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Meat Tenderization Techniques


MTH123
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I’m old and decades of grinding my teeth ever since childhood has taken a toll. I can’t chew through virtually anything like I did when I was young. So, meat tenderization techniques have become more important to me than ever.

 

Cut Against the Grain

 

First, the most basic meat tenderization technique in Chinese cooking is to cut meat against the grain. Look for parallel lines in the meat and cut perpendicular to them. If the parallel lines aren’t cut through, then they tighten up during cooking and make meat harder to chew. I’ve always done this, but it isn’t good enough anymore with my ground down teeth.

 

Baking Soda

 

Baking soda is a secret in Chinese cooking. I only learned about it a couple of years ago. It definitely works. But, it’s important to not use too much of it, because it doesn’t taste good and too much can ruin a dish. To keep from tasting it, use half a teaspoon per pound of thinly sliced meat. Mix thoroughly to make sure the baking soda is spread out. If the meat is cut into bite-size pieces, then up to one teaspoon per pound of meat works, too. Never go over one teaspoon per pound of meat.

 

If the meat isn’t thinly sliced and is in big chunks, then forget about using baking soda. The baking soda covers only a part of the meat, and it doesn’t taste good!

 

Marinate the meat in baking soda for at least 15 minutes to allow its chemistry to work.

 

Egg White and Corn Starch

 

Egg white and corn starch are commonly used in Chinese cooking. It has a fancy term called “Velveting.” From what I can tell from internet research, egg white apparently tenderizes meat. I use it to tenderize meat for 30 minutes. I don’t know if lesser time accomplishes the same thing. Egg white doesn’t tenderize meat nearly as much as baking soda. Truth be told, I’m not sure why I do it.

 

I’ve always used cornstarch, because that’s what my mom did. From what I’ve gathered, it’s a useful coating.

 

Also, I’ve always used sesame oil, which Irene Kuo’s absolutely fantastic cookbook The Key to Chinese Cooking says is part of “Velveting.”

 

Salt

 

I am 100% certain that salt is better at tenderizing meat than baking soda. I only recently learned about this, because of Samin Nosrat’s amazing cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat. Apply salt and tenderize meat overnight. But, salt can do its magic in as few as a couple of hours, depending on the meat and size of the meat. (I’m thinking chicken here.)

 

Mechanical Meat Tenderizer

 

If meat isn’t “shredded,” e.g., 1/8-inch x 1/8-inch x 2-inch, then a mechanical meat tenderizer is helpful. It’s a tool that has a bunch of very small knives bunched together. It breaks up the fibers, so to speak. Then, there aren’t long lines of fibers that can shrink during cooking and cause meat to be tough to eat. The one I like for Chinese cooking is:

 

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01HIKSF1U/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o02_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

 

Sour Cream or Kiwi

 

I only do this for beef, because it is the toughest meat that I eat. (I eat pork, chicken and beef.) For sour cream or kiwi, cover every bit of the cut-up meat, and let it marinate for 30 minutes. Then, wash the sour cream or kiwi off the meat.

 

Slippery Coating

 

This is a truly amazing method that I learned from Irene Kuo’s absolutely fantastic cookbook The Key to Chinese Cooking. And, it is part of the reason I wrote this post. A year ago or so, I scoured the internet to understand this method and never understood it, until I read The Key to Chinese Cooking. I now do it every time I cook meat for stir fry. By the way, the method has many different names, which I can’t recall right now.

 

In terms of marinating, it’s a variation of velveting, except without the egg white. So, it includes all marination, including corn starch. Then, the meat is sort of “blanched” in a pot of hot oil or boiling water, until it just changes color. It isn’t fully cooked through. Then, it’s scooped out of the pot. Then, it’s stir fried to complete its cooking.

 

For a home cook, cooking in a pot of oil isn’t very practical, unless you are good at saving oil and re-using it, which I’m not so far. So, I go with the version that cooks the meat in a pot of boiling water. This version is also better than going straight to stir frying, in terms of more tender meat.

 

I also add salt to the pot of water, because of Samin Nosrat’s great cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat. The idea is that the right amount of salt prevents the meat from losing flavor to the water. (The concept is based on osmosis.) It definitely works. I used to believe that boiling anything caused a big loss of flavor. But, it doesn’t if the right amount of salt (or other flavorings?) is used.

 

Conclusions

 

Please weigh in on this topic! How do you tenderize meat? How many techniques would you use at the same time? There are times when I have used all of these techniques at the same time, even though it doesn’t seem like all of them are necessary, lol. I’m still trying to figure all this stuff out.

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On 8/19/2022 at 12:24 AM, 889 said:

Mustard! But use the powder unless you want to risk a vinegar taste.

 

Really? How much and for how long? Does it leave any mustard taste? I love mustard, but I've never used it in Chinese cooking.

 

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For tender meat in  a stirfry, cut thinly, across the grain, using a real sharp knife. Usually put the meat in the freezer 15 or 20 minutes beforehand. 

 

I use a slurry of 淀粉 + 料酒 (corn starch + cooking wine) for marinating (velveting.)

 

-- Am on mobile, will return later.   

 

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From my experience as a good BBQ cook: 

 

Cut Against the Grain

 

Absolutely.  It's not just for Chinese cooking, it's for any kind of cooking.  Always cut across the grain.  Never with the grain!

 

Baking Soda

 

Never heard of this one.  I doubt it tenderizes meat.  

 

Egg White and Corn Starch

 

The egg white gets the cornstarch to stick to the meat.  This forms a tasty coating.  It doesn't tenderize, though. 

 

Salt

 

Salting meat and letting it sit overnight is indeed a fantastic idea.  This technique is known as "dry brining" and works very well.  It denatures the meat slightly, making it better.  The salt separates into Na and Cl molecules, which penetrate the meat to the core.  The meat won't taste salty, it will just taste *better*.  I highly recommend dry brining and do it every time.  If you can't do overnight, even an hour helps greatly.  Read this article for a detailed analysis.

 

Sour Cream

 

Slippery Coating

 

I doubt these tenderize meat, but they still sound good.  The thing with marination is that it barely penetrates at all, maybe 1/8 inch.  Thus the more surface area you have, the better marination works. See: Marinade Myths And How To Add Flavor More Effectively

 

For further information: Basic Meat Science For Cooks

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On 8/19/2022 at 8:12 AM, 889 said:

Your taste buds may say different, but I don't detect it. And that's with chicken, which is relatively mild.

 

Add the mustard powder to the cornstarch solution. You need to let it sit for an hour or so.

 

Okay, I'll give it a try! Thanks!

 

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On 8/20/2022 at 6:12 AM, vellocet said:

Baking Soda

 

Never heard of this one.  I doubt it tenderizes meat.  

 

This definitely works. It's some kind of chemical reaction at work. I've seen YouTube videos of professional Chinese chefs using it, which is probably how I first found out about it. I've been using this technique on sliced meat every time for a few years now. The meat just isn't as tender without it.

 

Sour cream definitely works on sliced meat too. It's also some kind of chemical reaction at work. I forgot to mention that it and kiwi aren't Chinese meat tenderization techniques. I learned about them from a YouTube channel that did experiments on thick cuts of steak (Tomahawk ribeyes). I have no problems using non-Chinese techniques in Chinese cooking, if the science seems universal and if the flavors don't clash with Chinese flavors. There are all kinds of ways that people try to tenderize meat. I tried to pick ones that didn't leave their own taste behind. I also tended to rule out ones that can disintegrate meat (aka turn it mushy).

 

On 8/20/2022 at 6:12 AM, vellocet said:

Egg White and Corn Starch

 

The egg white gets the cornstarch to stick to the meat.  This forms a tasty coating.  It doesn't tenderize, though. 

 

Okay, I'll take this as confirmation that egg white doesn't actually chemically tenderize meat, even though many people on the internet (websites and YouTube) say it does. I often wonder if people just repeat things that another person said on the internet without confirming it themselves. Then, I think I'm reading many opinions, when it's actually only one opinion repeated many times by different people.

 

While egg white doesn't seem to chemically tenderize meat, the combination of egg white and cornstarch (also referred to as velveting by many) does help seal moisture into the meat. This helps keeps meat more tender (as long as meat isn't overcooked to the point that all the sealed-in moisture comes out). So, going forward, I'll skip the part about marinating for 30 minutes and go straight from mixing in egg white to mixing in corn starch.

 

Slippery Coating

 

I forgot to mention that whenever you have amazingly tender sliced stir-fried beef in a Chinese restaurant, it's because it's slippery coated, before it's stir fried. The slippery-coating technique is used on many kinds of meat. Beef is an ultimate test of how well the technique works, because of how tough beef can be. It's done in Chinese restaurants and not so much by home cooks. The science is similar to velveting, and it's actually sometimes called velveting too. The corn starch coats the meat. Cooking in a pot of hot oil or boiling water until the meat just turns color helps seal in moisture, which helps keep the meat tender. A quick stir fry on high heat to finish cooking the meat keeps it amazingly tender.

 

Marinating

 

I tend to separate pure marination from meat-tenderization techniques, because meat tenderization is so important for me to get right. I do all the pure marinating before corn starch. So, depending on the recipe, things like Shaoxing wine, soy sauce, pepper, etc. are mixed in and allowed to marinate for at least 15 minutes. Then, corn starch is mixed in to seal in flavors during cooking.

 

Articles

 

The articles you link to all look great! They're very authoritative, well written and convincing. I'm going to have to spend more time on that website!

 

Conclusions

 

Maybe I need to do another round of tests at some point that mixes-and-matches meat-tenderization techniques, instead of tending to do all of them together. I discovered salt and slippery coating later, so I just added them to my drill. I think both these techniques are truly amazing, so I can't see myself ever dropping them.

 

For example, if I'm doing multiple meat-tenderization techniques at a time, I wonder if I even need to do baking soda anymore. Baking soda only penetrates a thin, outer layer of the meat. Salt penetrates through entire chunks of meat, no matter how large the chunks are, because of chemistry called osmosis. The only advantage baking soda has have over salt is time, if I don't plan ahead enough or if I'm having a particularly busy few days. It's 15 minutes for baking soda vs. overnight for salt. But, maybe salt on sliced meat for 1 hour is good enough too, during a busy time.

 

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On 8/19/2022 at 5:15 PM, abcdefg said:

For tender meat in  a stirfry, cut thinly, across the grain, using a real sharp knife. Usually put the meat in the freezer 15 or 20 minutes beforehand. 

 

I use a slurry of 淀粉 + 料酒 (corn starch + cooking wine) for marinating (velveting.)

 

Cutting across the grain and corn starch seem to be the only universal things for tenderizing meat in Chinese cooking. (Other marination is a separate topic, like Shaoxing or Liao wine.) When I was young, it was all I did. It was plenty good, too. The only other thing to worry about was not paying attention and overcooking the meat to the point that it got too tough.

 

For people new to Chinese stir fry, a really sharp knife is a must! Once you get one, you will never go back! I tend to buy cheap knives, like in the $20 to $25 range. One knife I bought was ridiculously sharp! It's the one at the link below. When I was scooping cut up vegetables off a cutting board into a work bowl, I barely touched a finger and got a small cut. My point is that you can buy a cheap knife that is super sharp.

 

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08JLPB7MC/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o06_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

 

On Edit: I also occasionally use a knife sharpener to keep knives really sharp.

 

I haven't gotten into the habit of putting thawed meat in the freezer for 15 or 20 minutes before cutting it, although I keep planning to. It makes cutting much easier and faster.

 

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In one of the articles that @vellocet linked, which is overall great,

 

https://amazingribs.com/tested-recipes/salting-brining-curing-and-injecting/dry-brining-easier-and-less-wasteful-wet-brining/?p=22405

 

it talks about “1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat or 1/4 teaspoon of table salt per pound of meat.” It says that the kosher salt is Morton kosher salt. So, according to this article, 2 teaspoons of Morton kosher salt is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of table salt. I think there must be a typo, “writo” or mix-up of some sort somewhere in the article. Maybe it was revised at one point, and it wasn’t revised everywhere that mattered.

 

According to Samin Nosrat’s cookbook Salt Fat Acid Heat, 1.24 teaspoons of Morton kosher salt is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of table salt. 2.13 teaspoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt are equivalent to 1 teaspoon of table salt. I’m certain that these ratios are correct. (I tweaked the numbers to be slightly more accurate based on numbers on nutrition labels for these salts.)

 

According to Salt Fat Acid Heat, there is a default, optimal amount of salt for boneless meat and a different default, optimal amount for boned meat. (Mileage can always vary a bit.) It’s 0.95 teaspoon of table salt per pound of boneless meat and 1.14 teaspoons of table salt per pound of boned meat. These levels of salt give dishes that restaurant level of pop and taste ideal to me, even for everyday home cooking.

 

These levels of salt assume that salt is the only thing in a dish that has sodium in it. In Chinese cooking, soy sauce, oyster sauce, chicken power, etc. can have significant amounts of sodium. So, I do a little math to reduce the amount of salt accordingly.

 

Professional chefs like to use Diamond Crystal kosher salt. It has much smaller grains, so it has many advantages, such as being able to be measured more accurately. I use Morton kosher salt, because it’s much less expensive and much easier to find in local groceries near me.

 

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On 8/21/2022 at 4:57 AM, MTH123 said:

I also occasionally use a knife sharpener to keep knives really sharp.

Yeah, you need one, knives don't stay sharp by themselves.  If you pull your fingers across the blade (not down it!) you can feel a burr if it's sharp, and a rounded edge if it's not.  I use a 1000/6000 water stone to sharpen when they get dull, which is often because I have crap knives.  A carving knife is definitely worth laying out for if you do meat.  Mine has done me well.  

  

On 8/21/2022 at 4:40 AM, MTH123 said:

Sour cream definitely works on sliced meat too. It's also some kind of chemical reaction at work.

The problem with these techniques is that they are all surface treatments.  There is little penetration.  If you slice the meat thinly it will work better, but that's true of all surface treatments. 

 

On 8/19/2022 at 1:12 PM, MTH123 said:

I used to believe that boiling anything caused a big loss of flavor.

It does!  Unless you're making soup, never boil meat.  When you boil meat you lose flavor into the water and you never get it back.  If you boil meat the terrorists win.  

 

On 8/21/2022 at 4:40 AM, MTH123 said:

Beef is an ultimate test of how well the technique works, because of how tough beef can be.

If your beef is too tough, buy a better cut of meat.  Better cuts of meat are more tender.

 

Quote

 I’m certain that these ratios are correct.

Eh, once you get into it, you find it doesn't really matter very much.  As long as you adhere to the basic principles, you're going to make really good meat.  I'm a Meathead disciple, I learned a lot from him.  Since what he said had such good results, I trust him when he tells me pretty much anything.  The members on his forum go on and on about how the temps have to be 225 exactly, oh no my grill won't keep a steady temperature, what do I do...meh.  I cook anywhere from 225 to 350 and you know what?  The meat turns out great pretty much no matter what.  

 

This thread would be better titled "how to make better tasting meat" rather than talking about tenderization.  Being a BBQ cook, I know all about making meat tender and it's all about slow cooking and letting those proteins unwind.  Chinese cooking is all about hot and fast.  That doesn't mean the meat can't be tender, depending on the cut and how you slice it anything is possible.  I'm just not convinced meat needs to be "tenderized".  Use a better cut of meat, it'll be tender if you cook it correctly.  If it's a tough piece of meat (like the crap beef they sell in the grocery stores here) then slow cook it, it'll get tender.  Brisket is about the toughest, rangiest meat there is on a cow but after 18 hours at 225, you can cut it with a spoon.

 

When I first got here I wanted to take a Chinese cooking course at a local community college.  Well, old me had no idea there was no such thing as community colleges in China, so that never happened.  After much effort I found there was a cooking course, but it was full time for six months and was designed for people to get a job in a restaurant.  I still thought maybe I would do it, but then there's an entire Chinese vocabulary specifically dealing with food and that tore it.  I hate learning specialized vocabulary that has no application outside a narrow area.  I still tried for a while but Chinese cooking is like 90% prep work and 10% cooking and I didn't find that to be very fun, so I just gave it up.  Chinese restaurants make better food than I ever could, so I just order from them.  I concentrate on my western food, it's what I do best and everyone loves coming to a backyard cookout.  

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@vellocet What a great post! Thank you!

 

On 8/21/2022 at 12:22 AM, vellocet said:

then slow cook it

 

You slow cook stuff on a grill? How? I'm a hack on a grill and would love to learn a better cooking technique(s) on it.

 

The only time I so-called "slow" cook stuff so far is pork ribs in an electric pressure cooker, which is actually a fast cook method that can accomplish similar results as a slow cooker. I would love to learn other ways to cook tender meat!

 

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Basically read the site I linked from top to bottom.  Start here.  Or he has a book you can buy; I did.  But the book is basically the website all in one volume instead of a bunch of articles.  Whatever floats your boat.

 

For your specific question about how to slow cook, you want to keep a low temperature for a long time. 2 Zone Grilling Setup: How Best To Control Temperatures On A Grill.

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i don't have much to add. Chinese beef is often tough as well as expensive. It is also butchered into different cuts from what we expect in the west. I had better beef outcomes once I began buying "specialty beef" instead of the supermarkets or even the wet market.

 

A guy would bring in a side of beef to a pre-arranged back-street neighborhood store one day a week, set it up on an A Frame out on the sidewalk, leaned against the outside wall of the store and carve to order all day long. He also explained the story of that cow, where it was raised and how it was fed. He bought and sold superior beef. One such place had a pop-up restaurant that would open next door just for the day when he was carving and selling beef. They would cook beef dishes and also made lots of 牛肉面 (beef noodle soup.) 

 

I would tell the seller what dish I wanted to make, and he would recommend the appropriate cut of beef. I always, 100% of the time, had better luck with beef that was cooked with slow moist heat than I did with trying to make a beefsteak in a pan.  For tougher cuts of beef, I always turned to the pressure cooker, usually doing one "pre-cook" of the whole big piece including its bone. Then after it cooled down, cutting smaller pieces appropriate for my dish (a stew or similar) and giving them a second cooking under pressure with aromatics and spices. 

 

As far as stir frying, the thing I learned that helped a lot was that even thin-cut slices of beef needed to be cooked very, very fast or very slow. Just seconds. Disaster lay in the middle ground. I never roasted in the oven (didn't have an oven) and I never grilled or smoked or attempted western-style BBQ. 

 

Learned to eat a lot of Chinese beef room temperature 凉的。Boiled then sliced very thin for serving. Dip a slice in black vinegar 老陈醋 and spicy red sauce 红油。Usually called 白切牛肉。

 

This shows the technique: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ww4UujYjUQ8 

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Unless you ask specifically for Chinese food, marinating in yoghurt, creme fraiche or the like works wonders. It is commonly used in Indian cooking. You marinate the meat with spices for 6-24 hours. I like it especially with chicken. It gets ever so tender.

 

 

 

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This came out tender. Made it quite a few times. 

https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/top ic/57290-yunnan-top-shelf-beef-stew-牛肉炖山药/#comment-444476

 

This was probably my personal favorite: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/57044-yunnan-flavors-beef-with-mint-薄荷牛肉米线/#comment-442327 

 

红烧牛肉 is also dependable with Chinese beef. Becomes tender with long cooking.  

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That gummy beef has been left too long in meat tenderizer.  It's an enzyme derived from papaya that breaks down the meat fibers.  It's literally digesting it so you don't have to.  

 

Unfortunately it seems that diners simply expect that chewy texture in beef, and will reject a properly seared medium rare steak.  I have made absolutely beautiful lamb chops, done perfectly to medium, wonderful crispy sear on the outside, and Chinese will say it's too raw and want to put it back on the grill until it's overcooked.  😧  I let them do it, but I'm dying inside. 

 

After much research, I found that crappy Chinese beef comes from the yellow cow.  This is a kind of hardworking ox whose flesh is tough and gnarled.  No wonder there are only two categories of beef: domestic bad, and imported super-expensive.  All I can find at the supermarkets is beef from the legs, which is hardly worth cooking.  I have never found out what happens to the rest of those yellow cows.  Where are the sirloins?  Where are the ribeyes?  I'm confident I could make something good with these cuts, even from a yellow cow...if I could only find where they're sold.  But despite an extensive search I could never find anything.  So, these days, I hardly ever cook beef.  Once in a while I'll bust out the wallet and pay ¥400 for steaks for two, but not often.  And my cooking is always better than any restaurant, sadly.  

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On 8/23/2022 at 3:03 AM, vellocet said:

I'm confident I could make something good with these cuts, even from a yellow cow...if I could only find where they're sold.  But despite an extensive search I could never find anything.

 

The beef I was describing above was what you are looking for. Sold by an itinerant butcher who buys it a side at a time on the farm, resells it in smaller pieces in the city. Well marbled and flavorful. He sells with no middleman, beef tied to a wooden A-Frame on the sidewalk, leaning up against the front of a small shop. Locals in the know would form a line by 9 or 10 a.m. He would often sell the whole side of beef before 3 p.m. It was a word of mouth proposition. I learned about it from a guy at the gym who liked to cook (Chinese guy.) Probably semi-illegal. 

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