The Secret Ingredients To Make Meat Tender

Choose your tenderizer—salt, baking soda, citrus, or vinegar.

Burgers with Green Tomato Mayonnaise
Photo: Hector Sanchez

If you have ever volunteered to cook the Thanksgiving turkey, you are probably familiar with the concept of brining—soaking the bird in a mixture of salt water and spices to make it tender and flavorful. Using a dry brine, or rubbing the meat down with salt and dry spices and letting it air dry in the refrigerator, is also a popular method to gain the same results.

Along with salt, however, there are other ways and kitchen staples that you can use if you want to tenderize meats. Adding things like baking soda and water creates a chemical reaction that guarantees a juicy burger and succulent chicken. Before you fire up the grill this weekend or brown your ground beef for a pot of chili, read on for a quick science lesson on tenderizing any cut of meat you may cook.

Use a Marinade

Add an Acidic Marinate

Everyone loves a great marinade to add flavor to chicken, steak, or fish, but did you know it can also help tenderize the meat? Use an acid-based food, like lemon or lime juice, over meat. Only keep this marinade on for two hours because too much time can make the meat too mushy.

Add Some Fruit

In addition to acid-based foods, plant enzymes in fruits like pineapple and kiwi can tenderize meat. Like with lemon juice or vinegar, you don't want to leave these foods on beef for too long—it will make the meat soft. You can blend fruit to create a marinade.

Brine with Salt

Soaking meat in a salty brine helps the meat muscles absorb more water, thus retaining moisture. Through a process called "denaturing," salt causes protein in the meat to uncoil and form strings, which link to water. Brining with a salt solution helps keep the meat from drying out when cooked.

Tenderize with Baking Soda

Change the Meat's Chemistry

Using a solution of baking soda and water to tenderize meat works differently than using a brine. Baking soda neutralizes acid and raises the pH level on the surface of the meat, causing the outside to become more alkaline. This chemical reaction makes it more difficult for the proteins inside the meat to tighten up, and when proteins can't bond, the meat stays tender when cooked instead of constricting and toughening up.

Work Faster with Baking Soda

Tenderizing with a baking soda solution is faster than using a saltwater brine. Meat only has to sit in a baking soda solution for 15 to 20 minutes, but a brine solution can take at least 30 minutes to start working. Plus, letting the meat sit longer in baking soda will not harm it, whereas over-brining meat can make it stringy and mushy.

Use Less Baking Soda Than Salt

A standard brine for one and a half pounds of meat calls for one-fourth cup of salt dissolved in one quart of water. If using baking soda, make a solution of one-fourth teaspoon of baking soda and a pint of water for 12 ounces of ground beef. It takes a teaspoon of baking soda in its water solution for sliced meat, such as chicken and pork.

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