6 Ways to Tenderize a Tough Cut of Meat

updated Jan 17, 2024
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Tough cuts of meat, like chuck roast, brisket, hanger steak, and flank steak, aren’t just cheaper than their leaner counterparts — when cooked just right, they deliver even more flavor.

But oftentimes, you need to prep the meat for the best results! From a long, slow cook to the power of a brine, here are six ways to get the job done.

How to Tenderize a Tough Cut of Meat

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: Brett Regot

1. Pound it out.

Pounding softens and tenderizes meat, making it easier to cut and eat. One of the easiest — and cleanest — ways to do this is to sandwich the meat between a couple pieces of plastic wrap or wax paper and pound it before cooking. A weighty kitchen mallet is typically the tool of choice, but there are plenty of other items, like rolling pins, saucepans, and skillets, that can get the job done.

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Prop Stylist: Tom Hoerup

2. Use salt.

We season meat with salt for more than just flavor — with tougher cuts, like choice steaks and roasts, it helps break down the proteins for a more tender texture. Instead of seasoning meat just before cooking, give it a generous coating of salt about an hour before you’re ready to get started. Then rinse the meat under cool water, pat dry, and get cooking.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

3. Use an acidic marinade.

For tough, thinner cuts of steak like skirt, hanger, and flank, and London broil, consider an acidic marinade for more tender results (and more surface flavor!). For a marinade to work its magic, it needs to contain acidic ingredients like vinegar, citrus juice, wine, yogurt, buttermilk, or even soda to break down the lean muscle fibers on the surface meat. This is best reserved for thinner cuts of meat since only salt has the ability to fully penetrate meat. To prevent the meat from becoming too mushy, do not marinate for more than two hours.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Barrett Washburne

4. Use kiwi, papaya, or pineapple

This just might sound a little out there, but it works. Kiwi (along with papaya, pineapple, and Asian pears) contain enzymes that have a tenderizing effect on tough meat. Kiwi in particular is a good choice since it has the most neutral taste. A little goes a long way, so plan on up to two tablespoons per cup of marinade, and don’t marinate for too long or you’ll end up with mushy meat. Just like any other marinade, this works best with thinner cuts like hanger steaks or thinly sliced chicken thighs.

Learn more: Tenderizing with Kiwi

5. Score it.

Just as you’d score a duck breast or your holiday ham, do the same with tough flank and hanger steak. By making shallow cuts against the grain in one direction, then another set of cuts the other way, some of the long muscle fibers are severed, leaving the meat with a more tender bite. But keep your expectations in check, because scoring a tough cut of steak certainly isn’t going to turn it into filet mignon.

Credit: Olive & Mango

6. Slow cook it.

Tough cuts of meat with lots of connective tissue, like brisket, chuck roast, and bottom round, are some of the best choices for the slow cooker. Cooked low and slow for many hours, the collagen in these tough cuts eventually breaks, leaving you with shreds of tender, juicy meat.

Our Favorite Recipes for Slow Cooked Meat