The science behind what makes meat tender is (to me at least) pretty interesting, and I feel a worthy bit of information to add to the flavor vs. tenderness debate. To begin with, let’s look at basic muscle structure. At their most basic level, all muscles are composed of sarcomeres, which are combinations of myosin and actin proteins combined into long filaments all arranged in a similar direction. These sarcomeres are bundled into larger filaments called myofibrils, which are themselves bundled into yet larger filaments known as fascicles. It’s these fascicles that you can see when you look at a very coarsely grained cut of meat, like a hanger or brisket.
If I haven’t completely lost you yet, here’s where all that info begins to have relevance to the topic tenderness. Actin and myosin within sarcomeres play a role in muscle contraction. For this reason, muscles that frequently contract (aka, move) or are required to do strenuous work (i.e., stand) are made up of sarcomeres that contain much more actin and myosin than muscles that don’t really do much (tenderloin, I’m looking at you again). For this reason, sarcomeres in more tender cuts are skinnier, as they don’t need to accommodate as much of the actin and myosin proteins. Skinner sarcomeres lead to skinner myofibrils, which lead to – you guessed it – skinnier fascicles. That’s why a tenderloin has an almost microscopic grain structure and a shank looks like a cross section of a trans-atlantic telecommunications cable.
So what’s my issue with tenderness? I like a tender steak as much as the next guy – I don’t know too many people who would turn down a juicy, well marbled porterhouse. But the problem with the popularity of middle meats is that there are so few of them. When you look at a whole steer, only about 25% of it is what would be considered tender – once those cuts are gone you’ve still got a bunch of flavorful, interesting cuts that would make an excellent meal. Nothing is more disheartening than losing a customer over a lack of tenderloin when there are piles of skirt, bavette, or top round in the case. With all of the great cuts available, middle meats can end up being a bit boring in the face of a well prepared cut from elsewhere on the animal.
There are some ways to increase tenderness (if you really must)
Dry aging is very in right now. The process, which involves letting large subprimals hang out in a humidity controlled refrigerator and letting enzymes break down over time, concentrates and enhances flavor while also increasing tenderness. In a perfect world all meat would be dry aged for as long as possible before consumption, but there are trade-offs, such as a pretty significant decrease in weight – which cuts into your margins as a butcher. The beef that I sell in the shop hangs for two weeks before going into the case, and the strips and ribeyes in the photo go into a dry age cooler for another 3-4 weeks.
The concept of mechanical tenderization is to break down a large, tough muscle into something smaller and therefore a bit more tender. Think of a short rib hamburger. On it’s own short rib cooked to mid rare will be insanely tough and chewy, but run it through a grinder a couple of times on a small die and you’ve got access to all of that great short rib flavor in a much more tender package.
Want to preserve tenderness? Cook your meat right. Tough muscles need to be cooked low and slow, and steaks need to be kept from overcooking. Stop overcooking your meat! Once a steak heats beyond mid rare and starts heading for medium territory, the muscle fibers contract heavily and juices being to leak out. Train yourself to like your meat little more on the rare side and you’ll be enjoying tender steaks in no time.