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Small enough to cook relatively quickly, but large and elegant enough to make a centerpiece roast, pork tenderloin is the kind of dish to pull out when you're feeling extra fancy on a weeknight. Sous vide is the most foolproof way to get it on the table with consistently great flavor and a buttery, ultra-tender texture.
The Food Lab's Complete Guide to Sous Vide Pork Tenderloin
Why Cook Pork Tenderloin Sous Vide?
It may seem obvious to say it, but pork tenderloin is the beef tenderloin of the pork world, and it comes with all of the same features, both good and bad. On the good side is the fact that it's extremely tender—the tenderest cut of meat on the hog. On the bad side? Well, as a muscle that's rarely used during the pig's lifetime, it's extremely mildly flavored, to the point of being nearly bland. It is also very lean, which makes it difficult to cook evenly—lean meat conducts heat faster than fatty meat, which leads to a greater chance of overcooking. Moreover, because of its leanness, overcooked tenderloin is particularly unforgiving: dry, chalky, and tough to swallow.
Cooking sous vide solves both of these problems. Flavor-wise, it's easy to add aromatics or spices to the sous vide bag along with the pork, building that flavor right into the meat. (You can reinforce the flavor with more aromatics when you subsequently sear the roast.) As for texture, with sous vide cooking, overcooked meat is a thing of the past. Sous vide allows for perfectly even, edge-to-center cooking with complete control, whether you like your pork pink or gray.*
* If pink pork makes you squeamish, I suggest reading this article about its relative safety.
What Temperature and Timing Should I Use?
When you're working with quick-cooking meats, like steaks, pork chops, or pork tenderloin, the texture and juiciness of the finished product are directly related to the temperature to which it is cooked. Pork starts to firm up and expel moisture around 120°F or so, with its firmness and dryness increasing as the temperature goes up. With sous vide cooking, you have complete control over exactly how cooked your pork ends up, so pick a desired temperature and go!
Recommended Sous Vide Pork Tenderloin Temperatures
|Temp and Time||Doneness||Result|
|130°F/54°C for 1 to 4 hours||Medium-rare||Buttery-tender; very juicy|
|140°F/60°C for 1 to 4 hours||Medium||Firm but still tender; moderately juicy|
|150°F/66°C for 1 to 4 hours||Medium-well||Fully firm; moderately juicy|
|160°F/71°C for 1 to 4 hours||Well-done||Dry, with a firm, tacky texture|
Is Pink Pork Safe?
While eating any meat rare poses health risks, particularly for the elderly, pregnant, or very young, these days pork is just about as safe to eat rare as beef is. (See more details about pork safety here.) That is, so long as you are working with properly stored, cleanly cut meat and searing the exterior before serving, the risk of illness from consuming rare pork is very minimal.
With sous vide cooking, you have another advantage: pasteurization. At 130°F, bacteria are actively being destroyed on the surface of that pork. Every moment that it's in the cooker, it's becoming safer to eat. At higher temperatures, the rate of destruction is even faster. Because of this, sous vide is a great introduction to the wonderfully juicy world of rare pork.
What About Brining?
Brining—the process of submerging a piece of meat in a heavily salted bath—can help meat retain more liquid as it cooks. However, I find that meat that's been brined tastes a little watered-down, and with the gentleness of sous vide cooking, there's really no need for it. (Read up more on the science of brining here.) The other downside to brining, particularly with pork, is that it can give the pork a ham-like texture and flavor. If anything, I prefer a bit of light dry-brining. By salting the meat, bagging it, and letting it rest in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight, you get similar juice-retention effects without the watering-down of flavor that traditional brining can bring.
Can I Add Aromatics to the Bag?
Yes! Aromatics added to the bag can give the pork great flavor. Just be aware that sous vide cooking tends to concentrate the flavor of spices and herbs, so go light. Fresh sprigs of whole herbs, like thyme, rosemary, or oregano, are great, as are alliums like garlic and shallots, or spices like paprika, cumin, coriander, and black peppercorns (either whole or ground). Feel free to experiment.
What's the Best Way to Sear?
Once your tenderloin comes out of its sous vide bag, it is technically completely cooked, but it will not be very appetizing. Without some degree of high-heat cooking, it won't have any of the wonderful brown color and flavor that come with traditionally roasted meats. You need to add that sear after cooking.
The best method for searing indoors is to start by drying off the surface of the pork with paper towels. It takes a huge amount of energy to evaporate surface moisture, and until that moisture is gone, no browning can take place. After drying, I use a heavy skillet, high heat, and a combination of oil and butter. I start by heating up the oil until it's almost smoking-hot, carefully adding in the pork, then cooking it, turning occasionally, until it's browned on most sides. I add butter just for the last few minutes of cooking in order to prevent the milk solids dissolved in it from burning excessively (a little bit burnt is okay!).
For extra flavor, I add aromatics to the pan at this stage—shallots and oregano or thyme are a great match for pork—tilting the pan and using a spoon to baste the pork with the flavorful fat.
How About a Sauce?
To be honest, pork cooked sous vide is so darn juicy on its own that it doesn't really need a sauce, but, if you'd like one, you can build a simple pan sauce by emptying out the skillet, sautéing some aromatics, deglazing with some booze and the liquid left in the sous vide bag, then mounting it all with some butter and mustard.
Sous Vide Pork Tenderloin, Step by Step
Ready to cook? Okay, here's how to do it!
Step 1: Preheat Your Water Bath
Adjust the temperature on your precision cooker using the chart above, and preheat the water bath.
Step 2: Season the Tenderloin Generously
Season your pork generously on all sides with salt and pepper.
Step 3: Seal
To bag the pork, start by folding the top of a vacuum-seal or zipper-lock bag back over itself to form a hem. This will prevent juices from getting on the edges of the bag, which will interfere with the seal or provide vectors for contamination.
Slide the pork into the bag, along with any aromatics, such as fresh herbs or spices (if using), then unfold the edge before closing the bag. Seal the bag using either a vacuum sealer or, if using a zipper-lock bag, the displacement method. To use the displacement method, seal all but the last inch of the bag, then slowly lower your bagged pork into a pot of water, letting the pressure of the water press air out through the opening of the bag. Seal the bag just before it fully submerges. It should be completely air-free.
Step 4: Cook
Place the bag in the water bath, using a binder clip to clip it to the side of the container to prevent it from floating around and blocking the air intake in the cooker. Cook for at least 45 minutes and up to 4 hours.
Step 5: Dry Carefully
Remove the pork from the water bath, then remove it from the bag, discarding any aromatics. You can save the juice to deglaze your pan later on for a pan sauce, if desired. Carefully pat the pork dry using paper towels.
Step 6: Sear
Heat a tablespoon of oil over high heat in a heavy skillet large enough to fit the pork (you can also cut the pork in half to fit into a smaller skillet). When the oil is shimmering, add the pork and cook, turning occasionally, until it is well browned on most sides, about 2 minutes total.
Step 7: Add Aromatics (If Desired)
When you get to the final side, add a tablespoon of butter, along with fresh aromatics, like shallots, garlic, thyme, or oregano (if desired). Spoon the melting butter and aromatics over the pork. Continue cooking until the final side is browned, about 45 seconds longer. Transfer pork to a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet and pour the drippings over it.
Step 8: Make a Pan Sauce (If Desired)
If you'd like a simple sauce with your pork, add one tablespoon of minced shallot to the skillet and sauté until aromatic, about 15 seconds. Add a cup of dry white wine or vermouth and let it reduce by half. Add a dollop of whole grain mustard, the liquid reserved from the sous vide bag, and a tablespoon of butter. Swirl until the sauce is emulsified, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Reserve sauce off heat.
Step 9: Slice and Serve
Discard the aromatics, slice the pork, and serve, spooning the sauce over or simply topping with a sprinkle of coarse sea salt.
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