As much as I love eating pork, I haven't always been the biggest fan of cooking it. In the past, it would constantly turn out too dry and too tough, especially whenever I would try to cook with pork loin. I knew it could be sumptuous and tender because I'd eaten it that way before, but somehow I just couldn't seem to make it a reality for myself.
Humbled by my inability to cook what should have been simple, I sought out pork loin-cooking advice from experts to find out what exactly I'd been doing wrong. My problem? I'd been trying to prepare pork loin the same way I'd prepare chicken or steak, even though it has a whole different set of needs. If you too have found yourself choking down a dry dinner more times than you'd like to admit, these are the tricks that will help you make a perfect pork loin, according to professional chefs.
Pork loin is infamously difficult to prepare because it dries out faster than other meat—keep it far, far away from your slow-cooker.
Because pork loin is a lean meat, it is lower in fat and therefore more prone to drying out, Christine Hazel, recent winner of Food Network's Chopped, tells SELF. She says you'll want to avoid cooking pork loin in a slow-cooker for this very reason. "The low heat for a long length of time renders a tough outcome," she explains. Something fattier, like pork shoulder or butt, is a better option for your slow-cooker needs.
To really ensure you don't end up with a tough pork loin, you have to pay close attention to the cooking times and temperatures, says Brandon Robinson, director of operations at Michael Jordan's Steak House in Connecticut, tells SELF. When it comes to other protein sources, like chicken and beef, you have a bit more leeway. They have more fat so they're harder to overcook and dry out in the first place, and even if you do, you can easily add them to a soup or pasta where no one will notice that they're overcooked. On the other hand, pork loin can go from perfectly cooked to too tough to chew in a matter of minutes, so it's definitely not the kind of protein that you can just set and forget.
Unlike with chicken or steak, you can't tell when it's finished just by looking at it. Always use a meat thermometer to be safe.
Using a meat thermometer is the most reliable way to know when your pork loin is done, because there aren't any trustworthy visual indicators of doneness as there are for chicken and beef. A bit of pinkness doesn't necessarily mean it's undercooked—in fact, it could be perfect at that point! Hazel says that as long as it's cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees F, it will be safe to eat. And frankly, it's so hard to tell if it's ready otherwise, I wouldn't recommend cooking pork unless you have a meat thermometer. Luckily, they tend to be pretty affordable, and if you don't already have one, you can buy one for less than $ 10 here.
Using a brine or a marinade will make your life so much easier.
If you're not confident in your cooking skills, there is one fool-proof way to guarantee your pork ends up on the tender side, even if you cook it too long: soak it in a brine or a marinade. According to Hazel, these kinds of preparations always produce the most tender outcomes. She gets the best results when she soaks her pork for two to six hours in a simple brine made of 1 cup salt and 2 quarts water, though you can also add herbs, peppercorns, sugar, bay leaves, and other seasonings or spices as you like.
A marinade is a bit different from a brine because it relies on ingredients like vinegar and citrus to tenderize the meat and add flavor, but the two techniques produce a similarly tender final product. In fact, marinades are really what revolutionized the way I cook pork loins, because they'll still be tender even if you cook them a bit too long, so you have a room for error.
And you can make a marinade out of whatever you have in your pantry! For this story, I marinated a couple pork loins in a simple mixture of soy and fish sauce, rice vinegar, chili flakes in the fridge overnight. To be honest, I accidentally over-cooked them by a minute or two, but it was still tender and juicy thanks to my marinade.
Cook pork loin over a high heat to develop a beautiful, brown crust.
"You want to get the pork in contact with high heat, so you can create a beautiful crust that provides a delicious and complex flavor," Robison explains, "[and] you can achieve this by searing in a pan on high heat, or roasting in an oven around 425 degrees."
Then finish it in the oven so it doesn't overcook.
Immediately after that golden crust starts to form on your pork loin, remove it from the high heat or the hot oven so that it doesn't accidentally overcook. If it hasn't reached that internal temperature of 145 degrees F, Robison says you should transfer it to an 300 degree F oven until it's finished. That low heat will guarantee it doesn't dry out in a matter of seconds, like it might on a high heat.
Use your new pork loin knowledge to make these tasty recipes.
Roasted Pork Loin With Apple Jus and Sweet Potato
In this recipe, you'll sear the pork on the stovetop until it gets that crispy, brown crust, and then you'll transfer it to the oven to finish cooking. Get the recipe here.
Pretzel-Crusted Pork Schnitzel
A super simple brine keeps this pork dinner tender on the inside and crunchy on the outside. Get the recipe here.
One-Skillet Pork Loin Medallions
This recipe calls for store-bough pre-marinated pork, but you can just do the marinating yourself if you prefer. Get the recipe here.