.