I recently watched a TV chef make a Chinese stir-fry dish using baking soda to tenderize the meat. I never heard of that, so I decided to do a little research on the subject and thought I'd share a bit of what I learned with you readers.
There are two ways to tenderize meat - mechanically and chemically. The mechanical process is simple. You beat the crap out of your meat with a mallet, that may or may not be studded with sharp points (like the picture) or pass the meat through a machine that more or less automates the process. Remember cubed steak?
Meat pounding is a very popular technique in Italian cuisine. They call their meat pounders "pestabistecche", which is a helluva mouthful (no pun intended).
The chemical methods are several and more subtle than bashing. There are several methods: Baking soda, enzymes derived from fruit, primarily papaya, kiwi or pineapple, acids such as vinegar, wine or citrus juice, marinades and salting. They all work by rearranging protein molecules.
The baking soda method is used extensively in Chinese restaurants because it gives the meat a silky outer texture that is well-suited to stir-fry dishes. The Chinese use it on shellfish like shrimp and scalllops as well as beef, pork and chicken. The method affects only the outer layer of the meat. It does not penetrate. Thus the meat needs to be cut into the small pieces that are typical of stir-fries.
To use the baking soda method, you can either rub the baking soda into the surface of the meat or soak the meat in water that has a little baking soda dissolved in it. Allow the pieces of meat or shellfish to sit for 15 - 30 minutes and then rinse off the baking soda. Dry off the meat with paper towels before cooking it. The Chinese frequently coat the meat with cornstarch before cooking which adds to the silky texture.
Fruit-based enzymes, such as papain (derived from papaya), are available in supermarkets. The most famous is "Adolph's Meat Tenderizer" which comes as a powder in a shaker dispenser. Simply dust the meat with the powder. Cook small pieces immediately and let larger pieces stand for 30 minutes before cooking. If you pierce the meat, the enzyme will reach the interior. You can also make your own tenderizer by making a paste of any of the aforementioned fruits
Acids like vinegar or citrus juice are great tenderizers. Ceviché is nothing more than seafood soaked in lime or lemon juice.
Salting is a time-honored way to tenderize tough cuts of meat. Use kosher or coarse sea salt. Coat the meat liberally and let it sit for 30 minutes per 1/2" of thickness at room temperature. You can mix the salt with a flavoring agent like garlic powder, and it too will penetrate the meat. When done, wash the excess salt off the meat and dry thoroughly before cooking.
You may think that the salt would draw the juices out of the meat, and, initially that is exactly what happens, but, over time, the juices are reabsorbed.
Many marinades will tenderize meat if they contain salt and/or acids, so the effect is similar to the above descriptions, but, because those compounds are not as intense as the direct methods, you will need to leave the meat in the marinade from 2 hours to overnight.
There are other tenderizing materials you can try including beer, coffee, tea, ginger and dairy products such as buttermilk and yogurt.
Timing is an issue for all the chemical tenderizers. Left too long and your meat will turn to mush. Whichever method you choose, I recommend experimenting to get it just right.
In addition, don't expect miracles. If you think that a tenderizing is going to turn a chuck steak into filet mignon, you will be disappointed.
If you are interested in finding out the technology of how and why chemical tenderizers work, click here.