Pork tenderloin has the truly uncanny ability to somehow be the best or worst cut of meat. When done right, it can be tender, juicy and shockingly simple to make. But the bad versions can get stuck in our mind — the gray, tough, flavorless pork tenderloins of school lunches and pre-packaged marinated weeknight dinners. How can the same item have such disparate results?
The key is in the fat — or lack thereof. One of things that makes pork tenderloin such a healthy and quick weeknight option is the fact that this long narrow piece of meat, which runs along a pig’s backbone, has no intramuscular fat. This means it can get dry and overcooked very quickly.
But the fear of overcooked tenderloin should not stop you from cooking this flavorful pork cut. If you keep a few key elements in mind, you’ll be reaching for pork tenderloin for your weeknight meals all the time.
Salt and moisture are key
Pork tenderloin is often coated in a marinade, but not all marinades are created equal. For a marinade to be effective at making meat more tender, it needs to actually seep into the cellular structure of the meat, and so many spices and flavorings we use in marinades don’t actually achieve that.
The most important element is always salt. Salt can help break down protein fibers in meat so that the meat is more tender and is able to retain more moisture. Even just sprinkling salt on your tenderloin for 15 minutes before cooking can have a dramatic effect on the juiciness of your tenderloin.
But there is another secret weapon for tenderloin if you want to go further: plain yogurt. The lactic acid in yogurt also contributes to breaking down proteins, so when combined with salt, it packs a one-two punch. And when combined with other flavorings and ingredients, you can create a moist, delectable barrier to allow for browning on the exterior while locking juices in. Marinade in salt and yogurt for a few minutes or even overnight to give yourself a defense against dry meat.
Cook it fast and hot — but keep an eye on temperature
The size and structure of a tenderloin make it perfect for cooking quickly on high heat. You want to be able to brown the outside while still keeping it a little pink on the inside. And that is best done by adding your tenderloin to a pan on medium high heat to brown for five to six minutes and then moving it into a 400 -degree oven for another 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the size.
If there was ever a time to use a meat thermometer, pork tenderloin is it. Unlike slow-cooked meat, tenderloin can go from juicy to dry in a matter of minutes. The salt and yogurt brine will give you a bit more wiggle room, but ultimately, it comes down to time and temperature. An internal temperature of 135 to 145 F will get you to that sweet spot of medium rare to medium — just keep in mind that the temperature will keep rising when you take it from the oven and let it rest.
If you want to slow-cook your tenderloin, you certainly can, but it is not the ideal cut of meat for it. The benefits of paying a bit extra for pork tenderloin versus a pork loin or another inexpensive cut of meat will be lost when you slow-cook it. So, why bother? Use tenderloin for quicker meals and buy something more cost effective when you want to slow-cook.
Add whatever flavorings you want
One of the big advantages of tenderloin is that it takes to flavor so well. I like to add an array of spices to my marinade for a simple meal. Herbes de provence and garlic powder are great for when you don’t want to think too much about flavor combinations. Other combinations like cumin, coriander and pepper, soy and ginger, or honey and hot sauce can all work great on a tenderloin.
You can even stuff a tenderloin: Cut it open, roll flavoring inside and cook it just as you would an unstuffed tenderloin. You can even wrap it in bacon if you want to add a bit of extra moisture.
As long as you are giving it time to rest with a bit of salt before cooking, the sky is the limit with pork tenderloin.