We use meat pounders to flatten boneless pieces of meat or poultry into evenly thin cutlets so that they can cook through quickly and consistently. There are three basic styles: short-handled pounders; long-handled (or offset) pounders; and mallet-style pounder/tenderizers, which look like small hammers with heads that have a flat side for pounding and a bumpy side for tenderizing. It had been a while since we last tested any of these tools, and we wanted to know if our former favorite, the short-handled Norpro Grip EZ Meat Pounder, was still the best option available. So we bought eight models, priced from about $11 to about $125—three short-handled meat pounders (including our former favorite), three long-handled meat pounders, and two mallet-style meat pounders/tenderizers—and had a variety of testers use them to pound chicken breasts and pork tenderloins into ¼-inch-thick cutlets.
Differences emerged immediately. The style of the pounder—and the corresponding shape and size of its head—was critical to performance. While short- and long-handled pounders yielded evenly flattened cutlets, mallet-style pounders/tenderizers produced more ragged, uneven ones. In the past, we’ve found that the textured side of a mallet’s head tends to mangle, not tenderize, so we decided against using it while testing. But we were surprised to find that the mallets’ flat sides were almost as bad: If we weren’t careful, the corners of their square heads dug into the food, gouging it or tearing small holes. By comparison, the circular heads on the short- and long-handled pounders had no such corners and thus inflicted no damage, keeping the cutlets intact and smooth.
In addition, the heads on the mallet-style pounders/tenderizers were quite small, providing just 3 to 4 square inches of surface area for pounding; the heads of the short- and long-handled pounders were two to three times as big. Contrary to what we’d expected, these smaller heads didn’t slow us down—it took about the same amount of time to flatten cutlets with the mallets as it did to flatten them with some of the pounders that had much larger heads. But because their smaller heads could cover only a relatively small area at a time, they did make it harder to ensure that the cutlets were pounded to the same thickness from end to end. The larger heads on the short- and long-handled pounders covered more ground at a time, flattening bigger areas to the same thickness.
However, the mallets did have one advantage: They were the easiest and most comfortable of the pounders to use. Weighing just 10 ounces, both mallets were significantly lighter than any of the other models, so it took very little effort for us to lift them. They also picked up extra force as we swung them down on the meat from above, so they still summoned plenty of power for flattening the cutlets despite their light weight. But comfort wasn’t everything. If anything, some users felt that the mallets’ light weight made it a little too easy to apply too much force, encouraging them to whale on the cutlets and increasing the likelihood that they’d accidentally gouge and rip them.
In contrast to the light mallets, the long-handled pounders, most of which were on the heavier end of the spectrum—were a chore for all but the most muscle-bound testers to use. These meat pounders commanded a lot of torque as we swung them down onto the food, flattening each cutlet more significantly with each stroke than the other models did. But bigger definitely wasn’t better here. In theory, these models should have taken a lot less time to pound all the cutlets. Because they were so heavy, though, it was uncomfortable to repeatedly lift and swing them. The length and angle of the handles only made things worse: Even when using longer-handled models that were relatively light, we found ourselves choking up on their grips to muster better control so that we could lift and aim them more easily. This was necessary to ensure that the heads landed flat on the food; due to the awkward, steep angle at which the handles were set, the heads naturally fell heel first on the food, denting it slightly, so we had to work harder to correct this tendency. As a result, we ended up losing time as we stopped to rest our aching wrists and arms, especially during longer tasks such as pounding a whole pork tenderloin’s worth of cutlets.
Instead, we liked models that fell in the middle of the weight spectrum, weighing slightly less than 2 pounds—heavy enough to flatten the food but not so heavy that they were unwieldy or painful to use. We also preferred the short-handled models overall. Because they required a simple up-and-down motion, these models didn’t provide quite as much flattening power as the long-handled models and mallets did when we swung them down on meat, so they might not be quite as effective when pounding denser, tougher foods such as top-round beef. But they still provided more than enough power to pound pork and chicken—the foods we pound most frequently. And since their handles are positioned directly over their heads, it’s easy to control and direct these models. While the short-handled models were not quite as comfortable to wield as the mallets—because our hands were close to the head, they were also close to the point of impact, absorbing some of that force—almost all our testers felt that this meat pounder style offered the happiest medium among the options available, providing plenty of power and precision, great performance, and reasonable comfort.
Finally, we considered the material and shape of the pounder handles. We vastly preferred handles that were covered in grippy plastic or rubber, since these were much easier to hold than handles made from uncovered metal, which sometimes got slippery as we worked with the raw chicken and pork. We also liked handles that were relatively thick, as we had to squeeze narrow handles more tightly to maintain our grip, making our hands cramp.
In the end, our favorite meat pounder remains the Norpro Grip EZ Meat Pounder. Weighing slightly less than 2 pounds, it was relatively easy to lift and delivered just the right amount of force with every stroke; its moderately large circular head consistently delivered evenly thin cutlets with no rips or tears. Moreover, it was easy to hold and aim, thanks to its short, rubbery santoprene-covered handle.