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.
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.
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.
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.
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