You’ve been looking forward to dinner all day, only to saw through a piece of meat that’s chewier than bubblegum. Say it ain’t so—and thankfully, it doesn’t have to be that way, even if you bought a thriftier cut at the grocery store. Whether you’re serving beef, lamb, pork, chicken or even fish, a little TLC can bring a lot of juiciness and flavor to the table. One popular trick is using vinegar, but does it actually tenderize meat? Here’s how it works—and how much to use—so you have a dinner to remember, not one destined for the trash.
Does Vinegar Tenderize Meat?
The answer is yes—to an extent. When collagen and muscle fibers, the connective tissues in meat that make it tough, are tenderized and broken down, it helps the meat retain all of its juices. Acidic ingredients like vinegar, lemon juice, yogurt and wine weaken collagen and protein in meat. Once the proteins are broken by acid, one loose protein can bond with another and trap liquid in the meat, making it juicy and tender. Yay! Here’s the catch: If the meat soaks for too long or if the marinade is too acidic, the protein bonds can tighten and expel liquid, turning the steak tough. Enzymes in a marinade (like those found in pineapple, ginger or papaya) can also turn meat mushy.
So, while vinegar can help soften meat (not to mention fish and shellfish), it’s a slippery slope once the meat is soaking. Marinades are most beneficial for thin cuts of meat, like small steaks, chicken breasts and cutlets, pork chops or kebabs, so feel free to soak those briefly (we’re talking two hours or less) in a marinade containing vinegar or another acid. Spice pastes or dry rubs will stick better to roasts and large pieces of poultry, like turkey breast.
How to Tenderize Meat with Vinegar
You may have always heard the longer meat is marinated, the better it’ll taste. But that’s actually not the case. First of all, marinades don’t completely penetrate meat—they work most of their magic on the surface. So, a long overnight soak won’t really make much of a difference versus an hour-long or two-hour soak. Secondly, soaking meat too long in an acidic marinade can weaken the protein bonds on the surface of the meat and turn it all to mush or rubber.
A quarter-cup of marinade containing a tablespoon or two of vinegar per steak, chop or breast will do the trick, and you shouldn’t need to marinate for more than an hour for most cuts. Balsamic, white, apple cider and white wine vinegars are all popular choices. It also depends what meat and cut you’re working with. Cuts like brisket, chuck and shank are generally pretty tough, while thinner, naturally juicy meats like chicken breasts, pork chops and beef tenderloin shouldn’t need too much help in the tenderizing department.
You can also skip a real-deal marinade and just soak the meat in vinegar for about an hour before cooking. Just poke the meat all over with a fork and let it sit in a modest amount of straight vinegar (or a 2:1 mix of any warm liquid like stock, broth or water and vinegar) in a covered bowl in the fridge. Tenderness aside, vinegar’s sharp flavor is just the pairing for salty seasonings and smokiness. Vinegar also contains natural sugars that caramelize when cooked, making for Insta-worthy grill marks.
But TBH, there are lots of other vinegar-free ways to make sure you nail that steak dinner, especially if you’re worried about over-soaking.
Other Ways to Tenderize Meat
Here are a few other options that’ll help you get melt-in-your-mouth meat without the risk of destroying its texture. No matter how you treat the meat, be sure to always let it sit for about 10 minutes once cooked before cutting into it. If you’re working with beef, always cut across the grain to make it more chewable by breaking up the long meat fibers that make steak tough.
- Salt: Salt is a natural tenderizer, so massaging a steak with a nice handful about 45 minutes before grilling will help bring out its juices and create a sort of brine once they’re released.
- Yogurt or buttermilk: These are acidic, but not to the extent of citrus juice or vinegar. And it’s believed that calcium in dairy triggers protein-busting enzymes in meat. In other words, yogurt and buttermilk are strong enough to make meat tender without turning it tough or mushy.
- Meat pounder or needle tenderizer: Meat pounders or mallets are beyond easy to use. Cover both sides of the meat or poultry in a few layers of plastic wrap and beat it evenly all over until your cut is uniformly thin to your liking. While mallets run the risk of over-tenderizing meat, modern needle tenderizers are pretty foolproof. They create tiny little punctures in the meat, which allow heat and flavor to easily penetrate and save you marinating time. Use one of these manual tenderizers when you’re planning on frying or sautéing. Pounding breaks down the meat’s protein bonds, but the piece will stay cohesive when cooked either of these ways.
- Meat tenderizer seasoning: You can also find sprinkle-on tenderizers at the grocery store. Available in both unseasoned or mixed with dry herbs and spices, they usually contain tenderizers like bromelain (an enzyme found in pineapple).
- Baking soda: Like salt, alkaline baking soda breaks down the protein in meat. Coating a steak, for instance, in baking soda about an hour before cook time will both draw water out of the meat and make the surface of the meat tender. Just drain and rinse before cooking.
- Brine: Dry, lean meats like pork chops, turkey, shrimp or chicken can all benefit from a salt brine. Not only does brining boost flavor, but it also turns meat super soft because the brine travels into it to neutralize the salt levels. The meat holds onto the extra liquid, resulting in a juicy finished dish. An hour-long soak for every pound of meat will do the trick.
- Cook it low and slow: It’s a surefire way to turn tough, collagen-rich cuts like chuck or beef shoulder buttery soft. Whether you’re braising a French onion brisket in a roasting pan or whipping up slow-cooker beef stew, all that extra yummy liquid will keep the meat nice and moist.