POUNDING meat is one of those kitchen tasks requiring some muscle, and the right tool makes all the difference. Too many thwacks cause tears in the meat and upper-arm distress, while the perfect pounder easily transforms a thick piece of meat into a thin slice that will cook quickly and evenly.
Kitchen stores have pounders in a number of styles. We found that in testing five on chicken breasts, their size and weight didn't matter so much; the grip and control of the tool were more important.
The trick to pounding is not to just whack away, but to give a glancing blow as in a murder mystery, so that the mallet/pounder strikes the meat at a slight angle and sort of slides away. This prevents tearing and pulverizing.
At first we laughed at a big honker of a hammer with a thick wooden handle and a menacing aluminum top. But it was surprisingly light on its feet at 1 pound. Its size made it clunky, but it did the job well, its 2 3/4-inch head flattening the chicken uniformly.
Another wooden mallet fared OK, but it was so light -- just one-half pound -- it took extra muscle.
Hammers, though, are so yesterday. We were thrilled with the prospect of a metal tool seemingly made just for paillards with a round 3 3/4-inch head and long arm. But with each move, it felt like we were smacking the chicken, which tended to stick to it. At a little more than 1 1/2 pounds, it felt heavier -- we couldn't get a good grip on the hard metal handle.
Thankfully, there was a stamp-style pounder. We gripped its short handle, and its nearly flat, heavy metal bottom did the work. The bottom of this pounder, which weighed 1 1/2 pounds, was rounded for even smoothing at the edges.
A similar pounder with a thick, marble bottom and round wooden handle was too heavy and hard to handle and created a suction-effect with the chicken. At 1 3/4 pounds, the pounder also left a round indent with each pound. This one might look good in a well-outfitted kitchen, but we think pounders look best in the hands of well-armed cooks.
The power mallet
What's the difference: Big and brawny, this is lighter than it looks and not as Neanderthal.
What we thought: It was surprisingly easy to use, flattening meat with quick, easy blows. One of our favorites.
How much: $7.40 at Surfas in Culver City.
What's the difference: Light with a thin handle, this mallet is more croquet-like and not quite as serious.
What we thought: It worked well enough, but we didn't want to have to pound quite so much.
How much: $4.95 at Sur la Table stores.
Good in theory, but ...
What's the difference: Specialization. Designed for paillard-making, it had a big round head for flattening just so.
What we thought: We just couldn't get it to do the job. Our wrists hurt, our arms hurt, our chicken took a beating.
How much: $14 to $18 at Surfas and Williams-Sonoma catalog.
Stamp of approval
What's the difference: Ergonomics. This felt good as we gripped it, playfully pounding like children with rubber stamps.
What we thought: Great results with no sticking or tearing. A winner.
How much: $13.75 at Surfas.
Marbled good looks
What's the difference: Weight. Heavy, unforgiving -- but hey, it looks great.
What we thought: We didn't get the marble, which looked like something for a Roman column.
How much: $34.95 at Sur la Table stores.