The sight and aroma of a freshly grilled steak can automatically activate one’s taste buds. But now and then, you happen on a tough one that’s chewy and not very appetizing. It makes you wonder how do I make steak more tender?
Here’s what I discovered:
Make steak more tender by buying USDA Prime or Choice beef. Dry-aged and/or grass-fed are also good options. Then beat the steak with a mallet, adding salt before cooking. Slow-cook extra tough cuts of beef, then allow it to rest for 5 minutes after it’s been cooked and slice against the grain.
In this article, we’ll explore 4 related themes:
- Why is my steak tough and chewy
- What is a good tenderizer?
- Does beef get more tender the longer it is cooked?
- 11 simple tips to make steak more tender
Making flavorful and tender steak is an art form. But it doesn’t have to be a mystery or something that just happens occasionally and seemingly for no reason. You can master the art of a perfect steak every time!
Let the fun begin…
— Cook Smarts (@cooksmarts) June 19, 2020
Why is my steak tough and chewy?
Steak can be chewy if it is overcooked, or the cut was too lean and lacked the appropriate amount of fat. But it’s also important to choose the right cut of beef for the cooking method as certain steaks such as flank will be more tender if slow-cooked.
The cut of beef, how fresh it is, the marbling on it, how it was prepared, and whether it was cut with or against the grain are all factors that could account for why steak is tough and chewy.
Some parts of the cow are often tougher than the others and are often not as expensive as the more tender parts.
The tender parts are rich in fat and marbling. These two are what make steak tender and succulent. Conversely, lean steak cuts with little to no fat or marbling are tough and chewy.
So there’s a need to prep them before cooking or roasting to bring out their flavor and tenderness.
The tough part is usually the part that’s been exercised a lot — as it walks around, for example. It follows that steak from older cows would be tougher than that from younger ones.
The parts that have not been affected much by the exercises and which are highly marbled are the ones that are tender and flavorful.
Say you’ve got tough steak, what can you do about it? No worries. There are tons of tenderizers. Let’s meet them in the next section.
— 🕷🕷🕸Maureen McCollum🕸🕷🕷 (@Mccoll131) January 28, 2017
What is a good steak tenderizer?
To make a steak more tender, papaya, pineapple, yogurt, lemon juice, or a marinade can all help. Additionally, using a mallet to pound the steak, or scoring the steak before cooking can help. Then allow to rest for 5 minutes after cooking, and then slice against the grain.
Let’s check out a couple of these tenderizing methods.
No, I don’t mean the Michael Jackson song. I meant to beat the meat. Using a mallet to beat meat is one of the ways to tenderize it. It makes sense, right? The meat is tough, and it has to be beaten into shape.
It’s effective, but don’t overdo it.
The meat could turn into mush! So, there’s a need to be gentle. Ultimately, your goal is to break down some of the tough fibrous connective tissue inside the steak.
Marinating the meat is another great way to tenderize tougher and/or cheaper cuts of beef, and you’ve got two options.
You could marinate in acid or enzymes. You could make a marinade with yogurt, vinegar, lime juice, or buttermilk.
They all contain acid, which helps break down tough protein. Ideally, leave the meat in the marinade for at least 30 minutes up to 2 hours max. This is because you don’t want it to be too soft or mushy.
Acids can easily and quickly break down the protein structure of meat! That’s how things like ceviche can be “cooked” just by soaking in lime juice.
Would beef get more tender if you just cooked it for a longer time? That’s what we’ll explore next.
i remember how i used to overcook steak back in the days. now i only cook perfect steaks. pic.twitter.com/UB79EvVq4c
— DON M. (@donmarc_) October 2, 2020
Does beef get more tender the longer you cook it?
Beef does not necessarily get more tender the longer it’s cooked. The best cuts for slow cooking are chuck, shoulder, skirt, brisket, and oxtail. Steaks such as ribeye, New York, or filet mignon will all dry up and become tough if overcooked.
So it is possible to cook beef for a long time, and it would still end up dry and tough, not tender.
Beef, like other meats, is made up of muscles, connective tissues, and fat. What we often see (and eat) is the muscle. Fat usually serves as a covering over the muscles and as marbling between muscle fibers.
It’s the marbled fat that makes the beef succulent and tender. You know that muscles (meat in this case) become stronger the more they are exercised. So, the part that’s highly exercised is usually tough.
In other words, the part of the steer in question is a factor in whether it’s tough or tender. Another is the age of the steer; the older, the tougher the beef.
But of course, aside from buying meat from reputable places, we have no way of knowing how old the cow was before slaughter. So let’s focus on what we can control.
If you’re looking to get tender beef, cooking it for a long time is not the answer across the board.
And the most marbled cuts all benefit from cooking for a relatively short period of time at a high temperature. That’s why steakhouses such as Ruth’s Chris cook their steaks in an 1800-degree broiler and then serve it on a plate heated to 500° F.
Trust me, if you go slow and low on something like a USDA Prime dry-aged rib eye, you’ll destroy the flavor and tenderness of that great steak.
We serve only USDA-certified Prime beef, the most tender and flavorful steak available. pic.twitter.com/N7xOHpDvBD
— Son’z Steakhouse (@SonzSteakhouse) December 19, 2018
11 Tips on How to Make Steak More Tender
1. Pick the most tender cut in your budget
These include filet mignon, top sirloin, New York strip, and rib eye.
This is arguably the most important tip. It starts with the cut. You want to buy the best part of the bull that you can afford. The reality is that not all parts of a bull are created equal. Interesting, right?
So, get a part that’s got fat and is highly marbled because both indicate tender steak. The rib-eye is the most tender and flavorful and is naturally the most expensive.
But there are other parts of the steer that are good, too. Even if you’re on a budget, some may just need a little preparation to bring out the best in them. But get started with the most tender part.
2. Buy USDA Prime or Choice and not Select
For the most tender steak, you want to choose the best grades of beef. It’s a no-brainer, right? And, Prime or Choice is the way to go. Ignore Select.
Prime is what you’d often get at upscale restaurants. It’s the best of the best. In fact, less than 3% of meat makes this grade. It’s from young, well-fed cattle. Its fat and marbling content is high.
Choice is exceptional quality meat, too. But, its fat and marbling are not as rich as Prime. About 53% of consumable beef falls into this category, and it’s the most available grade you’d find in grocery stores.
Is Prime steak worth it?
In a recent article of mine, I did a “study” where I found that USDA Choice Grass-Fed Steaks taste better than USDA Prime. Despite the differences between certified Angus USDA Choice and regular USDA Choice and USDA Prime, the differences weren’t substantial enough to warrant a price difference.
Just click the link to read it on my site.
3. Buy dry-aged or grass-fed when possible
Dry-aged beef is more tender and flavorful. And grass-fed, while a tad leaner, is also going to be more flavorful.
That’s why you’d want to get them when possible. But, you might be wondering: What the heck is “dry-age?” As the name suggests, it’s meat that’s been aged for some time before it’s cooked or roasted.
It’s often aged for between 7 days and up to 30 days.
The drying draws out the moisture, and some enzymes are released. They help in further breaking down the meat, making it flavorful and tender. It’s often expensive and rare as most stores don’t sell it. Dry-aging essentially helps improve the steak’s texture and taste.
But don’t worry about food safety. The dry-aging happens in a temperature and humidity-controlled aging cooler.
Grass-fed, as the name implies, refers to cattle that have been fed a diet of grass rather than grain. Many ranchers feed their cattle corn and other grain feed as it’s inexpensive. To have cattle that roam freely eating grass just costs more money.
But ultimately, cows (like most animals) weren’t designed to eat corn and their diet and the flavor of the meat, benefit greatly from a natural diet of just eating grass.
An overnight marinade of this steak yields incredibly tender results, but a 30-minute steep is sufficient to infuse the meat with the fruity flavor of the chiles. https://t.co/rV5Ok5e4UV
— The New York Times (@nytimes) May 9, 2021
4. Beat the steak with a mallet
Beating the steak with a mallet would make it more tender.
But I wouldn’t do this with a high-quality steak. No, this is better when done to a cheaper cut of beef such as flank or tri-tip.
Because mallets are heavy, you want to be careful that you don’t beat it too much so that it doesn’t become too soft or mushy. Beating it with a mallet breaks down the muscle fiber making it more tender.
You could place the steak between two plastic sheets before you do.
5. Don’t overdo the marinade – it adds flavor more than tenderness
Marinating is believed to be helpful when you want to make steak more tender.
But if you’re starting with a dry-aged ribeye, you’ve already got a great-tasting steak. It doesn’t need more flavor, and a marinade might cover up that great taste. A steak like that just needs salt, pepper, and a hot grill.
Extra moisture is introduced into the steak while it sits in the marinade. It’s this moisture that makes it softer and more flavorful. So yes, if you have tri-tip, it could benefit from a good marinade.
But feel free to skip the marinade when you have high-quality cuts of beef.
6. Don’t refrigerate for 30 minutes before cooking
It’s vital to bring steak to room temperature before cooking.
At the risk of stating the obvious, while it’s in the fridge, it’s cold. You want it pretty close to its natural state before you start cooking it.
If not, you could have a situation where the outer part could burn while the inside is still cold! But you don’t want to leave it outside for more than 30 minutes. The food temperature danger zone is between 40° F and 140° F.
So once something goes into that range, the danger of food-borne illness begins to increase. But most foods are safe outside of refrigeration for up to 2 hours.
— Richard Coombs (@Edenleepsychbus) August 24, 2014
7. Do add salt before cooking – it removes moisture
Salted meat, as you know, tastes better than unsalted meat.
Why? When meat is salted, the salt changes the molecular structure of the protein. In this state, the steak can absorb more water. So, it softens and becomes juicier and tastier than an unsalted one.
This is why Chefs often salt steak before cooking. The salt draws out the moisture, making the flavor more concentrated.
8. The tougher the beef, the lower temp and the longer time it should cook (flank, round, hanger)
Tough beef needs time to cook.
It makes sense, right? But, the last thing you want to do is cook it at a high temperature. That would serve to dry it up and toughen it further.
It’s better to “slow-cook” it.
This helps ensure that the beef is evenly cooked without any drastic moisture loss. 160 degrees F or even 190 degrees F is a good temp to aim for. Slow-cooking might seem counterintuitive, but it’s a proven method used by pros.
But again, don’t slow cook that dry-aged ribeye.
Slow cook roasts, brisket, and tougher cuts of beef such as London broil, flank, and round steak.
9. Cook the meat as rare as you can stand it – the more it cooks, the tougher it gets
Just as we learned in the paragraph above, cooking meat for a long time has to be done in a particular mode.
So rare is good.
It’s like the sweet spot because if you undercook, the texture and taste will not come out, and if you overcook, you’ve probably wasted money! So, you want to cook it as rare as you can stand it so that you don’t cook it to a point where it tastes like leather!
— Todd Jeskulski (@SkiTeamRealtor) October 25, 2019
10. Allow the steak to sit once cooked, for 5 minutes
It’s tempting to want to rush ahead and start cutting the steak after you’ve cooked it.
I understand. But it’s better to let it rest for a while. Rest? Yes. Allow the steak to sit at least for 5 minutes. Why would I do that? (That’s what you’re thinking, right?). That’s what the pros do.
They do it because while it rests, the steak can now redistribute the juice that has been constricted while it was being cooked. If you were to ignore the “rest phase”, you’d notice that the juice slips out, and the final product becomes dry and tough.
The ideal place to let it rest is inside a microwave that isn’t running.
This allows it to sit, at room temp, but away from any breezes from nearby ceiling fans, and away from any flies that may be buzzing around your house.
11. Slice the steak against the grain
First off, what’s the grain?
It’s vital to know if you’re going to slice against it. The grain refers to the direction of the muscle fibers. It’s important to cut against it because it’s not simply the cut of the beef that makes it tender.
If you look closely at a steak, you will see lines running from one direction to the other.
So slicing against the grain simply means to slice it at a 90° angle from the direction of those lines. This helps break up those muscle fibers and ensures you aren’t trying to chew across a long strand of connective tissue.
Which grocery store has the best steak?
After all, as I mentioned above, WHERE you buy your beef makes a big difference in the quality and can definitely affect how tender the finished product is.
In a recent article, I looked at the quality of beef at several stores and which ones tend to have the best options in terms of things like USDA Prime, dry-aged, or grass-fed. And I end with my pick of the best options.
Just click the link to read it on my site.
In the article, we looked at why steak can be tough and chewy.
Then, we checked out some good steak tenderizers and explored what happens to meat when it’s cooked for long. Does it automatically become tender, or are there some nuances to note?
Turns out, longer doesn’t necessarily translate to more tender. We moved on to look at 11 simple tips for making steak more tender.