Wednesday, February 18, 2009

An Experiment in Toughness

Today we are a little back to normalcy. Rose is still sick but the cough is dissipating. Dinah is back to work though tired. With all that illness in the house, cooking has been difficult. So with time being tight I did what all members of the Huff clan do, I turned to the grill. Last night was pork, the night before beef.

On Valentine's Day part of our romantic celebration was going to the grocery. Corny? I know. I picked up a London broil on sale. London broils are not the tenderest cuts of meat, there is a reason most people marinate them. But it was handy Monday night and I was short on time, so I threw it on the grill. This is not the first time for grilled London broil. My dad grilled them all the time and so have I. Another cheap cut of meat in the long history of dinners that passed for steak when I was growing up. If you cook London broil to medium rare and cut it thin on the bias, I have found that it isn't too bad, still tough but tolerable.

On Monday I seasoned the meat before throwing it on the grill. I knew that added flavor would help. And it did but I overcooked the meat. It came off well done, way over cooked for me, absolutely perfect for Dinah. In my opinion the meat was tough, as expected, but also dry. But since it was cooked to Dinah's preference I still got some brownie points. We ate half and I put the other half in the fridge as leftovers.

I began to ponder, can you tenderize meat that has already been cooked? A quick survey on Google showed that I was not the first to ask this question. However, I could not find a single good answer anywhere. Every reply in a forum where the question had been asked the answer came back as how to prevent cooked meat from being tough in the first place. That's not an answer (major pet peeve is people answering a question with something other than what was asked. Grrrrr).

Tenderizing of meat comes from breaking down the protein fibers through acids, enzymes, salt, slow cooking such as braising or mechanical means such as grinding or cubing. This is why you are supposed to marinate the London broil before you cook it. I think my Mom used to use Italian dressing. The vinegar in the dressing provided the acid for breaking down the fibers in the meat. But would it work with cooked meat?

I took out my leftover London broil and chopped it up. The goal here was to increase the surface area exposed to the tenderizer and to maximize the depth of penetration. If you marinate a thick cut steak, only the outer edge of the steak gets tenderized. The marinade does not penetrate maybe more than an 1/8 of an inch deep. This is why injection marinade systems were created.

For comparison, I cut the meat into two different sizes. One pile was roughly pea sized, maybe a 1/4 inch cubed. In the other pile the meat was cut into slivers three times as long as the cubes. I dumped all of the meat into my crock pot, probably about a pound's worth. Next I poured in a 1/4 cup of vinegar and half a bottle of barbecue sauce plus enough vinegar to wash out the bottle. I probably had between 1/3 and 1/2 cup total of vinegar. Slow cooking pork ribs in barbecue sauce results in tender meat because of the vinegar in the sauce. Since my meat was already cooked I thought I might need an extra bit of vinegar to work some magic. As a bonus, I added a couple shakes of Worcestershire sauce, mainly for flavor but it's main ingredient is vinegar too, so it couldn't hurt.

After two hours on high, the small cubes of meat cut easily with a fork but the slivers were still resisting, soft but you couldn't cut them with a fork. At four hours the slivers of meat cut with a fork but the cubes had now shredded. My goal of this experiment was to see if the meat could be tenderized post cooking. I was not looking for taste, however the meat was good, though maybe a little vinegary which is OK with barbecue.

While I was able to tenderize the meat I was not able to restore moisture. This means that we need to keep the concepts of meat being moist and tender as separate. Sure, a forkful was moist from the wet barbecue sauce coating the meat, the meat itself was still dry. This tells me that meat behaves somewhat like clay. Prior to heating, moisture can be added. With a little bit of heat, the clay dries out but can be restored by kneading in water but at some temperature point the moisture is driven out and cannot be restored. Your clay has now becomes a coffee cup. Same with the meat. We can add moisture with a method like brining but once we have cooked the meat until it is dry, no amount of moisture can be added back, even if the piece is swimming in moisture.

So, next time you accidentally over cook that roast or steak and end up with a tough piece of leather, don't despair. Chop it or shredded it and find an acidic marinade to break it down. It won't be moist but it will be tender and edible and you won't be throwing the meat away.

1 comment:

Brook said...

Yep, I accidentally cooked some pork in the crockpot for oh, 12 hours or something. And as much as people say you can't overcook in a crockpot they obviously have not tried hard enough because I did succeed at that. The meat was tender but dry. We ate it but I won't say we liked it that much. Glad you guys are feeling better!