Does Onion Tenderize Meat

In this brief article, we will answer the question, “does onion tenderize meat?”. We’ll also tell the basics of tenderizing 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 so that it is easily cut and eaten with a fork or even chopsticks.

Meat tissue is made up of protein fibers of long-chain amino acid units in which fat cells are also found. Proteolytic enzymes catalyze the hydrolysis of the peptide bonds between amino acid residues of proteins. The proteolytic enzymes are used in the food, dairy, detergent, leather, and pharmaceutical industries and many others. Cysteine proteases derived from plant sources, such as papain and bromelain from papaya and pineapple, respectively, have been used as meat tenderizers as well in baking and production of protein hydrolysates (1).  

A Chaliapin Steak is among the most common examples of using chopped onions to cover both sides of the chicken to tenderize it. 

Moreover, onions add additional flavor and aroma to the meat, resulting in a rich and savory protein dish. 

What Is Tenderizing?

Tenderizing refers to softening meat by breaking down its tough protein fibers so that it is easier to chew and digest. Tenderizing agents such as proteolytic containing spices and acids cause the swelling of muscle fibers and connective tissue and increase the extractability of myofibrillar proteins. This process weakens muscle structure and ultimately increases the solubilisation of collagens during cooking (2).

Tenderizing meat is particularly useful for cooking tough cuts of meats such as steaks, or for recipes that feature thin slices of meat, such as chicken cutlets for chicken Parmesan.

How Long Do Onions Take To Tenderize Meat?

It can take between 30 minutes to an hour for onions to tenderize meat. For ideal results, leave the meat overnight. But remember the tougher the meat, the longer it needs to sit. 

Simply cover the meat with a layer of sliced onions and wrap it up in a plastic wrap.  Allow it to sit in a cool place for the above-mentioned time. 

Placing the meat in the refrigerator is not recommended, since this will slow down the enzymes and the meat will take longer to tenderize.

Do Garlic And Onions Tenderize Meat?

Yes; in fact, any acidic substance can help tenderize meat. 

A combination of onion and garlic will not only make the meat tender but will also infuse flavor within the protein. Juices released from onions and garlic during marinating leads to the formation of volatile compounds due to the Maillard reactions between sulfur amino acids and sugar content of the genus Allium as a result of thermal treatment such as cooking, improving taste and color (3).

You can also add some rosemary and basil when you wrap the meat in garlic and onions for added depth and aroma. 

How Do You Tenderize Meat?

Here are four effective steps to tenderize meat.

  1. Marinate

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. 

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.

  1. Pound

Pounding the meat accelerates the breakdown of fibers and helps soften the meat (4). 

Place the cut of meat on a cutting board and cover it with plastic wrap. Use the spiky side of a meat mallet (a hammer, rolling pin, or cast-iron skillet work just as well) to pound the steak, beginning at the center and moving sideways. 

  1. Salt

Salting also helps break the protein in the meat. Rub the sea salt or Kosher salt (not table salt) on the meat to help tenderize it and enhance its texture and flavor. 

  1. Slow Cook

Slow cooking helps break collagen (protein) fibers that help tenderize tough cuts of meat, such as chuck roast. Grilling steaks slowly on low heat can also help to tenderize them (5).

What Other Foods Can Be Used To Tenderize Meat?

Including acids into the marinade, such as vinegar or lemon juice increase tenderizing its properties. Use of low pH marinades is known to retard the growth of microorganisms and increase water-holding capacity and tenderness of meat while also inhibiting lipid oxidation. Dairy products, including kefir, contain calcium, which activates calpain enzymes in meat and may also tenderize meat (2).

Other food items that can be used to tenderize meat include:

  • Sea Salt (Not Table Salt): sprinkling some sea salt on your steaks before cooking allows the meat to absorb the salt which breaks down the meat’s protein and improves its texture. 
  • Coffee and Tea: One or two cooked cups of black tea or coffee can be used to marinate meat. Tannins in tea are natural tenderizers. Marinate the protein for about 24 hours before grilling.
  • Wine, 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 regular. If you’re using red wine, add a little amount since the tannins in it are too strong.
  • Tomato-Based Sauces: Tomatoes are acidic; that’s why it’s added to most barbeque sauces.
  • Beer: Beer also contains tannins and alpha acids, both of which are excellent for tenderizing meat. Marinate the protein for about an hour before frying or grilling.
  • Ginger: Ginger also contains proteolytic enzymes similar to onions that break down protein. 
  • Yogurt and Buttermilk: These fermented dairy foods are acidic and also rich in calcium which helps activate enzymes inside the meat that break down proteins.
  • Figs, Pineapple, Kiwis, Papaya: These fruits contain vegetable 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.

Studies have also demonstrated the marination effect of grapefruit juice, dry red wine, kefir, lemon juice and raw pineapple juice (2).

Conclusion

In this brief article, we answered the question, “does onion tenderize meat?”. We also told you the basics of tenderizing meat and what food items other than onion can help tenderize meat. 

If you have any more questions or comments please let us know.

References 

  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. Maddock, Robert. Mechanical tenderization of beef. Downloaded from: Retrieved from https://www. beefissuesquarterly. com/CMDocs/BeefResearch/PE_Fact_Sheets/Mechanical_Tenderization_of_Beef. pdf (2008).
  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.

Hi, I am Charlotte, I love cooking and in my previous life, I was a chef. I bring some of my experience to the recipes on this hub and answer your food questions.