Steven Raichlen's Barbecue! Bible

Tender Is the Steak

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.”

Tender steak on grill

So how do you make even tough cuts of steak tender? Here are 7 strategies for grilling and serving a tender steak every time.

  1. 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.
  2. Acidic tenderizers. Vinegar, lemon juice, and even yogurt have a softening and tenderizing effect on meats.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

The 10 Best Steaks for Grilling
Steak Recipes
10 Secrets to Grilling a Perfect Steak
How to Use Skirt Steak
How to Prepare Flank Steak

Join the Discussion

  • miguel rodriguez

    Try vacuum tumbler to stretch the fibers. In combination with marinades, tender is assured

    • ksmartbl

      What in the world is a “vacuum tumbler”?

  • Mikee Mo

    a dry tenderizer is best salt…a day or two in the fridge a little aging will be tender

  • Susan Calise

    I have tried ever marinade in the book I tried cutting my meat against the grain it is still not tender I have tried everything humanly possible please help me with this I have a flank steak that I want to make on the BBQ on Sunday help me.

    • Wayne Shortreed

      soak it with soy aauce and garlic powder. cook in the oven 4 about an hour. should be tender

  • Jeff Kendrick

    A sharp steak knife? Really? No help when you’re chewing on a piece of shoe leather.

  • Carrie

    1. After placing marinade in a shallow glass dish with 2-inch rim, pour over liquid marinade over fresh beef of choice, cover and keep dish in shaded, cool spot AT ROOM TEMPERATURE.
    2. After 20 minutes turn beef in dish to allow other side to marinate, for additional 20 minutes, keep at room temperature.
    3. Light grill to medium-high, drain meat well. Arrange meat on hot grate and time for 3 minutes, move beef to opposing facing direction and time for another 3 minutes.
    4. Turn meat and time for another 3 minutes, in one direction. Position beef in last opposing direction for 4 minutes. Place steaks on clean, hot, oven-proof platter.
    5. Place platter in preheated oven at 425F. Time for 5 minutes.
    6. Move meat to cutting board, cover with lid and rest for 5 minutes. Tender and delicious!
    Never put ice-cold meat on a hot grill!

  • doglover

    I need to be able to chew something, not just cut it. My daughter made a steak for us and cooked it in an over like some of the directions here, and it was the most tender steak I had ever eaten. Now I want to put these together. I want to be able to barbecue and finish off in the oven so it is tender, (I hope). Thank you Carrie for your directions. Anyone else ever done this?

  • Haris Shaikh

    Take a raw papaya, peal it and make a paste , use the paste in your marinade with some curd, keep it aside for a while for about 2 hours or more. This is one of the great ways to marinade tough meat. I try this for wild meat and works best for me.