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Article

Buyer Beware of 'Extra-Tender' Pork

Fine Cooking Issue 53

As producers continue to raise leaner pork and cooks continue to overcook it, the problem of dry, tasteless pork has become notorious. In response, pork producers have borrowed technology from the poultry industry used to “enhance” turkeys, and now an estimated 50% or more of fresh pork in retail markets has been treated to make it juicier. Much of it is labeled “extra tender” or “guaranteed tender.”

The basic premise is this: The fresh meat is treated with sodium phosphate and water, which works to uncoil (denature) muscle protein fibers just enough so that they can hold more water. The resulting meat remains juicier when cooked—even when overcooked—and since most tasters perceive juiciness as tenderness, the pork gets positive reviews.

The best of this new generation of pork is treated with a 10% or weaker solution and has only a slightly “bouncy” texture but a distinct saline flavor. The worst are the more concentrated solutions and those that contain flavorings and marinades, making the meat mushy and unpleasant tasting. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that treated pork carry an ingredient label, so search for the very fine print.

In our tests, we found that we prefer natural, unadulterated pork for its cleaner, more authentic pork flavor. If we set flavor aside, we found that a treated pork chop will indeed remain juicier than an untreated one when overcooked.

To us, the best way to get great flavor and texture is to-buy untreated pork and brine it yourself (see Why brining keeps meat so moist). That way, you can enhance juiciness and flavor without risking mushiness or off flavors. You’ll also get a better brown sear on home-brined pork than on treated pork.

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