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The problem is my buddies like to buy cheap steaks to take camping (usually from the 5 for $5 bin), then they hand them to me like I could work some miracle other than adding cracked pepper and trying not to overcook them on an open fire. I'll leave the result to your imagination.

Is there something I could do or add to this meat to make it less tough, but also something I could do while camping and having no access to a kitchen?

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Ask your friends not to do this? –  SAJ14SAJ Sep 10 '13 at 12:55
    
Buy the steaks yourself before they do? –  Carey Gregory Sep 11 '13 at 4:30
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7 Answers

Prepare at home...

In a ziplock bag add Balsamic vinegar, garlic powder, pepper, and a dash of sea salt. Add the steaks, and you might want to double bag. Easy...from ice chest to the grill, and the vineager base makes the toughest meat tender and juicy. I have used a tri-tip roast this way and it was a definite camp favorite,

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Cheap, tough meat is a puzzle cooks have dealt with through the ages. The common solutions are as follows:

1) Low and Slow - cook at the edge of the fire, or atop a bed of coals, for a looooooooong time. Braising and stewing is also part of this method - adding a flavorful liquid to keep the meat moist while time and heat tenderize it. A cast-iron dutch oven is your friend. Steak chili!

2) Mechanical Tenderization - Whack the heck out of it with something heavy (back end of a hatchet or the underside of a piece of cast-iron cookware), poke dozens of little holes in it, and/or slice it thin. Beef roulade would work well roasted over an open fire, or shaved steak/italian beef/philly cheesesteak whacked and sliced on site and pan-fried in a skillet.

3) Chemical Tenderization - Acid, salt, sugar and time can make the strongest steak yield. A cheap bottle of italian dressing, a zip-lock bag, and a some quality time in the ice chest, and you have marinated steak kabob ready to be cubed, skewered and roasted over an open fire like meat marshmallows.

4) All of the above. Swiss steak! Actually, all of the above dish suggestions only work in concert with another. But seriously, Swiss. Steak.

You can do all of this in the field with a sharp knife, cheap plastic cutting board and a dutch oven or covered skillet (cast iron preferred, make your buddies pack it for you).

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If you're going to have to carry it yourself, you might be able to find a cast aluminum dutch oven -- decent cooking at significantly less weight. –  Joe Sep 11 '13 at 11:18
    
What kind of acid do you recommend? Are there enzymes I could use? –  Brent Sep 11 '13 at 20:53
    
@brent - The most convenient acid for your purpose is vinegar, which is a main component of storebought italian-style salad dressing, along with various herbs and spice, and oil. Add some salt, ta daa! Instant marinade! –  RI Swamp Yankee Sep 11 '13 at 23:49
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And if you don't want to bring along a pot, you can bring aluminum foil and go the silver turtle / hobo dinner / hobo packet route. (although, you generally want to cut it up first ... it's just easier to eat if you don't have to try to slice it up after it's cooked) –  Joe Sep 11 '13 at 23:59
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A few of the other answers have touched on this, but the generic answer for cheap steak is usually to mechanically tenderize it. Stabbing with a fork or pounding with a mallet are simple ways to do this. You can also buy devices with a bunch of small needles or blades that you can press into the meat. Some meat is sold already tenderized this way (may be labeled "blade tenderized" or similar). An important safety note: meat tenderized in this way should be cooked all the way through. If you want a nice medium-rare steak, you need to buy the pricier cut.

You should also try to trim as much connective tissue (silverskin, etc) from the meat as you can. Fat adds flavor, but connective tissue on a quickly-cooked steak just leaves you with a mouth full of gristle.


If you have the time, and aren't looking to serve "steak", you can ignore everything I just said and cook the meat like pot roast. Season the meat generously with salt and pepper. Sear both sides in the bottom of a dutch oven. Pour in some beer (or just water, if you somehow neglected to bring beer) until the meat is about half covered. Let it sit over low heat for about 4 hours, or until the meat is fork-tender (or until your friends lose all patience with you). Make it a meal by throwing in some cut up potatoes, onions, and carrots in the last hour or two of cooking. It won't be anything resembling "steak", but it will taste much better.

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How much preparation are you going to have ahead of time?

If they give you the steaks before you leave, my typical technique is to stab them repeatedly with a fork, and then give them a bath in a marinade overnight. It can be as short as two hours, but you really want to make sure that you do the stabbing -- I try to hit them 5-7mm apart, and make lines down the steak, then start on the next line. This will help to cut some of the fibers in the meat, and allow the marinade to penetrate more deeply.

I'd recommend putting them in zip-top bags, and then nestling them down in the bottom of your cooler, or even in a sepearate cooler, as should there be a leak, you don't want the meat juices getting onto other things.

If you don't have the time to marinade them, I'd go with chicken fried steak -- pound them out, dust them with flour, then cook them in a fair bit of oil (shallow fry). Traditionally, you'd then make a white gravy for it -- add some of the flour from the dredge to the oil to make a roux. (you might need to pour off some of the oil if there's a lot left). Follow the instructions for bechamel, but spice it with black pepper, and add any (cooked) meat drippings along with the milk. You can also add beer or other liquid to make a gravy, as milk's trickier to take camping.

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No prep ahead of time. I may be able to do something once we arrive at the site in prep for the next day. –  Brent Sep 11 '13 at 20:55
    
@Brent : if you do, you'd likely want to mix & chill the marinade before you go, so you're not warming the meat up too much. Something really salty (eg, Worcestershire & soy sauce) might help preserve as you're in less than ideal circumstances. Depending on how much time you have to tend the fire, I'd either go with chicken fried steak or RI Swamp Yankee's suggestion of Swiss steak. (the gravy from Swiss steak is likely easier the take camping than white gravy) –  Joe Sep 11 '13 at 23:51
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If they want steak rather than some sort of beef then the answer is no. If you want a good steak you have to buy good steak, you aren't going to get a good result from the bargain bin no matter what you do to it.

If any beef will do then buy meat that is best for the method you plan to use. Personally I'd go for a hearty stew, but you could also make a beef rendang, or just braised shin (leg meat).

If they really do want a cheap steak experience then get flank steak instead, you can tenderize it with the mallet you use for tent stakes (cleaned of course) and then marinade it in some beer or wine. Then barbecue it on the highest heat possible for about 2 minutes per side maximum. You'll get a much better result for similar money.

If what they really want is a good steak then tell them to dig a bit deeper and buy decent meat!

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There are several routes you could take, though most that I can think of involve either a lot of time (like slow cooking the meat in a braising liquid) or preparation ahead of time (like cooking the meat sous vide to break down the protein a little).

What I have done a few times is as follows:

  1. Trim (most of) the fats and (all of the) sinew from the meat
  2. Cut the steaks into strips (I usually go about four centimeters long by two wide)
  3. Dust the strips in plain flour
  4. Add a bit of oil to a cast iron pot
  5. Add some crushed or finely chopped garlic and onion, cooking them until translucent
  6. Add the meat, searing the outside to start the caramelization process
  7. Add a braising liquid (I have used red wine, beer (a low-hop one) and good stock to good effect) and some vegetables (I usually use carrots and celeriac)
  8. Keep at a low simmer for quite a bit of time, checking the meat regularly with regards to level of done-ness and chewyness

It is involved, and it takes time, but I have yet to have it fail.

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This. The OP doesn't mention how he's cooking, but if it's a wood fire he should construct an adjustable pot holder (just 3 sticks) and lift the pot out of the fire somewhat to get it low and slow. –  ElendilTheTall Sep 10 '13 at 7:14
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Well, since you're camping using beer is the most logical move :) You can marinate the meat in beer which will tenderize it to some degree.

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