The human race has done strange things in the quest for tender meat. Case in point: In the 13th century, Mongol horsemen led by Genghis Khan – the “emperor of all emperors” – would wedge raw, salted meat under their saddles. The Mongols were a fast-moving, cavalry-based army that rode small sturdy ponies for days on end without ever dismounting. When it was time to eat, the horsemen would grab the warm, tenderized meat from under their saddles and dinner was served.
Tooshie-made jerky aside, tenderness is one of the two most important palatability characteristics relating to consumer satisfaction (the other being flavour). In this newsletter we will attempt to answer all the questions we regularly answer for customers related to the tenderness of meat. The article is, admittedly, a bit long – but we’re sure this article will become the consumer’s “bible” on the subject, as we have not found any other source – online or otherwise that have dealt with all these matters in one place. Enjoy.
What is Meat? And why is some meat tender, and some not?
Meat = Muscle
First and foremost, understand that meat is muscle. As a result, the easy-to-understand and easy-to-remember rule is: Regularly used muscles will result in tougher meat, while lesser used muscles will result in tender meat. Muscles can be split up into two categories: Locomotive or Support. Locomotive muscles allow the animal to move, like the fore and hind limbs, and are always used and generally tough. Support muscles, on the other hand, are not exercised to the extent of locomotive muscles; examples of support muscles are those from the rib, loin, and sirloin section.
Let’s take a deeper look at muscle tissue. Muscles are made up of three parts: fibres, connective tissue and fat. The more a muscle is used, the greater number of protein filaments within the fibre, and therefore the tougher the muscle will be. Connective tissue is mainly made up of protein called collagen. The more a muscle is used, the thicker and tougher the connective tissue – mainly the collagen – needs to be, and therefore the tougher the muscle will be. Fat in meat is actually just another form of connective tissue. However, the more intramuscular fat there is (called “marbling” in meat lingo), the more perceived tenderness a cut of meat will have because fat acts as lubrication when chewing and aids in the separation of fibres.
Tenderness is a complex trait. Do you determine tenderness using an objective machine, or do you rely on subjective humans to determine tenderness? The truth probably lies in some complex amalgamation of the two.
The most common objective test is called the Warner-Bratzler shear force test. In this test, a device records the amount of force required to shear a piece of cooked meat. On the subjective side, we would take human judges, let them eat pieces of meat, and allow them to rank cuts based on ease of chewing. Not surprisingly, the results of the two tests are completely different. As seen in the table below, three out of the top five most tender cuts are different! For the purposes of this article, we will just pretend we live in a perfect world where we, and all machines, agree to what tenderness actually is.
|MOST TENDER as determined by Warner-Bratzler Shear Force Test
- Tenderloin (Psoas major)
- Flat Iron (Infraspinatus)
- Rib Cap (Spinalis Dorsi)
- Boneless Short Ribs (Serratus Ventralis)
- Sub-Eye (Multifidus Dorsi, a very small muscle that runs through the Loin, Rib, and Chuck section and is present in Striploin, Rib, and Blade Steaks)
|MOST TENDER as determined by panel
- Tenderloin (Psoas major)
- Flat Iron (Infraspinatus)
- Strip Loin (Longissimus Lumborum)
- Rib Eye (Longissimus Thoracis)
- Sirloin Tip (Rectus Femoris)
SOURCE: Ranking of Beef Muscles for Tenderness, by Chris R Calkin, Ph. D. and Gary Sullivan, University of Nebraska
Factors that play major roles in the tenderness of meat
Don’t confuse the age of an animal with “ageing meat”, discussed below. In general, the amount and overall toughness of connective tissue within muscles increases as animals get older. So the meat from younger animals will be – all other factors being equal – more tender than that of older animals.
It has been proven that stress in transport, yarding, handling and slaughter has a major impact on the ultimate tenderness of meat. This is one of the areas that The Healthy Butcher does very well relative to most competitors. First off, we simply won’t deal with a farmer if we know that the animals will be transported long distances and improperly handled during the transport. It is remarkable, actually thoroughly disgusting, when you realize how far conventional animals travel in a cramped truck to get to an abattoir. The transfer alone plays a huge role in the ultimate quality of the meat. Once the animals arrive at an abattoir, good abattoirs will have a pen where the animals can rest for a period of time; preferably enough time so that the animals become comfortable in their environment.
Fat plays multiple roles in meat. First, the intramuscular fat or marbling improves tenderness by acting as a lubricant between meat fibres making the fibres easier to pull apart. Fat also stimulates the flow of saliva which has the effect of further stimulating taste and further increasing tenderness or perception of tenderness. Fat also provides some protection against overcooking.
Feed and Nutrition
The feed given to an animal indirectly affects tenderness. Firstly, an animal – let’s say a beef – that is fed a diet of corn and grains will, generally, gain more fat. As we have learned, fat will increase tenderness. Secondly, animals that are fed a corn and grain diet tend to gain weight faster and will be slaughtered at a younger age; younger animals are naturally more tender.
Genetic make-up of animals is one of the most important factors in determining the muscular structure of an animal, and therefore the tenderness of individual muscles. More importantly, different breeds will respond differently to different feed programs… Angus beef for example, develops a good amount of marbling when it is finished on grains, and as we have learned above, the marbling increases perceived tenderness. In the beef industry, for example, there are specialized farms that own highly prized bulls and cows and they sell and ship semen and embryos around the world for lots of money.
Methods of increasing tenderness
Above we explained that meat – muscle tissue – is made up of fibres, connective tissue and fat. The level of fat is determined by the type of animal and its diet. Once a piece of meat is on our plate, there’s little we can do to increase the fat within the muscle. We could lard it or “bard it”, but we won’t get into that here. So that leaves dealing with the fibres and connective tissue – and that’s what ageing, marinating, proper cooking, and slicing across the grain accomplish.
Dry Ageing vs. Wet Ageing vs. No Ageing
It’s time to dispel some misunderstandings about what “aged meat” is and is not. To do this, let’s simply group all meat available for purchase into three categories: (1) not aged; (2) Wet Aged; and (3) Dry Aged. We’ll start with the latter since it is, in our opinion, the most important.
Dry Ageing is a lost art. It is the process of hanging meat, usually the whole carcass or large portions, in a temperature and humidity controlled environment for a period of time. During this hanging time, two important processes are at work. First, the natural enzymes begin to break down the fibres of the muscle, and in turn tenderize the meat. Second, the water or moisture in the meat evaporates – which is why we refer to the process as “dry ageing”. The loss of water will have the effect of concentrating the flavour of the meat; upwards of 20% of weight can be lost during dry ageing which adds to the final price tag. Paradoxically, the loss of water actually makes for moister meat when cooked. When wet meat, or meat that is not dry aged, is cooked the water in the meat expands as the temperature rises during cooking, thereby stretching the fibres of the meat and leaching out between them. Further, if you plan on freezing your meat then meat that has been dry ages will freeze better – less water in the meat means less freezer burn. Up until the 1960s, dry ageing meat was the standard. Of course, there is a huge cost to dry ageing – both because there is a significant loss of weight (and meat is sold by weight) and cost of storing the meat in refrigerated environments. The result of dry ageing beef, when done properly, for at least two weeks but preferably four weeks, is a nutty smelling steak that is tender and has a concentrated, complex beefy taste that is unmistakeable and delectable.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is not ageing meat at all. In today’s modern meat processing industry, the standard is to break the carcass down and vacuum-seal the meat in plastic bags within 24 hours. Cuts of meat will usually be on grocery store shelves for sale within two-to-four days after harvest. The result of non-aged beef is iron- or bloody-tasting meat that is fairly tough unless you’re picking only tenderloin and a couple other muscles.
Wet Ageing is the industry term used for keeping the meat in the vacuum bags for longer periods of time. Industry experts are quick to point out that the tenderizing effect still takes place because the enzymes are still at work breaking down muscle tissue. While that is true, let’s call a spade a spade, the meat is essentially marinating in its own blood. Not only will the flavour of the meat not concentrate as it does in the dry ageing process, but I have yet to taste a wet aged steak that doesn’t taste somewhat iron-like.
It is important to point out that most meat that is dry aged is beef – and there is a reason for that. Younger animals such as pork, lamb and veal do not take well to lengthy dry ageing as they are unlikely to have the fat covering or the marbling to protect the meat from becoming rotten. Even 100%
Further, there are many beef that do not take well to dry ageing. Case in point is a lot of the local 100% grassfed beef we sell. This beef, which is usually leaner, has to be very carefully dry aged for the same reason as above.
The main point to remember is that ageing beef or any meat is an art, and thankfully it is not a lost art because of the few quality butchers shops in Toronto that realize our experience of food is important and it is not all about selling cheap food.
Using a liquid or powdered tenderizing agent can, in some cases, be very effective – and in other cases useless. By far, the most common method of tenderizing involves marinating meat in some form of acidic liquid, such as vinegar. Such marinades are fairly slow in their ability to tenderize and require lengthy marinade times, so the overall effectiveness is questionable. Tea, which contains a lot of tannins, can also be used to naturally tenderize meat.
The most effective of the marinating techniques involves the use of enzymes, the two most popular being papain and bromelain. Papain is found in papaya fruits, and bromelaine is found in pineapple plants. These enzymes act by breaking down the collagen in meat.
The problem with marinade tenderizers in general is that only the surface of the meat is fully exposed to the marinade. Usually, the result is meat that is mushy on the outside and unaffected on the inside. Ultimately, we are not proponents of marinating to increase tenderness. If you are using a marinade to tenderize, then limit your choice of cuts to thin ones that can benefit from tenderizing, like flank and skirt steak for example.
Manual and Mechanical Tenderizing
Beating a piece of meat senseless can be quite effective at improving tenderness, in addition to having a Zen-like effect to the beater… a la Rocky Balboa. The only problem is that the meat will look like you’ve beaten it senseless.
The most common tenderizering tool is a meat mallet. Generally speaking, meat mallets are two-sided, with one side being flat, the other set with rows of pyramid-shaped spikes. By hammering at the meat, the fibers will be softened, thereby making the meat easier to chew, it will also allow you to make cuts thinner and wider. If you’re goal is to make tender cutlets or schnitzel, then look no further than this method.
The other form of tenderizer uses blades that are designed to puncture the meat and cut the fibres. Such tenderizers exist both in small hand-form tools, as well as large machines used in processing plants. Blade tenderizing can be an effective tenderizing method, but used only on cuts that truly need the help. If anyone uses a blade tenderizer on any of the dry aged steaks from The Healthy Butcher, you will be banned from the store. 😉
Of course, grinding meat is the ultimate method of mechanical tenderization – used to turn otherwise very tough cuts of meat into extremely tender sausages and burgers.
OK let’s keep this section simple because it is a huge topic and one we have dealth with already…
Click here for our article on Cooking The Perfect Steak
Click here for our article on Braising
Slicing Thin Across the Grain
Recall, we explained that muscle is made up of muscle fibres. These fibres are bundled together in strands. If you cut meat parallel to its fibre you can plainly see the fibre bundles with the naked eye, stacked up like the wall of a log cabin. If you cut across the fibre bundles, called “cutting across the grain”, you can see the ends of each bundle. It is always easier to pull the bundles apart than it is to cut them. So, by far the easiest method of tenderizing meat is to simply slice across the grain, as thin slices as possible. When you chew this sliced meat you will need to cut less of the fibre bundles with your teeth, making the bite easier to chew. In other words, the goal is to slice meat across the grain, in order to chew with the grain.
Age, stress, fat content, feed, and genetics all play a role in determining meat tenderness. Should we avoid tougher muscles? Absolutely not, on the contrary, those muscles are the tastiest. The key is to pick the appropriate cooking method for the cut you are cooking. The rule is that tougher meat requires slow, moist cooking methods (such as braising, stewing and boiling); such cooking techniques loosen connective tissue creating tender, juicy, and tasty meat. On the other hand, the more tender cuts of meat from lesser used muscles can be cooked with dry heat methods (such as grilling, roasting, and broiling). If you are grilling tertiary cuts, like Flank, Tri Tip, and Flat Iron, slice thin across the grain. Limit the use of chemical and mechanical tenderizing methods; if you are buying quality meat, it deserves better treatment.
Sources and Further Reading
McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. This book is the bible of gastronomical science
Ranking of Beef Muscles for Tenderness, by Chris R Calkin, Ph. D. and Gary Sullivan, University of Nebraska