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There's an old butchers' saying: Roasts are for Saturday, and Sunday too, but chops will take you the weekdays through.
Okay, I just made that saying up. But it could be an old butchers' saying, for all I know. Roasts—think prime rib, bone-in pork loin, or a roast chicken, for instance—take a bit of extra time and attention. Chops, on the other hand—say, pork chops, chicken breast, or steak—cook quickly and easily. Tuesday-night fare.
But there's one exception to the rule: pork tenderloin. It's the one roast that sounds fancy (it's got the words "tender" and "loin" in it, after all) and tastes fancy, but cooks up in just about the same amount of time as it takes to cook a couple of chicken breasts. Here's one of my favorite ways to do it.
I start by soaking dried Mission figs in a little bourbon. (Technically this is rye whiskey I'm using here, but either will do.) If you want to make yourself seem just a tad more sophisticated, even a splash of Cognac or other brandy will work. If you want to seem both sophisticated and wise, you'll soak a few more figs than you need for the recipe. For sampling purposes only, of course.
As the figs rest, they'll plump up a little bit while simultaneously transferring some of their flavor to the whiskey. Set them aside for now; their character won't show up again until the miraculous third act of this film.
The next step will be familiar to anyone who's been following Food Lab articles for the last year or so: adding gelatin to store-bought broth. Store-bought chicken broth can have decent flavor, but it lacks body. Adding a packet of powdered gelatin to a cup of broth gives it that boost in richness it needs to make a really nice, glossy sauce.
Next up: the pork. With most roasts, I'll employ a technique I call the reverse sear, which I first used on a thick-cut steak recipe I wrote for Cook's Illustrated back in 2007. The basic premise is to start by gently heating up a large cut of meat in a low-temperature oven until it's perfectly evenly cooked throughout, then finish it by searing it rapidly over high heat to give it a browned crust. Since that first time, we've used the same technique on everything from beef tenderloin to pork roast, to great effect. But attempting it on pork tenderloin proved pointless: No matter how evenly cooked you can get it in the first place, it inevitably overcooks and dries out during its final stint on the stovetop.
For this pork tenderloin, searing at the beginning is the way to go—though, even then, simply throwing a fresh-from-the-butcher tenderloin into a skillet proves a bad idea for efficient browning. Much better is to first dredge the seasoned pork tenderloin in cornstarch. Not only does cornstarch brown fairly well on its own, it also helps manage moisture from within the pork, keeping it from cooling down the pan too rapidly.
Bonus: The cornstarch also adds a great rough surface for the glaze-like sauce we're making to cling to. I like to think of it as the layer of primer you apply to a wall before you paint it.
Once the pork has been seared on all sides, I remove it from the skillet, then start building my sauce, starting with some minced shallots that I sauté in the residual fat. After that, in go my bourbon-soaked figs.
Again, if you are wise, you'll completely remove your pan from the heat source before adding the bourbon and figs. If you are me, you'll do it directly over your most powerful burner going at full blast and instantly ignite the fumes from the bourbon, sending a massive fireball hurtling toward your kitchen ceiling.
The correct way to flambé is to add the alcohol off-heat, let the vigorous simmering die down, then very carefully ignite the pan by tilting it toward a live flame from a low burner or by using a kitchen lighter, shaking the pan until the alcohol finishes burning off. Flambéing will not only help your sauce reduce faster, but will also create new flavors in the pan, which will make their way into your sauce in the end.
After the fire dies down, I add my chicken stock and gelatin mixture, along with some whole grain mustard and a big glug of maple syrup to bring sweetness and balance to the rest of the ingredients.
You can finish the dish by cooking the pork through in the oven and reducing the sauce separately in the skillet, but since I'm going to be glazing the pork anyway (and thus am not too interested in keeping a crisp crust), I find it much easier to simply kill two birds with one stone by letting the pork finish cooking in the sauce as it reduces.
I return it to the pan and cook, turning the pork every so often until it reaches 135°F before I remove it to finish off the sauce. (I like my pork rosy-pink, juicy, and medium rare—you can cook it longer if you prefer it more white and well done.)
While the pork rests, I add a couple of pats of butter to the skillet, swirling it and reducing until it forms a rich, jammy glaze. When you add the pork back to the pan, you'll see why that cornstarch was such a good idea. It helps your pork cling to a thick, flavor-packed coating of the glaze.
Because the pork rested while the sauce was finishing, there's barely any need to let it rest once more before digging in. And that's a good thing, because that weeknight prime-time TV ain't gonna watch itself.
Wait, we just ate this on a Tuesday? Yup. And we were in and out of the kitchen in just about half an hour. Not bad.
In fact, there's an old regional saying that's been passed on from butcher to butcher in Iowa, America's largest pork-producing state: On a Tuesday in Dubuque or a Sunday in Des Moines, any day's a good day for a porker's tenderloin.
Fine, I made that one up, too. But let's work on adopting it, okay?
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