Dry Cured Pork Tenderloin

Dry cured pork tenderloin
Dry cured pork tenderloin

Dry cured pork tenderloin is delicious.  Learning to make it is easy and I also think important.  Dry cured meats were once an important staple in our diets simply because we did not have any other way to preserve meats.  This is an art form that has slowly been dying.  It is a shame to forget the past.  For the record this is technically a salumi, a dried whole muscle.  If we were to dice the meat and let it ferment before drying we would be making a salami.  This is much easier to make than a salami as we get to skip the fermentation step.

The key to successfully dry curing meat is to make the meat an inhospitable host to harmful bacteria while still keeping it palatable.  We are going to use multiple techniques to make sure that no bacteria wants to hang out in our tenderloin.  The first step is that we aren’t even going to let Mr. Bacteria know about our tenderloin; it’s going to be our little secret.  The second step is the addition of salt and nitrite throughout the tenderloin; bacteria do not like this.  The third step is an alcohol rub to make sure any bugs on the surface have been dealt with.  The final step is to remove water from the tenderloin.  Bacteria needs water to live; get the water content low enough and bacteria doesn’t stand a chance.

Please be aware that we are taking steps to eliminate any food safety issues related to bacteria.  This process does not address food safety as related to trichinosis.  If you are concerned about trichinosis then before you start this process you need to throw your tenderloin in the freezer for two weeks.  If you decide to freeze the meat make sure it is completely thawed before the cure is applied otherwise you will have very uneven penetration.  

The first step is to get clean everything that will come into contact with the tenderloin; your knife, cutting board and hands (especially under your fingernails).  This meat is clean when it comes out of the packaging.  From the moment it leaves the packaging it is ripe for contamination by bacteria.  Don’t help the bacteria out by putting your dirty hands on this thing.  Take your whole concept of sanitation up a full notch for this exercise.  Hit your cutting board with a little bit of bleach, wash your hands for two minutes with hot soapy water.  If you are highly concerned about safety you could wear a pair of plastic food service gloves while you are working but that is probably overkill.  It’s pretty easy to not worry about bacterial contamination when the bacteria never get introduced in the first place.

Once you have everything clean, you will need to trim the tenderloin.  You will need to remove the silverskin as well as any pieces of surface fat.  You don’t have to go crazy about the surface fat but it really does not cure very well.  Next you will need to try to get your meat into a somewhat uniform shape.  A tenderloin has a fat end and a skinny end and you want to even this out.  This meat is going to hang and dehydrate for a couple of weeks and you would like the rate of moisture loss to be somewhat consistent across the tenderloin.  Otherwise the skinny end will end up like pork jerky while the fat end is still drying.  On the tenderloin below I just had to trim off some of the flap on the fat end.  Every tenderloin is a little different so you will just need to use your best judgment.

Pork tenderloin being trimmed
Evening up the meat by trimming the flap.
Pork tenderloin ready to be put in cure.
Pork tenderloin ready to be put in cure.

Next we apply a cure.  Our cure for the tenderloin is pretty basic and I always make mine on a weight basis: 453 grams non-iodized salt, 225 grams cane sugar and 50 grams of pink salt. Make sure all of the components are well mixed.  Pink salt is a mixture of 93.5% salt and 6.5% sodium nitrite which has been colored pink to prevent any confusion with regular table salt.  Pink salt is very cheap but can be hard to find.  Shop around at sporting goods stores and look in the meat processing area where they are selling things like meat slicers and jerky kits.  An alternative to making your own cure is to use a commercial product like Morton Tender Quick.   I don’t measure how much cure I put on my tenderloins but I would guess it to be about three tablespoons.  I make sure the tenderloin is well coated on all sides and really press the cure into the surface.   After the cure is applied the tenderloin goes into a two gallon zip top plastic bag and then into a refrigerator for two days.  I try to make sure the tenderloin is wrapped tightly inside the bag to help any expelled liquid stay in contact with the meat.  After two days you can poke the tenderloin through the bag and feel that it is much firmer than when you started.  The increase in firmness is the result of the cure doing its work.

Tenderloin in cure mix
Tenderloin coated in cure mix.

After two days remove the tenderloin from the bag, rinse with water to remove any cure left on the surface and pat dry with a paper towel.  I will then place the tenderloin in a shallow bowl and coat it with one ounce of bourbon.  Pour off the excess bourbon and add a dusting of black pepper.  The bourbon adds flavor and helps the pepper adhere to the meat.  More importantly, the alcohol will sanitize the surface of the meat.  This is the third layer of protection against bacterial contamination.

 

Tenderloin coated in pepper.
After rubbing with bourbon, the tenderloin is coated in pepper.

At this point I weigh the tenderloin, loosely tie it with twine and hang it to dry.  The only reason I tie the meat is to have a piece of string that I can use in hanging; I am not trying to help them hold their shape.  Hanging the meat to dry can be tricky.  The ideal drying environment is about 55F and 75% relative humidity.  In certain parts of the country these are ambient conditions during parts of the year and you can simply hang the tenderloin on the back porch.  These conditions are also very similar to what some people have in their basements.   Personally I dry my tenderloins in an old refrigerator which is slightly modified to be a tolerable curing chamber.

Tenderloin hanging to dry
Tenderloin hanging to dry

The drying conditions are specified in order to make sure the meat has the ability to slowly and evenly lose moisture.  Try to envision the process as the tenderloin needs to sweat.  You want moisture to be drawn out of the meat, come to the surface and slowly evaporate.  If the temperature is too high, or the humidity is too low, what can happen is a very rapid dehydration of the meat surface.  The surface will become hardened and the moisture in the middle of the tenderloin will be stuck.

A plain refrigerator is a very poor curing chamber.  The warmest it will ever get is a little over 40F and the humidity will be extremely low (around 20%).  I modified my refrigerator by plugging it into a timer.  I have the timer set to cycle such that the refrigerator has power for one hour and then no power for seven.  Depending upon the ambient conditions in my garage the temperature drifts between 40F and 68F during these cycles.  A single constant temperature is preferred but I have learned to live with what I have.  To help keep the humidity high in the refrigerator I have added a large plastic bowl of salt water.  The large exposed surface area helps put water into the air while the salt prevents the water from turning into a bacterial breeding ground.  It is important to use a plastic bowl.  As the water evaporates from the bowl it will leave behind a ring of salt.  The salt will eat through an aluminum pan at an amazingly fast rate!  My curing chamber is good enough for tenderloins which typically only need to hang for two weeks.  For larger cuts (whole loins, hams, etc) you would want to have a more controlled setup.

There is a good chance that your tenderloin will take on some mold while it is drying.  I have found that if I tie them too tight I will get a lot of mold where the string is pressing into the meat.  This is because the moisture gets stuck between the string and the meat and serves as a great incubation spot.  Green mold is annoying but can be removed by gently wiping with a paper towel dampened with cider vinegar.  Black mold is bad; don’t mess with it.  Go ahead and throw the meat away rather than take a risk.  White mold is good; in fact some producers will intentionally add a starter culture of white mold.  Some people believe a nice coat of white mold helps the meat evaporate water more evenly while others think it adds an authentic rustic look.  Most importantly, if your meat is completely covered in a case of a beneficial mold which you know to be safe, there is nowhere on the meat for green or black mold to establish a colony.

You want the tenderloins to hang until they have lost about 30% of their weight.  The one I am showing weighed 500 grams when it was hung so it will be ready to eat when it reaches 350 grams.  Depending upon your drying conditions this may take between ten and twenty one days.  Once your tenderloin has reached the target weight you are done; you are now in possession of a perfectly cured piece of meat!  When you shave off a slice it should be a uniform rosy pink throughout and not be squishy or feel raw in the middle.  It will be slightly chewy, a little salty and taste like concentrated pork.  I’ll eat this out of hand after shaving off a few thin slices.  You can also fancy it up by drizzling very thin slices with some nice olive oil and serving with a good crusty bread and hard cheese.

If you want to try making a cured pork tenderloin yourself and can’t find pink salt in your town here is a link for Pink Curing Salt on Amazon

Sliced and ready to eat
Sliced and ready to eat
Tenderloin at the end of drying
After two weeks of hanging

Breaded pork tenderloin sandwich

There is an old joke about people in Indiana being a little bit confused.  It goes, “South Bend is in the north, North Vernon is in the south and French Lick isn’t what you think.”

And so it goes with their beloved breaded pork tenderloin sandwich.  Indiana is nuts over this sandwich and not without reason.  It’s meaty, crunchy, delicious and cheap.  One thing it isn’t though is made from pork tenderloin.  This classic sandwich is actually made from a breaded tenderized pork loin.  It’s easy to see how this cut shortened to its current form and I am not on a mission to correct people’s pronunciation of a sandwich.  This is important if you want to make this sandwich at home because if you start with the wrong piece of meat you are going to get frustrated and not know why.

One of the things that makes the sandwich great is the balance between the meatiness of the loin and the crunchiness of the breading.  If you start with a pork tenderloin you will never be able to reach the right balance.  The meat will become so thin by the time you get it pounded out to sandwich size that really all you will taste is the breading.

It also does not make much sense to take tender cut like the tenderloin and tenderize it further.  The loin is much tougher (and cheaper) and benefits from a nice pounding!

The following is a GREAT documentary on the breaded pork tenderloin sandwich.  Watch and enjoy, it really is great.

Pork Tenderloin Marinades

A great pork tenderloin marinade is as follows:

  • ½ cup of Jack Daniels
  • ½ cup of canola oil
  • ½ cup Creole mustard
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp each of salt, black pepper and thyme

If you are wary of a marinade with such a strong alcohol component then the next marinade is an excellent alternative.

  • ¼ lb melted butter
  • ½ cup Worcestershire sauce
  • ¼ cup cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • ½ of a small onion, diced (between ¼ and ½ cup)
  • 3 cloves of garlic, smashed
  • 1 tsp each of salt, black pepper and thyme

For all marinades make sure all components are well blended (dissolved where applicable) and allow the tenderloin to marinated at least four hours in the refrigerator with overnight being preferable.  Please note…marinades do not penetrate very deeply into the tenderloin.  To get the most benefit from the marinade it is sugested to butterfly the tenderloin before marination so as much surface area is exposed as possible.

Here are a few more good pork tenderloin marinades to try.

Teriyaki Marinade:  You will find a ton of variations on this recipe but what they all have in common is a base of soy sauce with some sweetness added to balance out the salt.  Typically there are some aromatics like onion, garlic and ginger thrown in to make it interesting.    A typical marinade time is four to six hours.  If you plan on marinating overnight you probably want to use a reduced sodium soy sauce to keep the meat from becoming too salty.  You can get some interesting flavor profiles by switching things up on the sweet component.  Molasses would give a deeper flavor while pineapple juice would really brighten it up.  I do not hesitate to use maple syrup in any recipe that calls for honey.

Teriyaki Marinade #1

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
  • 2teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 2 green onions, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

Teriyaki Marinade #2

  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon crushed garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Balsamic Vinegar and Olive Oil Marinade:  There are two basic variations on this marinade but the core components in both are balsamic vinegar, olive oil and herbs.  If you are working with fresh herbs and high quality vinegar and oil I would keep things simple and stop right there.  If you need to add a little extra punch to the marinade then two additional components are typically either honey or mustard.  Obviously a honey mustard mix works pretty well!  A typical marinade time is four to six hours.  If you plan on marinating overnight you probably are okay since the balsamic has a relatively low acid content.

Balsamic vinegar and olive oil marinade #1

  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 6 large sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • 6 large sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

(Feel free to use oregano and garlic as well)

Balsamic vinegar and olive oil marinade #2

1/2 Cup Olive Oil
1/4 Cup Balsamic Vinegar
2 T Honey
3 Garlic Cloves
1 T chopped fresh rosemary
2 T Dijon Mustard

The honey to mustard ratio is something to play around with to suit your taste.  Feel free to omit one of the other and you will still have a great marinade.

Lemon Herb Marinade:  If you are fortunate enough to have a supply of fresh Meyer lemons then this is a marinade that has to be tried at least once.  When I use this I always reserve a portion of the fresh marinade to drizzle on the pork after it has been grilled and sliced.  Let your tenderloin marinate for four to six hours.  I would not recommend marinating overnight due to the high acidity of the lemon juice.  If you do not have fresh lemons skip this recipe; bottled lemon juice isn’t worth the time.

  • 1 lemon, zest grated
  • 3/4 cup lemon juice
  • Olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp salt

Best in the World Speed Marinade:  This is one of my favorite marinades partly because of the flavor and partly because I get to play more in the kitchen.  I inject this marinade into the tenderloin with a syringe and let it rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour to let it distribute throughout the meat.  I don’t have a set amount for how much I inject; as much as it takes up and every piece of meat is different.  If I had to guess I would say I inject a little over ¼ cup.

  • 1 14oz can of chicken broth (not reduced sodium)
  • ¼ cup maple syrup
  • ¼ cup honey

I avoid other herbs and spices in this since they will not readily dissolve. I don’t want my injection needle to clog and I don’t want to leave streaks inside the tenderloin.  This combination of salty and savory from the broth with the sweetness of the sugars is great.  By injecting you know you will end up with a juicy piece of meat.  An added benefit is that the sugars are on the inside of the meat which means they won’t char when you are grilling.  This works equally well for chicken breasts as it does for pork tenderloins

To understand what makes a good pork tenderloin marinade it is instructive to look at the similarities between these two recipes and to consider how they are both very different from brining.  Whereas brine delivers flavor from salt water, marinades deliver flavor from oils.

There are many great flavors that compliment pork; garlic, rosemary, onions, sage, mustard, etc.  The flavor components in these ingredients are often in the form of organic molecules that are simply not soluble in water.  In order to get the essential oils from an orange peel into the pork we must first extract that flavor into the liquid phase which can then be infused into the pork.  It turns out that although oils are not very soluble in water, they are highly soluble in other oils.  Thus the inclusion of oil or a fat in all basic marinade; they serve as a “flavor transfer agent” from the aromatics into the liquid.

Once the flavor is in the oil the oil needs to interact with the tenderloin.  The tenderloin will readily absorb water but will not take up much oil.  We overcome this through the inclusion of a component that sort of looks like an oil and sort of looks like water.  In the first marinade this component is the ethyl alcohol in the Jack Daniels, in the second marinade it is the acetic acid in the cider vinegar.  These compounds are the equivalent of diplomatic intermediates whose role is to bridge the two worlds of flavor from oils with solubility in water.

Both marinade recipes include a sweet component in the form of brown sugar.  Although the sweet is not a requirement it is a nice compliment to the savory aspect of the marinade.  Another sweet component that is an EXCELLENT addition for a pork marinade is the syrup from canned peaches. This is simply an extension of the fact that pork marries extremely well with fruit such as apples, apricots and even raspberries.  Another sweet component that is a real treat with tenderloin is real maple syrup.

So the fundamental recipe for any great marinade for pork tenderloin will include the following:

  • Flavors that match well with pork (garlic, rosemary, onions, sage, mustard)
  • A way to get the flavor components into liquid form (oil will dissolve them)
  • A way to transfer the flavors from the oil into the tenderloin (alcohol or vinegar)
  • A little sweet to add some balance.

In general try to have equal amounts of oil and vinegar or oil and alcohol.  Include as much of the aromatics as you like but try not to overwhelm your tenderloin.  Unlike a brine which will penetrate to the middle of the tenderloin, most marinades will only penetrate the outer ½ inch of the meat.  You will not get the same juiciness from a marinade as you will from a brine but the flavor impact will be much greater.

There are some recipes which are a cross between a marinade and a brine such as this one:

  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons sherry
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried minced onion
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pinch garlic powder

These recipes use the salt in the soy sauce to get a brined effect while still using the oil and alcohol to infuse the pork tenderloin with cinnamon, garlic and onion.

Brines

Brine is a super charged flavor delivery vehicle that can work wonders on pork.  I consider a brine to be the ultimate marinade and will always use one on tenderloin if I have planned far enough in advance.

In its most basic form a brine is simply salty water.  In order to balance out the saltiness it is common to add something sweet to the brine such as sugar, molasses or honey.  A great brine that I love to use on pork tenderloins is as follows:

  • 1 quart water
  • ¼ cup Kosher salt
  • 3 Tbs maple syrup (the real stuff, not flavored high fructose corn syrup)
  • If you don’t have maple syrup on hand then substitute with 1/4 cup of brown sugar.

Stir well to make sure all of the salt dissolves then pour this into a gallon zip top plastic bag and add the tenderloin.  Place the bag into a shallow dish (in case there is a little have a hole in the bag) and let the brine do its magic while it rests in the refrigerator.   At a minimum the meat needs to brine for three hours to allow it to fully penetrate the tenderloin.  I will typically brine overnight.

This is also a great pork loin brine or pork chop brine. Brine a pork loin for at least five hours. Pork chops are usually good after two hours.  If you wanted to make a cider brined pork loin or something similar all you would need to do is replace the water in the brine recipe above with an equal amount of apple cider.

In addition to bringing flavor, salt relaxes the proteins with meat and enables them to retain moisture.  Salt helps meat stay juicy.  In order for salt to work this magic it must first dissolve and then pass through the meat via osmosis.  The beauty of a brine is that the salt is already dissolved and can start going to work immediately.  Contrast this with applying salt in a rub where the solid salt must first be dissolved by a thin layer of liquid at the meat’s surface.  Brines are also highly efficient at delivering other flavors while the salt is relaxing those proteins.

After the tenderloin has brined make sure to give it a quick rinse to remove any extra salt from the surface of the meat.  You can either go ahead and cook the tenderloin or add another layer of flavor with your favorite rub.  If you decide to add a rub make sure it is very low in salt as the meat already has all of the salt it needs.

It’s pretty easy to add variety to the brine recipe above.  You can swap the maple syrup out for brown sugar or honey.  You can add more flavors by adding a few cloves of crushed garlic or some sage leaves.  I try to avoid adding orange or lemon juice to my brines as I don’t want the meat to be in contact with acidic solutions for prolonged periods.

Pork Tenderloin Rubs

My two favorite Pork Tenderloin Rubs

Coffee and Ancho rub

  •  3 Tbs coffee (fresh beans ground fine)
  • 2 Tbs ancho chile powder
  • 2 Tbs turbinado sugar
  • 1 Tbs kosher salt
  • 1 Tbs cumin
  • 1 tsp granulated onion
  • 1 tsp granulated garlic



Savory Smoked Paprika rub

  • 1 Tbs smoked paprika
  • 1 Tbs kosher salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp granulated onion
  • 1 tsp granulated garlic
  • 1 tsp turbinado sugar
  • 1 tsp Italian seasoning (dried oregano,marjoram, basil, etc)

 A Few More Pork Tenderloin Rubs

Rub #1: This has a bit of a Southwest flavor.  For best flavor toast whole seeds and crush them yourself.  Crumple the dried oregano between your fingers as you add it to the rub.

  • 1 Tbls kosher salt
  • 1 Tbls ground coriander
  • 1/2 Tbls ground cumin
  • 1/2 Tbls turbinado sugar
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • ½ tsp dried oregeno

Rub #2: A very bold, savory rub.  I actually prefer to use granulated onion and garlic but it is sometimes hard to find and I end up using the powdered product.

  • 1 tsp kosher
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp mustard powder (Coleman’s is my favorite)
  • 1 tsp chili powder (I use Gebhardt’s)
  • 1 tsp black pepper

Rub #3:  A very basic rub.  Rubs don’t have to be complicated to be great.  Due to the simplicity of the recipe make sure you pepper is freshly ground and the paprika is high quality.

  • 1 Tbs kosher salt
  • 1 tsp sweet Hungarian paprika
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp sugar



Rub #4: This rub is a bit more exotic than most and is a nice change in flavors.  Don’t use this rub in an attempt to use up an old bottle of curry powder.  All you’ll do is waste a nice piece of meat.

  • 1 Tbls salt
  • 1 Tbls curry powder (mild or hot)
  • 1 Tbls ground allspice
  • 1 Tbls ground coriander
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp ground cumin

Rub #5:  This is a pretty standard barbecue rub with a great balance between sweet and savory with a little bit of heat on the end.

  • 2 Tbls turbinado sugar
  • 1 Tbls onion salt
  • 1 Tbls garlic salt
  • 1 tsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • ½ tsp cayenne

Rub #6: This rub takes advantage of pork’s natural affinity for garlic and sage seasonings.  You could eliminate the sugar and use this rub for grilling.

  • 1 Tbls cane sugar
  • 1 Tbls garlic salt
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp dried, freshly crushed, sage (or 1 Tbls fresh and finely chopped)
  • 1 tsp dried, freshly crushed, thyme
  • ½ tsp black pepper

The rest of this post is about rubs in general.  The mixture of salt and seasonings that is referred to as a rub serves three main purposes.  It adds salt to the meat, it adds flavor to the meat and it gives the chef a reason to play in the kitchen.  To get the most out of your rub application consider the following tips.

Rub Tip #1: Understanding the role of salt.

Salt plays two major roles in a rub; it adds that salty flavor that our mouths are hard wired to crave and it helps tenderize the meat.  As the salt permeates the meat it actually helps the muscle fibers elongate and, for lack of a meaningful technical term, relax.  While the flavor enhancing aspect of a salt application is immediate the tenderizing aspect takes time, preferably overnight.  Luckily tenderloins are already incredibly tender so it’s not a big deal if your rub doesn’t get to penetrate overnight.

If you are working a salt restricted diet you can utilize a low salt rub.  If you are going the low salt route it is very important that you not overcook the tenderloin.  The more you cook the tenderloin the more the muscle fibers will contract.  Eventually the fibers will squeeze all of the moisture out of the meat leaving you with pork jerky.  As you do not have salt working to counteract this effect do yourself a favor and make sure you do not cook your tenderloin past 145F.

Tenderloin that has been brined will need a rub with very little if any salt as the brine has already infused plenty of salt throughout the meat.  Commercially pre-marinated tenderloins really don’t need a rub as the flavor profile (and salt) has been preloaded.

Rub Tip #2:  Use some mustard.

A trick that I learned in a barbecue class taught by a world champion, Paul Kirk, was to paint a light mustard slather onto your meat with a pastry brush before the rub is applied.  We are talking a very thin coat of plain yellow mustard here, nothing fancy like a Dijon or Creole and not a thick dripping mess.  You would think that the mustard would overpower the meat but it absolutely does not.  Instead the mustard helps the rub adhere to the tenderloin insuring an even coating.  During cooking the mustard flavor essentially disappears.  I know this is completely counter-intuitive, you would think the mustard would be a dominant flavor.  It isn’t.  I have no idea why not.

Rub Tip #3:  Keep it simple and fresh

What I discovered in my rub making adventures is that freshness of ingredients and balance of flavor are two critical factors.  I have to be honest here; fresh is much easier to say than to do.  There is no point in adding something to a rub if it is three years old and tastes like chalk.  However I am not organized enough to remember exactly how old my spices are.  I have ten to fifteen little bottles of herbs and spices in my pantry.  When exactly did I open that bottle of paprika?  Balance is equally challenging.  Some of the more advanced rubs out there need to be scaled up to the two cup range to allow for the teaspoon of cinnamon to blend nicely with the other rub components.  That’s fine except now you are stuck with two cups of rub which, even if you really like it, will get monotonous after a while.

This brings me to my final tip….

Rub Tip #4: Support the little guy.

Go to the local grocery store, head to the spice aisle and look for rubs that are being marketed by the little guy.  There are usually four to five rubs being sold with simple labels and silly names.  Give them a try.  If an average Joe went through all of the trouble of scaling up a recipe, finding someplace to package it and someone to market it, then chances are the rub is at least as good as what you would put together at home.  Buy a small container and give it a try.  If you like it, great!  If you don’t like it, no big deal, you wasted $3.00 and can still fall back on the basic rub recipe above.  Someone is trying to live the dream and make a living selling a rub they are passionate about.  We all have dreams; let’s support each other.

Please let me know if you find a great pork tenderloin rub and I will add it to the list!

Safe Cooking

This is another topic that I am rather passionate about; pink pork!  We have been trained for generations to shun pork that has not been cooked to a uniform dull gray.  Please stop.

First of all, even the US government has come around to agreeing that that overcooked pork is nonsense.  In the summer of 2011 the FDA officially revised its food safety guidance and declared that pork which has been cooked to an internal temperature of 145F and allowed to rest for three minutes is perfectly safe for consumption.  This lowers the previous guidance by a full fifteen degrees from 160F (which is still in effect for ground pork products).

Make sure you get this right and buy an accurate and fast digital thermometer. The one I have linked to costs less than $20 and gives a reading in 5 seconds.

The first step to overcoming our fears related to pink pork is to understand where that fear came from.  I will talk about pork specifically to start and then about meat in general.  The initial prohibition against pink pork (or even pork at all for some religions) was related to the fact that pigs are omnivores; they will eat anything.  To the point, if a pig can find a rat it will eat it.  This makes pigs highly susceptible to infection from rodent borne parasites, the trichnia worm in particular.  If a person ate pork from a pig that had been infected with the trichnia worm they could develop a very nasty parasitic infection known as trichinosis.  To make sure the parasite was killed before consumption it became standard for pork to be cooked to at least 165F.  If you are interested in learning more about trichinosis the Center for Disease Control has a great write up.

Fast forward to today and you get one of the few benefits of our “factory farm” approach to modern meat production.  Commercial pig operations keep their hogs under highly controlled (albeit confined) conditions which simply do not allow them to eat rodents and become infected.  The probability of a piece of commercial pork (at least in the US) being infected with trichnia worms is now ridiculously close to zero.  How close to zero?  Well, close enough that the FDA says it’s okay not to worry about it anymore.

There are occasionally cases of trichinosis still reported in this country.  These cases arise from consumption of undercooked meat from wild hogs, poorly raised small farm hogs and meat from another omnivore, bears.

A second fear we inherently have in eating undercooked meat is food poisoning from bacterial pathogens.  Is this concern still real? Absolutely.  If you eat undercooked dirty meat you run the risk of food poisoning.  Please realize though that a critical factor is contaminated meat.  The muscles of an animal are inherently clean; they get contaminated during processing.  Meat that has been minimally processed is infinitely cleaner than highly processed meat.

Consider a piece of meat such as the tenderloin; it is a whole muscle that is removed from the animal and vacuum wrapped.  There really isn’t much chance for contamination and if any is present it is on the surface of the meat.  As the surface of the meat is exposed to the highest heat during cooking, any surface bound pathogens will be thoroughly destroyed.  Contrast this with a pile of pork trimmings which have been sitting around for a day and are then processed through a meat grinder and made into sausage.  Every single portion of the sausage meat is now potentially contaminated.  Am I going to cook my sausage to 165F; you better believe it!

Get on board and help start the pink pork revolution.  While there is still a case for cooking ground pork products to high temperatures the need does not exist for pork tenderloins.  Let’s congratulate the FDA on giving some good advice.

Nutrition

This is the part I love; pork tenderloin is diet food.  If you are a carnivore working on controlling your weight then you are painfully familiar with boneless skinless chicken breasts.  They were fun for the first few weeks and by now you are sick of looking at them.  An equivalent amount of grilled pork tenderloin is lower in calories and fat than chicken breast and has nearly the same amount of protein.  There is absolutely no reason to not be cooking this stuff.

One of the challenges when trying to compare the nutritional analysis of different foods is that the portion sizes are never consistent between products and there is no solid benchmark as to what the sizes mean.  I have tackled this problem by taking the nutritional information for various lean proteins and scaling them against a standard grill classic, a Johnsonville Bratwurst.  According to Johnsonville, a single serving of a bratwurst weighs 82 grams, contains 260 calories, 21 grams of fat and 14 grams of protein.  So how do the traditional lean proteins stand up against this benchmark?  The information is given below assuming a 82 grams serving size.

Food                                                  Calories                Fat          Protein

  • Bratwurst                            260                         21g         14g
  • Chicken breast                    135                         3g           25g
  • Pork tenderloin                   120                         3g           21g
  • Canned tuna in water         104                         2g           18g
  • Tofu                                      83                           1g           8g
  • Egg Whites                          40                           0              7g

I believe the tenderloin deserves a little more appreciation on this front with nutritional qualities similar to chicken breast and tuna fish.  Repeated studies have demonstrated that eating protein helps you feel full longer than eating an equivalent caloric amount of carbohydrates.  Supposedly this is because it takes the body longer to break down and digest proteins than carbs.  The trick is to increase your protein intake while keeping your fat intake at a minimal level.  I will humbly suggest that eating pork tenderloin fits that description perfectly.   Obviously if you are making fried tenderloin sandwiches or are wrapping it in bacon then you can throw these numbers out the window.

There is another underappreciated aspect of tenderloin on the diet front, that of creativity and fun.  At its core, the key to successfully losing weight involves diet and exercise.  One of the things that make this hard is that dieting is very stressful.  We are constantly being reminded, either by others or ourselves, of all the things we should not eat.  The end result is a monotonous diet of egg white omelets and grilled chicken salad (no dressing please) that no sane person can tolerate for more than a few weeks.  The leanness of tenderloin allows us to have another creative, delicious outlet to break the stressful monotony of dieting.  Does pork tenderloin stuffed with spinach and feta cheese served with sides of herb roasted new potatoes and grilled summer squash sound like diet food to you?  It should.

Trimming and Butterfly

The first thing to do when working with pork tenderloin is removal of the silverskin.  The silverskin is a tough grayish/white membrane that will not get tender during cooking.  Go ahead and get rid of it now so you won’t be picking it out of your teeth later.

Start by sliding your knife under the thin end of the silverskin making sure the blade is parallel to the tenderloin.  Tilt the blade upwards very slightly, and then gently slide the blade the length of the skin.  Try to think of this as using your knife to peel the silverskin away rather than cutting it off.

Silverskin on a pork tenderloin
Silverskin on a pork tenderloin

Chances are that you will not get the entire membrane on the first attempt and that you also took some meat away with the skin.  Go ahead and finish removing the membrane and don’t worry about the cosmetics.  Nobody will ever notice if the tenderloin looks ugly on the bottom; everybody will notice if they have a chewy membrane in their mouth.

Removing silverskin from a pork tenderloin
Step one in removing the silverskin.
keep removing the silverskin from the tenderloin
You won't get all of the silverskin with one cut.

Now that the silverskin is gone you can start thinking about brines, marinades and rubs if your plan is to make grilled pork tenderloin.   Alternatively you could do a little more knife work in preparation for stuffing or making medallions or cutlets.

If you want to stuff the tenderloin then it has to be opened up and pounded flat.  Start by slicing the tenderloin lengthwise; you want your knife to go about two thirds of the way into the tenderloin but definitely not all the way through.  Now you open up the meat, place it between two layers of plastic wrap, and gently pound it out to your desired thickness.  This is something easier to learn by watching than reading.  The first video from the National Pork Board shows how to make the initial cut and pound out the meat to a medium thickness.  In the second video the meat has already been pounded out but I wanted you to see how flat you can get these things.  These are two very different approaches to stuffed pork tenderloin.

Pork tenderloin with all silverskin removed
Here is what it looks like after all of the silverskin has been removed.

Making medallions (for wrapping in bacon, etc) or cutlets is pretty straight forward.   For medallions you will want them all to be about the same thickness so they will cook at equal rates.  Start at the thick end of the tenderloin and cut off a medallion of your desired thickness (typically one inch thick is pretty handy).  Now use that medallion as a guide for the remainder of your cuts and you should end up with medallions of identical thickness (the last one might be kind of ugly).   To make cutlets for pan cooking you simply take a medallion and pound it out as shown above to your desired thickness.

 
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Buying tenderloins

Whole pork tenderloins will typically weigh a little over a pound and be relatively free of large surfaces of fat deposits.  Like the filet mignon, this cut of meat is very lean and extremely tender.

This cut is often confused with the loin, and while the loin is excellent in its own right, the two cuts do not benefit equally for the same treatments.  The loin is easy to distinguish from the tenderloin by the size and the fat.  A whole loin can weigh over ten pounds and almost always has a solid fat cap on one side.  The loin is typically divided into more consumer friendly cuts such a half loins, pork loin roasts and boneless pork chops.  Again, loins are great but they are not tenderloins; you have to treat them different so it is important to know what you have.  The picture below shows a pork loin on the right and a two pack of pork tenderloins on the left.  They look pretty similar and people will often grab the loin thinking they are getting the tenderloin.

Pork Tenderloin with a pork loin
Pork Tenderloin on the left.

However once you open the packages up you can really see the difference.  Again, the loin is on the right but now the two tenderloins are obviously different.  Pay attention when you’re shopping, it’s an easy mistake to make.

Two pork tenderloins and a loin
After the packages are opened.
There are a multitude of pork tenderloin products available at the meat case.  The simplest, and that which is getting harder to find, is the basic tenderloin two pack.  This package typically weighs about three pounds, contains two pork tenderloins and typically costs between nine and twelve dollars.  This product is slowly being displaced by “value added” products such as pre-marinated tenderloins, tenderloins “enhanced” with patented flavor solutions and pre-marinated pork loins that have been trimmed to look like tenderloins.  The existence of these “value added” products is a reality of the times and I will buy them occasionally.

It is pretty obvious when you are looking at a pre-marinated product that there is no point in messing around with brines, marinades and rubs; the flavor profile has been pre-loaded.  What is NOT obvious are tenderloins “enhanced” by injected flavor solutions as these will often look like plain tenderloins.  It is important to read your labels here as, just like pre-marinated tenderloins, there isn’t that much you can do to change the flavor profile of ones that have been “enhanced”.  Most Hormel pork products I find these days have been enhanced with a 12% solution but you can’t really tell without reading the fine print.

One of the shortcomings of tenderloins is that they don’t carry much of a flavor punch.  This is one reason that the pre-marinated products are so popular.  If you have the money an alternative to consider is buying tenderloins from that came from Berkshire hogs.  Berkshires are the Kobe beef of the pig world and have great marbling and flavor that simply is not available with the mass produced pork found in most supermarkets.  Unless you live close to an excellent butcher you will need to get these online.