We’ll have a nice bit o’ pork loin,” our country cook, Emily, used to say—and I knew a treat was in store. Her roast pork was a marvel, with a crisp, browned crust and wonderfully juicy white meat within. She accompanied the thickened brown gravy with quantities of oven-roasted potatoes as well as seasonal vegetables like mashed rutabaga, Brussels sprouts, or steamed leeks. Applesauce was simmered from windfall apples and flavored with a couple of cloves. Need I say that I was born and raised British?
My culinary studies abroad taught me that other cuisines had equally vibrant approaches to pork loin. The French top it with an herbed breadcrumb crust, or add prunes, dried apricots, almonds, spices, and always a generous glass of wine. Italian cooks like to butterfly pork loin and sandwich it with chopped herbs and garlic before roasting. Sometimes they add milk, which cooks down to a fragrant, golden essence reminiscent in color, though not in taste, of a caffe latte.
Cook the loin on the bone or off
The finest cut of pork for roasting is the loin, which stretches along the backbone from the shoulder and provides a continuous strip of tender, juicy meat. Sometimes the loin is left on the bone. It’s then called a rack of pork, and it looks like seven or eight pork chops strung together.
There are advantages to both boneless and bone-in pork loin. Boneless pork loin is easy to carve with no waste, but it also dries out easily, particularly now that pigs have been bred to yield lean meat. Conversely, leaving the bones in keeps the meat moist and flavorful and prevents the meat from shrinking. The rack also makes for a grand presentation.
I like to trim any loose pieces of fat from a boneless roast and then roll and tie it with string so it cooks evenly and carves well. A further possibility is to butterfly the loin (see the photos below), slitting it open to spread it with stuffing before reshaping and tying it. The Italians favor this technique in arista, which consists of a rolled pork loin stuffed with fresh herbs and garlic.
Brown the loin first for extra flavor
I usually brown the pork loin on top of the stove in a little oil before finishing it in the oven to ensure a dark, even crust. I use a medium-size flameproof roasting pan. If the pan is too large, the meat will dry out and the juices will scorch. If it’s too small, however, the roast tends to be trapped by the sides and it steams in its own juices and cooks unevenly. I don’t, by the way, bother with a roasting rack for pork; it’s fine by me if the meat sits directly at the base of the pan and makes some nice brown juices for the gravy.
After being seared on the stove, the meat can be cooked in the oven at a more moderate temperature, sometimes as low as 350°F, depending on the recipe. Though pork used to have the reputation of being fatty, the reality is that it tends to dry out easily, so a lower temperature is beneficial, together with, in some cases, a cover for the pan so the meat pot-roasts in moist heat.
Cook the pork until it’s light pink and still juicy. Years ago, when trichinosis was a concern, pork was traditionally cooked to well done. This meant that it was roasted to an internal temperature of 170°F, with no trace of pink at the center. Now, however, it’s generally considered safe by most cooks (and definitely tastier) to eat pork that’s juicy and very lightly pink. It should register 145°F on an instant-read thermometer when it comes out of the oven.
When removed from the oven, pork loin, like all roasted meats, should be loosely covered with foil and left to stand in a warm place for 10 to 15 minutes so that the juices redistribute and the meat holds together better for carving.
Even though the pork is juicy, it always benefits from a little sauce. When I’m roasting uncovered, I’ll make a gravy on the stovetop with the pan juices. The gravy’s color and flavor will come from the caramelized juices in the bottom of the roasting pan. I add a mixture of stock, wine, or water and boil, stirring to deglaze the juices and then to concentrate and reduce the gravy until it’s rich and slightly syrupy. When I’m pot-roasting pork, I make a sauce from the liquid in which I cooked the pork, removing the pork before reducing the liquid.