Does Citrus Juice Tenderize Meat? (Lime, Lemon, Orange)

So you’ve got some steak, and you want to know the best way to tenderize it. You could go with a meat mallet or pounder, but do you know what else can make your meat more tender? A tasty marinade using citrus as the key ingredient.

Lemon, lime, and orange juice all contain acid that tenderizes the tough proteins in steak and other meats. They can help break down collagen, the connective tissue in your steak, making it easier to chew and digest.

Everyone likes a hack to turn cheap, tough (and often less tasty) cuts of meat into tender and flavorful dishes – all you need is a little time.

But how does lime juice actually tenderize meat? How long should you marinate in citrus juice? I’ll answer all of these questions and more below!

What Does Citrus Do To Steak?

The idea that citrus juice can tenderize meat has been around for a long time. In fact, it’s been used for centuries by butchers and chefs to make cheap tough cuts of meat more palatable.

The use of fruit juices like orange, lemon, and lime to tenderize steak is based on its acidic content. The acid causes the protein in the meat to break down a bit like actually cooking it, making it more tender and easier to eat. It also breaks down some fat in the meat, making for a juicier finished product. The acid in citrus juice can also help to keep bacteria from growing on the surface of your food.

Other juices can tenderize meat from enzymes alongside acids, see some more of these in my post 11 Juices That Tenderize Meat In Marinades.

You can also use other acids to marinade and tenderize meat, see how this is done by marinating in buttermilk.

The amount of time required to tenderize the meat depends on the type of steak you’re cooking and how much tenderizing you want to take place.

For example, if your steak is already quite tender, such as sirloin steak, then it will require less time than a tougher cut like flank steak or a skirt steak. These cheap cuts were the original steaks marinated in lime by Mexicans to make fajitas.

It’s generally best to marinate thinner pieces of meat or puncture it so that the juice can penetrate all the way through, rather than bulky pieces.

Garlic, Lime, and Cilantro Skirt Steak

Lemon Vs Lime Vs Orange Juice As A Marinade

Lemon juice, lime juice, and orange juice are all acidic, and they’re often used as marinades for meat. 

So what’s best? Lemon and lime are more concentrated acids but all of them will do the job. You can try different juices depending on what flavor you want, the kind of meat you’re preparing, and how long you want to marinate it.

If you’re cooking something like chicken breasts, pork chops, or thin steaks that need only about 30 minutes in a marinade, go with lemon or lime juice. These will have enough acidity to tenderize your meat without overpowering its natural flavors or other ingredients in your mixture.

For larger or tougher cuts of meat like thick steak or roasts that need longer marination times (2-4 hours), you can use orange juice as an alternative but remember to keep the meat in the refrigerator while it’s marinating to prevent it spoiling.

I really enjoy pork shoulder marinated in orange juice and then slow cooked in the same juice, it’s called Carnitas and is basically the Mexican equivalent of pulled pork – see this carnitas recipe.

How To Marinate Steak In Citrus Juice

Marinating meat in citrus juices adds flavor and tenderizes even when only allowing the meat to marinate for a shorter time.

Here is a simple method I’ve found for marinating steaks with citrus juice using a combined juice recipe to get some great results:

Step 1

Select your steak. You can use any cut of beef you like, but I recommend using boneless cuts that are fairly thin. If you don’t have a grill at home, this technique works just fine on an indoor grill pan or heavy skillet.

Step 2

Take your steaks out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes before cooking them so they come up to room temperature while marinating.

Step 3

Remember to wash and dry your hands well before and after handling raw meat. Place the steaks on a board and pierce several times with a fork. This helps the meat to absorb the marinade more quickly.

Step 4

Place the pierced steaks in a large glass or plastic dish. Set aside while you prepare the marinade. Note – do not use a metallic container as the acidic juices could react with the metal, particularly if you’re planning on leaving the meat to sit in the juice mixture for several hours.

Step 5

Juice the citrus fruits you have – one lemon, one lime and one orange work well but you can just do one type of fruit too. Add any other seasonings you like and pour over the top of each piece of meat so it’s evenly coated. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. For longer marinating, move to the fridge.

How Long Can You Marinate Meat In Citrus Juice?

You can marinate steaks and tougher meats in citrus for up to 6 hours in the fridge. Longer than that and the citric acid can start breaking down the texture too much. Usually, acidic marinades are only used for several hours for the best results.

If you just want to add flavor to meat that’s already tender, such as chicken breasts or pork chops, then you only need to let it marinate for a short 10-15 minutes before cooking. You can also add acids to marinades near the end if you are using other ingredients to marinate.

Keep in mind that if you leave other less fibrous meat marinating in an acidic mixture for too long, it could make it mushy and fall apart when you cook it. 

Whichever meat you are using, check it regularly to make sure the texture is as you intend.

Will Lime Juice Cook Steak?

Lime juice does not cook steak but the high acidity helps tenderize meat by breaking down the proteins. During the marination process, this assists in making the meat more succulent. It also breaks down fat cells, allowing them to absorb more flavor.

You may have heard of ceviche which is raw seafood “cooked” in lime juice and served without any cooking by heat. It is the same process of breaking down the protein to change the texture.

The lime juice may start to turn the steak and other proteins a different color, but this is not ‘cooking’ it as such. You still need to apply heat to the meat either via pan or grill in order to cook it thoroughly. 


I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about some of my tips for using citrus juices to help tenderize your meat.

As well as making tough cuts more pleasant to eat, this also works well as a money-saving hack. Many of us look at buying cheaper cuts of meat as a way to keep costs down – but these are usually tough.

One way to tenderize is to pound it with a meat hammer or rolling pin, another is to use lime, orange, or lemon juices as part of a marinade to soak your produce in before putting it on the grill or in the oven.

I’ve found that using fruit juices as a marinade definitely helps to make my steaks more tender and juicy when I soak them for 30 minutes or so before cooking.

Just remember to follow good food hygiene when handling raw meat and to cook it thoroughly to avoid the risk of food poisoning, especially when preparing anything other than the best beef steaks.

Have any questions? Ask me in the comment section below and I’ll get back to you.

Tom Hambly

Tom Hambly is the founder of Boss The Kitchen. With a background in cooking and building websites, he enjoys running this site to help other cooks improve. About Tom Hambly.

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