Stab your steak!

"And now, Mister Bond..."

Meat tenderiser blades

Yes, these are ranks of little pointy blades with angled chisel tips.

Blade-type meat tenderiser

They're all about five centimetres long, and when you use the implement of which they are a part they protrude about 19mm (3/4 of an inch) into some flesh.

Which you later eat.

I don't like cooking. But I can cook a steak. High heat, short time, remember to turn off the smoke detector nearest the kitchen, job done. The less you muck around with it, the better.

(Actually, those annoying scientific-cooking people suggest that frequent turning of a steak is desirable. A religious war will clearly result. The losers get eaten.)

I'm not made of money, though. So the cheaper my steak-meat can be, the better.

I can get a kilo of thick-cut boneless chuck from the local Aldi for eight bucks Australian. That's good for two large steak dinners, or four more reasonable ones. And there's nothing wrong with the flavour of chuck, or what's locally known as "gravy beef" (boned shin), or any number of other cuts from less fashionable parts of the cow. The problem, of course, is that they're full of gristle and connective tissue.

It's surprising how tender even cheap steak can be if you don't overcook it, but the really cheap stuff goes way over the "just needs a lot of chewing" line up into the unacceptable realm where it seems that no amount of chewing is sufficient to actually disintegrate the stuff.

The traditional solution to this problem is, of course, the tenderiser. Which, according to most people, is some kind of mallet, generally resembling a miniaturised version of Kannuki the Giant's signature weapon.

Beating a steak senseless will indeed make it much less chewy, but squashing is not actually a very good way of breaking up gristle; it can take a surprisingly long time, and invariably leaves you with a mutilated beef pancake. That's perfectly acceptable for some dishes, but pulverised beef is pretty close to just being mincemeat ("ground beef", in US parlance). You might as well buy mince in the first place and make meatloaf or rissoles or something, if you ask me.

You can also tenderise meat chemically, with an enzyme or just by letting it go a bit rotten. I haven't tried enzyme tenderisation, but dry-aging my own beef and then shaving off the mould isn't my idea of an appetising activity.

A while ago, though, this Cool Tools post alerted me to the existence of tenderisers that use blades, instead of brute force.

Intrigued by the idea, I tried just laying a cheap steak out on a cutting board and stabbing the hell out of it, all over on both sides, with a couple of little paring knives.

I highly recommend any penny-pinching carnivore try this. It doesn't take very long, and the results are excellent. The meat looks, and cooks, much the same as it did before, but all the stringy stuff has been pre-separated into short pieces. And if you want to marinate your steak in something, the stab-wounds get a lot more flavour into the meat. (I also tried pouring marinade on the steak and then stabbing it, which worked even better but was somewhat messy.)

Satisfied that the technique worked, it was clearly time for me to purchase a kitchen gadget that does the stabbing in a more organised way. The Cool Tools post recommends a "Jaccard SuperTendermatic", with 48 blades in three ranks of 16, which lists on Amazon for $US23.76 ex delivery (cheap to free within the USA, expensive everywhere else), at time of writing.

I'll betcha one of the swish shops in the next suburb over from me has name-brand blade tenderisers too, and I'll also betcha they charge at least a hundred bucks for one.

Instead, I hit eBay and bought a brandless 48-blade unit for a princely $AU17.98 including delivery to Australia, from a Hong Kong eBay seller. That was almost two years ago now; I didn't want to write anything about it before I was sure that the cheap brandless version wouldn't fall apart, maim the user, commit the signature kitchen-gadget failure of being impossible to clean, et cetera.

It doesn't, and I can't imagine that the more expensive brand-name ones work any better.

The current eBay going rate for 48-blade units is less than $AU20 delivered (about $US20 or £13).

(That eBay search doesn't seem to be geo-targeting very well for me here in Australia; here's one that ought to only turn up items that can be shipped here.)

UPDATE: As mentioned in the comments below, there are rotary blade tenderisers as well, that roll like a pizza cutter. Here's a search that I think finds them a bit more effectively than the above searches.

UPDATE 2: Renowned crapvendors DealExtreme also now have 48-blade tenderisers similar to the one I've got. There's a black one and a white one, each for $US17.40 including delivery to anywhere, which I think undercuts the eBay dealers by a little.

It's easy enough to use a blade tenderiser: You just put it on the meat and press down. The blades slide out of slots in a guard on the bottom, and when you release the pressure springs retract the blades again.

The tougher the gristle you're tenderising, the harder it'll grip the blades and resist them retracting. Basically, the more resistance to the blades a given location on the meat has, and the more impressive the crunching sound when you stab it, the more times that area should be stabbed.

The springs are the only weak point of this design, I think. The standard springs in the tenderiser I got were very stiff and heavily pre-loaded, which meant they retracted the blades out of the meat very well, but forced you to push down on top of the meat too hard in the first place, squashing the steak.

I removed the blades and took the handle apart (four simple screws), removed the standard internal springs, and added the natty external coil-over replacements you see in the picture:

Blade-type meat tenderiser

They're shock springs for a model car, and they aren't strong enough to retract the blades by themselves, so I have to push the guard and handle apart a bit myself, but the steak is minimally squashed. I think that's a good trade-off.

The very cheapest blade tenderisers found by that eBay search have only 16 blades, and the spring setup might be better for those. The standard springs don't totally squish the life out of the meat, either; I am unsure how much of my motivation to modify the thing came from an actual need to do so and how much was just my desire to tinker with things.

Apart from that, though, I've had no problems with this thing at all. It works, and it keeps working. I've deliberately bought the toughest cuts of beef I can find - even when they're not actually any cheaper than a slab of chuck - and it's worked, quite quickly, on all of them.

Blade meat tenderiser components

The blade cartridge is removable for cleaning. You push the blue button on the handle to one side and press the tenderiser down on a breadboard, and the blade cartridge pops out the top. The guard at the bottom slides out for cleaning, too. Both of these parts can go in the dishwasher.

Actually, you can put the handle assembly, or the whole assembled tenderiser, in the dishwasher if you like. If you do, though, water will get into the handle, and not want to come out.

The only parts that contact the meat are the blades, the slotted guard and the edge of the guard-holding frame, though, so you can dishwash the removable parts and quickly scrub the frame by hand. As I said in my old review of the AeroPress coffee maker, "impossible to clean" is right up there with "does not actually work" in the list of Mortal Kitchen-Gadget Sins. My blade tenderiser does not have that problem.

Even if you don't have any trouble affording fancy naturally-tender steak, a blade tenderiser could come in handy to make meat more marinatable, or any other time you need a lot of little slits cut in something or someone.

If your grocery budget is tighter, though, one of these things can pay for itself the first time you use it for a family meal. You can even use it after you cook a steak, if there's a gristly bit you missed.

At not much more than twenty bucks delivered for the brand-name one in the States, or for only about twenty bucks delivered on eBay, it comes highly recommended from me.

17 Responses to “Stab your steak!”

  1. chrissybee Says:

    I'm going to have to register my concern. I cook my steak rare to medium rare. I'm happy to do this from a safety point of view as the real risk when eating steak comes from bacteria on the surface which find their way over the butchering process potential faecal contamination, etc.). Cooking the steak until you get nice maillard reactions on the outside will kill these leaving a theoretically safe product (assuming the flesh isn't diseased with some kind of parasite which existed in the live animal).

    However, if I use a device which stabs the meat I will be transferring bacteria into the steak which will never be heated up to the kind of temperatures for a length of time which will reliably kill them.

    Your thoughts?

    • hagmanti Says:

      1) There are many poking, stabbing, and tearing actions that can occur while your steak is being processed. If the places where it's being processed are contaminated, I highly doubt bacteria are only present on the surface of your steak. (I know it's the conventional wisdom, and if it were rephrased probabilistically -- "the bacterial load is highest on the surface of the meat, so it's most important to heat that surface", I wouldn't quibble)

      2) You will almost certainly transfer some bacteria in, but maybe not as many as you'd think-- the flesh will have significant resistance to being cut, and by the same token, significant resistance to letting things from the outside in (think about the outside being coated in green food coloring-- how much would make it in with the poker, and how much would get wiped off the poker in the first few millimeters of tissues?).

      3) Area of the pokers (at least as I judge it in that picture above) is relatively small compared to the area all the pokers cover. Again, bacterial load transferred may be relatively small.

      4) Many of the issues with food-borne illness are all about bacterial load and the sheer number present-- people who think their food can be sterile are misunderstanding how bacterial ecosystems work. It's generally more important to stay away from sources of large quantities of bacteria (that can overwhelm the immunological barriers in the gut, or by tripping them allow other normally harmless bacteria to go places they don't normally go) than to try and make sure no bacterium is present.

      5) It's highly likely your toothbrush is covered in fecal matter. True story.

      6) "Maillard works alone" -- Alton Brown. "MMMM MMMMM Maillard" -- Me.


      • dan Says:

        Many of the issues with food-borne illness are all about bacterial load and the sheer number present

        Indeed - see also the hand-washing thing.

        In most civilised nations today, raw meat of all kinds is pretty damn clean. You're always taking some risk if you eat meat that you haven't followed from a veterinary inspection at the farm through the slaughterhouse all the way to your plate, but generally speaking people with a normally functioning immune system can get away with eating all sorts of things raw, especially if they're in a country where eating that particular kind of meat raw, or only cooked on the outside, is commonplace.

        In most Western nations, this means beef only, plus maybe oysters and sashimi. We usually don't turn a hair at very rare (or entirely uncooked!) beef, but tend to regard eating chicken or pork raw as a mark of insanity, and our food-contamination laws reflect this.

        In Germany, though, raw minced pork is quite popular; it's called "Mett", and there are as you'd expect tight legal restrictions on how long it can be stored before sale and how cold it needs to be kept.

        In Japan, chicken and horse sashimi is pretty easy to find, and you can also get chicken tataki, where the outside is briefly seared but the inside's still completely raw (pretty much like steak done "blue"). And, once again, local regulations mean eating this stuff is not very dangerous.

        It's always still possible to win an undesirable prize in the Food Contamination Lottery and get salmonella or trichinosis or a tapeworm (wonderful, illustrated, disgusting, story!), but in the civilised world, taking precautions and eating stuff that other people in your country also commonly take and eat, it's not very likely.

        The riskiest beef product is mince (again, to Americans, ground beef). There can be a long time between the making of that product and its consumption, so if the mincing process introduces bad bacteria into the mix and it isn't then deep-frozen, the pathogens can have plenty of time to grow throughout the product and deliver a substantial dose to any customer who doesn't cook the meat thoroughly.

        Just poking holes in a steak and then immediately cooking it, though, is much less of a big deal. Or even poking, marinating for half an hour and then cooking it - many marinades are probably pretty anti-bacterial just from their salt content, come to think of it.

        • Erik T Says:

          Even better, I suspect, if you splash in some whisky. Mmmmm, whiskysteak.

          I've had the identical tenderizer for a year now and have been quite happy with it. I may need to do the spring retrofit, though.

    • Wiregeek Says:

      I use a nearly-identical widget as often as possible. Results are surprisingly good - but can be duplicated with a fork and some elbow grease!

      As for the 'proper' cooking method for steak, I offer the following thought:

      Anyone that claims that there is a One True Way to cook steak is a bad person, and should be avoided.

      (Personally, flip and butter and flip and butter and flip and butter and flip and butter)

  2. hagmanti Says:

    (support for #5. I'm leaving the rest as blind assertions).


  3. Deadmeat Says:

    I think you would have to be pretty spectacularly unlucky to get sick by doing this. It would likely involve the steak having been mishandled in some fashion resulting in the surface having been cross contaminated with pathogenic bacteria (distinct from food spoilage bacteria which don't really make you sick they just make the food look/smell gross). It would probably also need to be poorly stored, allowing the bacteria to form a decent sized colony, and even then a sufficient amount would have to be spread far enough into the meat to survive cooking.

    You could take a number of steps to mitigate this risk if you were really worried. Buying from a reliable butcher. Marinating in vinegar(acid), i use balsamic when making kebabs from cheap steak (i do it for the taste). Rinse the meat with a chlorine bleach solution prior to stabbing (... may affect the taste).

  4. J Says:

    Not one to shy away from a religious war:
    Ever since I've switched from the "one turn, minimal handling" method of steak cooking to the "TURN AT WILL MEN, FLIP AND SEAR, FLIP AND SEAR!" method, my life has been better and my steaks juicier.

    Cooked this way, even a well-done steak will be pleasantly pink and juicy inside, and rare steaks become a savoury fruit, full of juice but with nary any blood.

    Re-reading that sentence, I realise it doesn't paint an appetising picture. I stand by it though.

    Now to convince my wife to buy a pokin' machine.

  5. jaypeabey Says:

    I can't help feeling that this sort of thing must give the meat a bit of a pre-chewed texture come eatin' time. How do you find it Dan?

    Also, I'd guess that the chopping board you're using comes in for a bit of a pasting too. My wife has a set of colour-coded plastic boards, and if I was to give her designated red meat one a furry finish I think my barbecuing exploits might be curtailed in short order.

    • dan Says:

      I can't help feeling that this sort of thing must give the meat a bit of a pre-chewed texture come eatin' time. How do you find it Dan?

      You could just stab away until your arms get tired and then essentially make some kind of steak-shaped mincemeat structure, but if you start with tough steak and stab until you don't feel much crunch anywhere, it really does give you tasty chewable meat.

      I don't think a connoisseur would have any trouble telling blade-tenderised cheap meat from fantastic aged $110-per-kilo super-steak, but if you've got both teeth and dental floss, and all you want to do is turn cheap meat into something you can actually eat as a steak, I've done it, and it works.

  6. Popup Says:

    Pouring oil on the religious war of steak-searing:

    I have started to pre-cook all my meat in the microwave!
    Not for long, but enough to raise the temperature to room temperature, or slightly above.

    That way the centre of the meat is already closer to the final temperature, and I can use a high temperature sear to get a nice tasty crust on the outside, without leaving the inside raw - and equally get the inside cooked enough without drying out the exterior.

    • Deadmeat Says:

      Just take the steak out of the fridge about an hour before you're going to cook it. You accomplish the same thing without the risk of nuclearing your steak.

  7. koolraap Says:

    Surely someone's invented a rotary version of this that can work like a pizza cutter. Oh! Here's one!

    Rotating Meat Tenderising Wheel

Leave a Reply