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a tale of two tenderloins

Despite the name, pork tenderloins are relatively lean and are easily overcooked. While many people bake their tenderloins as if they were pork shoulders (i.e. 180F to convert collagen to gelatin), I prefer to stop at 140F while the interior is still juicy and flavorful. However, this shortens the smoking time- but a few tricks will set things right.

Technique I: From freezer to plate

Smoke is attracted to cold wet surface by thermophoresis. By smoking a frozen tenderloin, the meat stays colder and moister longer. The smoke ring is uniform and thick, and the interior juicy. Plus, you always have a frozen tenderloin ready in the freezer if guests arrive on short notice. Here's the recipe:

  • A standard 1 1/2 to 2 lb tenderloin is a long wedge-shaped cut of meat. The thinner end will cook too quickly, and potentially dry out. So, I cut the tenderloin in half, flip the small end onto the wider side, and wrap with twine. This creates a uniform cylinder about 3" in diameter, and 6"-8" long.
  • Rub with your favorite dry rub. Let rest in the fridge for an hour.
  • Wrap with plastic wrap and freeze. If you are really ambitious, insert the end of a thermometer into the center before freezing because you certainly won't be able to do so later.
  • Pre-heat smoker to 225F.
  • Unwrap and place frozen tenderloin on the grating and smoke until the interior reaches 135-140F. An accurate digital thermometer is your best friend. Smoking will take around 4 hours, compared to 2 hours for an unfrozen tenderloin.
  • Remove and let rest for 10 minutes before slicing.

Notice how the frozen tenderloin's ring is more uniform than meat smoked right from the fridge:

frozen smoked tenderloin

 

Technique II: Brown and smoke

At 225F, meat will not brown after only a few hours cooking in the smoker. Which is too bad, because significant flavor develops during high temperature searing1. Why not have the best of both worlds, by searing first and smoking second? Turns out the smoke ring's dimensions and cooking times are barely affected, but the flavor profile takes a huge step forward. Smoky, rich and dark. Here's the recipe:

  • A standard 1 1/2 to 2 lb tenderloin is a long wedge-shaped cut of meat. The thinner end will cook too quickly, and potentially dry out. So, I cut the tenderloin in half, flip the small end onto the wider side, and wrap with twine. This creates a uniform cylinder about 3" in diameter, and 6"-8" long.
  • Pre-heat smoker to 225F.
  • In a hot pan on the stove, add a few tablespoons of oil. Pat the tenderloin dry and quickly brown on all four sides. If the pan is sufficiently hot, this should take about a minute per side.
  • Wearing gloves, anoint the pork tenderloin with your favorite dry rub.
  • Smoke until the interior reaches 135-140F. This will take around 2 hours. An accurate digital thermometer is your best friend.
  • Remove and let rest for 10 minutes before slicing.

You can also combine both methods- brown first (this also kills most surface bacteria), then rub, then freeze. Smoke when the urge hits.

 

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1 Note the idea that searing seals in moisture is a myth. The assertion goes back at least as far as statements made by the German chemist Justus von Liebig in the 1850s, claiming that browned surface proteins chemically bond into an impermeable layer, trapping juices. Harold McGee, among others, have shown this simply isn't accurate. I've found there is a modest grain of truth in this old saw. The browned surface slows juices from oozing out, especially when you cook quickly at high temperatures. But, if you let the meat rest before slicing, almost all those juices end up on the plate before they make it into your mouth. Salting can bond juices inside the meat, and some treatments (like xanthan gum) can seal the meat into a steaming sarcophagus, but searing is ineffective.

 


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