Decent materials, three surface options for tenderizing, and OK balance.
The pounding surfaces are too small, it’s too light, and the handle is awkward and poorly designed.
Overall, a bad purchase—this is simply too wimpy to perform all the proper functions of a mechanical tenderizer.
Mechanical meat tenderizers work like mini sledgehammers, pounding tough fibers into submission (they’re not to be confused with chemical tenderizers, which use plant enzymes to break down stubborn proteins and minimize chew). Pounding is an old technique—it isn't hard to imagine Paleolithic hunters wielding rocks to beat the toughness out of seal flesh. Then as now, the idea is to damage the meat’s structure, as food-science guru Harold McGee explains in his book On Food and Cooking, “to fragment the muscle fibers and connective-tissue sheets.” A good tenderizer has three characteristics: hefty weight (it should be heavy enough to enlist gravity for pounding, though remain liftable), a large pounding surface, and good balance so it’s easy to wield.
Founded in 1963 in Ohio, Calphalon has a reputation for well-designed aluminum cookware with contemporary style, and since the 1990s, for a corresponding line of quality kitchen utensils. Kitchen Essentials from Calphalon is marketed as an affordable line, available from mass retailers like Target, which is where we purchased the tenderizer you see here. The stainless steel head has three faces, each measuring 1 3/4 inches square: flat (labeled “Chicken”), small-spiked (“Beef”), and large-spiked (“Tough Meat”). A stainless steel neck is forged onto the head, and partially clad in a 4-inch plastic grip below a soft, rubbery comfort grip roughly 1 1/4 inches long. The whole tenderizer weighs 8 1/4 ounces—for comparison’s sake, the chunky metal pounder you see in the photos below weighs 14 1/2 ounces. And because of the stainless steel, you have to wash the tenderizer by hand, though that's no more onerous than caring for a chef's knife.
To test the three make-or-break elements of a mechanical tenderizer—weight, surface size, and balance—we put the hammer down on a pair of proteins: top round of beef (the cut we use for chicken-fried steak), and boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded the way we would for fried chicken sandwiches.
Top round: We started out tenderizing 1/4-inch slices of raw beef with the small-spiked face (the one marked “Beef”). The Kitchen Essentials from Calphalon did a decent job pitting the meat’s surface with tiny indentations like on a saltine cracker, and with pretty minimal effort on our part, thanks to decent balance. Still, it doesn’t take a lot of weight or force to perform a task like this, and this lightweight hammer was just fine (same when we switched to the large-spiked face, the one for tough cuts). But we did notice a couple of design flaws.
First, because the hammerhead is so small, there’s only a maximum of half an inch between the handle and the cutting board. So unless you have extremely small hands (or hold the hammer face at an awkwardly sharp angle above the meat), your knuckles rap against the cutting board as you pound.
Second, for us, the comfort grip is in the wrong place. Because the handle is so short, we kept our grasp as far back as we could, to get enough leverage to swing. When we did that, our finger-grip was consistently just below the rubbery comfort ring.
Chicken breasts: Flattening boneless, skinless breasts with the tenderizer’s flat face made us aware of the same design flaws mentioned above, only amplified. And since it takes some force to flatten chicken breasts into uniform thinness, here’s where the Kitchen Essentials from Calphalon’s puny weight and small pounding surface really let us down. Instead of hitting the delicate meat fibers with the proper glancing motion to stretch and flatten them without tearing, we just had to hammer away with a tiny hammer too light for the job. This was frustrating, time-consuming, and yielded some pretty torn-up chicken. Fail.
Photos by Chris Rochelle