Now before I kick off, I need to own up that this is a development blog post, and not a final product. While the proof of concept works, my tenderising steak cheats aren’t complete and I don’t yet have a recipe formulated. But I want to bring you on my journey, and invite you to help along if you can!
Some of the most prized cows in the world can spend their life getting massaged, eating Michelin quality dinners, and having their ego boosted by their purring, loving farmers. However this isn’t a questionable fondness between farmer and bovine – the quality in life of a cow (and the quality of slaughter) will produce the best quality beef. Facto. A stressed cow releases harmful chemicals within it’s muscles that ultimately produce poor quality beef, which is especially true of a stressful slaughter.
However, while we can always buy smart to ensure the best for our cows, we can’t always afford the premium price of massaged Wagyu beef that melts as soon as you look at it. So if there are cheats and easy wins to help us tenderise one of our favourite pure-meat products, it’s something we can all benefit from.
Working my way through Molecular Gastronomy by Herve This (not affiliated link), I get to the chapter on how red wine and vinegar can be used to tenderise beef. As Herve This is a scientist and not a cook, it simply explains the dynamics of the process and doesn’t offer any practical applications of the science. Usually I’d scour the internet and see what other cooks have done and nick their ideas, but I love a good experiment and wanted to look at this with a fresh pair of eyes without any bias.
To begin with I took a standard rib-eye steak and halved it. I seasoned both with salt, pepper, and rosemary. One I vacuum sealed as is, the other I sealed with a small amount of red wine and a dash of red wine vinegar. I then refrigerated them for a few hours before cooking sous vide at 54C for 1 1/2 hours. A quick flash in the pan afterwards and it was ready to eat. I’ve decided to sous vide the steaks to remove variables between the steaks – both are cooked perfectly the same as the other.
So did the wine make any difference? Indeed it did! While only making a slight difference, the difference was there.
I adore my steak, so I decided to take this further and really have a look at how much the wine and vinegar can break down the beef. I also wanted to see the effect of sous vide cooking on this type of tenderising as this might be over-amplifying the effects. I bought a pack of two rib-eye steaks (my favourite cut, if you haven’t already noticed!), quartered one steak for marinading overnight in either red wine or red wine vinegar; the second steak I halved – one to cook with nothing added, the other with a mix of everything.
The idea is the quartered one will be split as such: two marinated in red wine, two in red wine vinegar. One of each will be sous vide, the other cooked normally in the pan. This was both to see the difference between the vinegar and the wine in tenderising, while also making sure the sous vide cooking wasn’t responsible for tenderising the meat. The halved steak was to have a control piece cooked totally normally, and one cooked with a ‘recipe’ mix of the ingredients.
So I potted the pieces to be marinated, labelled them up, and left to marinate overnight (despite the chuckles from the wife at our fridge now resembling a freaky biology lab).
Roll forward 24 hours, and I was ready to cook. I vacuum sealed the steak pieces to be sous vide for an hour, and in the meantime allowed the frying pieces to rise to room temperature (NB: if you ever struggle to get a steak cooked medium-rare without the centre being raw, it’s likely this – because the centre was below room temperature/still chilled when you started cooking).
At this point I was bouncing around the kitchen: I could barely contain my excitement at the thought of perfectly melt-in-the-mouth tender steak from what was quite a cheap cut. Ants were certainly in my pants.
Roll forward another 1 hour and 5 minutes, and my beef was resting. I adore resting steak – I think it looks manly and has a beautiful glisten that gives it a dishevelled, understated charm.
Enough of my anthropomorphism though. Although I like my steak rare, it’s not talking back to me yet. So how’d it go?
To summarise: some good, some bad.
Cutting straight to the chase – the wine and vinegar ‘recipe’ mix that I did for the steak half, cooked sous vide, came out on top for tenderisation. What started off as a cheap pack of steaks from Tesco, turned soft and unctuous, giving a tremendous soft bite and chew.
However. In all cases the steak wasn’t really edible. Both the acid in the vinegar or the iron in the red wine made it far too difficult to enjoy on a large scale. The red wine steak resembled liver in fact, and a pickled steak is all kinds of wrong. The deep black colour the steak had taken on after marinating should have been a clue as to what was going on.
In all instances the red wine vinegar out-tenderised the red wine. Maybe because it contained both red wine and vinegar? Being non-alcoholic, I didn’t expect them to share the same properties for some reason. And as expected, cooking sous vide trumped frying by a long shot, although it did thin the steak due to the pressure of vacuum sealing.
So while I was disheartened by the end product not being palatable enough to constitute a meal, there was still a lot of hope in the process. It wasn’t disgusting, so some hard work is likely to yield better results. Maybe overnight marinating was far too long? Maybe my choice of wine and vinegar was poor, or I was using far-far-far too much of them both. Could you cook off the marinade to reduce the tannins and acidity? It’s all going in the mix for a later steak, which I now have tons of!
So why is the wine and vinegar tenderising the steaks??
Simplifying Herve This massively: the acid in the vinegar melts the collagens within the meat. Collagen is the tough sheath-like material that hold together small muscle-cell clusters (and, yes, the same stuff they inject into lips to get them looking plump). If you look at a cross section of a cooked steak, the lines running through it would originally have had collagen in between the lines holding together that clump, which we’ve melted (with both heat and acid) to turn it into gelatine. The acid also breaks down the toughening proteins within the cells, while also ionising them so they retain more water (making it more juicy).
Wine contains something called polyphenols that provide it with it’s colour and the tannins that give it it’s bite. These react with the proteins to break them down, reducing the toughness of the meat. However, Herve This doesn’t mention this having any effect on the collagen, which might explain why the vinegar/acid was more successful.
Why does sous vide cooking tenderise as well?
Sous vide cooking does two things: it cooks the meat to the exact temperature we want. This stops the meat ever over-cooking, as it can never go above the temperature we’ve set the water bath to be. It also lets us keep the meat at this temperature for extended periods of time (up to about 4 hours is safe, beyond that can allow pathogens to start breeding because the temperature is low). These two factors allow us to melt the collagen with heat (much like the acid does above), while also not over-cooking the steak. Cooking at a higher temperature will melt more collagen, but it will over cook everything and also cause the cells to contract, which squeezes out their juice. That equals bad steak – the payoff for less collagen is totally lost in the burned meat. However, sous vide won’t melt all the collagen, so including acid in the mix amplifies the effects.
Cooking straight in a pan defeats both benefits above. It cooks it at a far higher temperature, meaning over-cooking is very easy before the centre ever gets to temperature. Plus it’s not possible to cook for extended time. So while we can still achieve a tender steak using a frying pan (the heat is still melting collagen), it is not our most optimum method.
Is this the only tenderising steak cheats?
Not entirely. Something called a jaccard can be used to punch hundreds of tiny holes into the steak, which rip the collagen mentioned above. It’s a brute-force approach, but it does work. If you have a look at the real budget steaks in a supermarket, you can sometimes see these holes that have been punched into the meat (usually called ‘frying steaks’ rather than a specific cut like rump or sirloin).
What about picking a well-marbled steak?
Ah ha! A common misconception is that a lot of marbling = tender. The extra fat from a thorough marbling will make the steak seem more juicy, flavoursome, and succulent. But the fat doesn’t contribute to tenderness itself, as it’s the collagen and proteins that are responsible. But don’t misquote me here – juicy, flavoursome, succulent steaks are a good thing. So do still seek out your marbling! Just be sure to consider how you can tenderise it as well.
I’m tempted to bite the bullet and search the internet for wine and vinegar based steak marinades. But I feel there is still some experiments in me that could still come. My main interest is reducing the marinade to a syrup first, so the harsh properties of wine and vinegar are lost. I also want to shorten the marinating times down to just a few hours. So plenty to still come!