Does onion tenderize meat?

In this brief article, we will answer the question, “does onion tenderize meat?” and discuss the benefits of using onions to tenderize meat and what food items other than onion can help tenderize meat. 

Does onion tenderize meat?

Yes, onions can be used to tenderize meat. Similar to honey and certain fruits like papaya, onions contain proteolytic (protein-digesting) enzymes which is why they are very suitable for tenderizing meat (4).

Onion contains a cysteine protease, which is able to hydrolyze meat proteins, breaking down the long-chains of amino acids that form the meat tissues. As a result, the tissue becomes softer and enables the higher solubilisation of collagen during cooking (2).

Cysteine proteases are commonly found in plants and are widely applied to tenderize meats (1,4). Moreover, onions add additional flavor and aroma to the meat, resulting in a rich and savory protein dish. 

What are the benefits and drawbacks of using onions to tenderize meat?

The benefit of using onions to tenderize meat is that, in addition to making the meat softer, is that it improves flavor and the nutritional properties, as onions add many healthy compounds into the food (6).

Onions contain many bioactive compounds which are reported as health promoting. The effects on onions on health include the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and prevention of diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and obesity.

The main compounds in onion that are related to improved effects on health are organosulfur and phenolics, such as rutin and quercetin, in addition to flavonols and saponins. 

Besides, tenderization can improve the digestibility of the meat proteins and consequently enhance the absorption of amino acids. As a result, the use of onions to tenderize meat will favor the ability of the body to assimilate the nutrients, especially in the case of children, who have limited capacity to fully digest proteins (7).

The drawbacks of using onions to tenderize meat are the possible contamination of the food with microorganisms present in the onion (which are in general due to poor water quality of irrigation).

Onions can also contain high levels of pesticides and heavy metals. When ingested in large quantities, these pollutants can cause harmful health effects (6). 

How to use onions to tenderize meat?

Here are four effective steps to tenderize meat (8):

Prepare the marination juice by blending onions with water and salt in a food blender. Marinating meat in enzymes or acids allows them to break down the protein fibers and tenderize the meat. Allow the steak to soak in the marinade for about thirty minutes to one hour, according to the size of the cut.

A study showed that onions blended for 15 minutes and applied in meat at a proportion of 1:5 (meat: onion juice), and 9% (w/v) salt concentration showed the best results, when marination occurred for 24 h at refrigerated temperature.

Keep watching the steak periodically so that it doesn’t become too tender, and take out the meat from the marinade if its edges begin to cook.

What other foods can be used to tenderize meat?

Other food items that can be used to tenderize meat include (1,2,4,8):

  • Sea salt and other types of salt, such as CaCl2, NaCl, Na3PO4, and potassium lactate are considered chemical tenderizers and used industrially to soften meat 
  • Citrus juices or vinegar: all of these are acidic liquids that help soften muscle fiber and enhance flavor. Citrus juices can come from citrus fruits and vegetables (lime, lemon), and vinegar can be apple cider, balsamic, or wine vinegar
  • Grape, mangoes and apple juice, pomegranate seed juice were also reported to be effectively used as marinating solutions 
  • Ginger: Ginger also contains proteolytic enzymes similar to onions that break down proteins in meat 
  • Figs, Pineapple, Kiwis, Papaya: These fruits contain proteolytic enzymes that help break down proteins and connective tissues. Simply apply mashed fruits or slices on thin cuts of meat, allow them to work into the meat for a few hours, and proceed to cook.


In this brief article, we answered the question, “does onion tenderize meat?” and discussed the benefits and drawbacks of using onions to tenderize meat and what food items other than onion can help tenderize meat.


  1. Dhillon, A., et al. Proteolytic enzymes. Current Developments in Biotechnology and Bioengineering. Elsevier, 2017. 149-173.
  2. Tänavots, Alo, et al. Effects of mustard-honey, apple vinegar, white wine vinegar and kefir acidic marinades on the properties of pork. Veterinarija ir Zootechnika, 2018, 76.
  3. Demir, Hande, Seyda Çelik, and Yasemin Çelebi Sezer. Effect of ultrasonication and vacuum impregnation pretreatments on the quality of beef marinated in onion juice a natural meat tenderizer. Food Sci Technol Inter, 2021, 10820132211012919.
  4. Ndidi, Uche Samuel, et al. Purification and Characterisation of a Cysteine Protease from the bulb of Common Onion, Allium cepa L.(cv. Red Creole). Int J Modern Biochem, 2012, 1, 1-17.
  5. King, D. A., et al. Chilling and cooking rate effects on some myofibrillar determinants of tenderness of beef. J anim sci, 2003, 81, 1473-1481.
  6. Zhao, Xin-Xin, et al. Recent advances in bioactive compounds, health functions, and safety concerns of onion (Allium cepa L.). Front Nutri, 2021, 8, 669805.
  7. Bhat, Zuhaib F., et al. Non-thermal processing has an impact on the digestibility of the muscle proteins. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr, 2022, 62, 7773-7800.
  8. Anaduaka, Emeka Godwin, et al. Nature-derived ingredients as sustainable alternatives for tenderizing meat and meat products: an updated review. Food Biotechnol, 2023, 37, 136-165.