Tough Cuts and Chicken Tenders


GEORGE OLIVER (this was originally published January 2013)

Each week, we rummage through the dark corners of our kitchen drawers to bring you an enigmatic item. We ask you to guess what it is in our weekly From the From the Back of the Drawer puzzle. To enter this week’s puzzle, visit this page. To read more descriptions of past items, visit this page. And, don’t forget to donate your odd items to the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.

This week, we found a Meat Tenderizer!

This week’s mystery utensil is part of the Mary Royston collection (Houma, Louisiana) on loan to SoFAB.  It’s made of cast iron with a wooden handle, marked in the collection as a “meat tenderizer.” We have so far been unable to find out who made it or when. There was one being sold recently on eBay labeled as an “antique kitchen mixing tool…”, but its heaviness makes it unlikely that it would have been used to mix or whip anything. We assume that its original label is correct.

A bit about meat tenderizing: when you eat meat, you’re usually eating muscle tissue. Muscles are made up of long cells that form tough fibers so they can hold up under physical stress. Such cells and connective tissue are in turn made up of proteins. Tenderizing meat involves breaking down the fibers and connective tissue mechanically, or breaking down the proteins chemically.

Some cuts of meat are tougher than others. Beef tenderloin, which comes from the sides of the backbone of the cow, is a muscle that gets no stress on it, and is thus true to its name, very tender and lean. Chicken tenders are also truth in advertising, coming from a part of the breast that has fewer muscle fibers.

There are three ways to tenderize tougher cuts of meat: by slow cooking, with chemicals, and using mechanical means.

The oldest form of tenderizing is probably through slow cooking. Braising is a technique in which tough cuts of meat are covered in a pan and cooked slowly in a small amount of liquid. The long cooking eventually breaks down the protein in the meat fibers, and can also add flavor to the meat.

Chemical tenderizing using fruit enzymes is the newest technique in this country from the early 20th century. Commercial tenderizers, such as Lawry’s or Adolf’s, use enzymes such as papain from papaya or bromelain from pineapple, which all work by breaking down the bonds of the proteins in meat. Historically papaya fruit was used in the tropics for just this purpose and is still used today in countries where it grows naturally. If you’re interested, there are many recipes online that illustrate how to soak meat in a papaya solution. Chemical tenderizing also includes marinating meats in acids, such as vinegar, lemon juice, and tomatoes.

Finally, meat can be tenderized using a mechanical method. The idea is to physically break down meat fibers by applying some sort of force to the meat. Traditional home devices include various kinds of pounders in the form of spiked mallets that you use to whack the cut of meat, which thins it and physically breaks the muscle cells and fibers. Butchers use machines such as cubers (as in “cube(d) steak” a.k.a. “minute steak”) that do something similar, but in all these cases of mechanical tenderizing the cut of meat is stretched and thinned.

In contrast, the meat industry is known to mechanically tenderize large cuts, such as roasts, without thinning it, with needles and blades. Some newer home tenderizers also use the needle method. However, there have been some reports that such commercial tenderizing can push e. coli from the surface of the meat to the inside where they are not killed by the roasting process at home. It’s possible that similar needle-type home tenderizers could create the same effect. That said, any mechanical tenderizer you use at home should be thoroughly cleaned before storing it away.

The device featured on this week’s Back of the Drawer, like the modern mallets, has protrusions that, when used as a pounder, go into the meat and break the fibers.  This device is unusual in that the protrusions are circular. Unlike modern mallets, it’s not offset from the plane of the handle, so you have to put the cut of meat you intend to tenderize near the edge of the table. There seems to be no advantage to the circular teeth or pitchfork shape of this tenderizer, but the design is certainly attractive as a collectable. Its rarity suggests that perhaps consumers weren’t happy with the results of the design.

If anyone has any information about the maker or date of this utensil, please let us know. If you have any other ideas about its possible use, let us know that too.

Our Rating: Works OK, but not any better than mallet-type tenderizer.

Design: Its weight is good, but the flatness and pitchfork design are not optimal for a tenderizer.

Originality: Completely original. The round “teeth” are unlike any other version of this device.

Practicality: Not as efficient as a mallet-type tenderizer.  Too big for small cuts of meat.

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