In the West we are blessed with great steaks. Many are intrinsically tender, especially the so-called "noble cuts," like filet mignon, strip steak, and rib steak). But even our fibrous steaks, like flank and skirt, chew easily compared to the meat served on much of Planet Barbecue, where livestock is often scrawny, feeding on a hardscrabble diet.
Red meat of any sort is considered a luxury and no one demands it be tender. Case in point: steaks I ate on my last trip to 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.
So how do you make even tough cuts of steak tender? Happily, the world's grill masters have evolved a variety of strategies for tenderizing even traditionally tough cuts. Here are four tried and true techniques that will guarantee a tender steak every time:
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.
Acidic tenderizers. Vinegar, lemon juice, and even yogurt have a softening and tenderizing effect on meats.
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.
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.
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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.