In theory, pork tenderloin is the perfect cut for grilling. It’s dressy enough to be served at an elegant dinner party, yet casual enough for weeknight supper. It’s substantial enough to be treated like red meat, yet mild enough to stand in for chicken or fish. It’s economical, healthy, readily available. Even its small size is attractive—except when you try to cook it. From my experience, pork tenderloin is just a little too small to be treated like a roast and a little too big to be treated like a steak.
Create the perfect crust
After much experimentation, I’ve concluded that grilling pork tenderloin in a covered gas grill solves the problem. (I rarely go to the trouble to light a charcoal fire for two pork tenderloins, but you can of course use this method with charcoal; see the Grilled Pork Tenderloin recipe for details) A gas grill heated to high with the lid down can effectively cook a pork tenderloin directly (like a steak) and indirectly (like a roast) simultaneously.
The key with this method is to get this sear and cook the pork tenderloin as quickly as possible, before it has a change to dry out. To develop an impressive crust (and to keep the grill from losing heat), I’ve developed the “7-6-5” method for timing the pork
The “7-6-5” Method
The “7-6-5” method for grilling pork tenderloin refers to the amount of time each side gets, with the burners on high heat: seven minutes on the first side, six minutes on the second side, and then five minutes with the grill turned off and the lid closed. The method is so reliable that I can set a timer and go about my business. I don’t even have to worry about a grill flare-up: pork tenderloins are lean enough so that there’s no threat of dripping fat. Here’s how the timing works:
7 minutes to sear the first side, over direct, high heat. Keep the grill covered.
After the grill has been preheated for ten minutes, seven minutes is all it takes to fully sear the tenderloins with appetizing grill marks. Since the second side has already started to cook, it doesn’t take as long to sear as the first side. In fact, if left for the same amount of time, it would start to char. So the second side should look the same as the first side in just six minutes.
At this point, the tenderloins are fully seared, but they will probably only register 125° to 130°F at their thickest parts: not done yet. Clearly they don’t need more direct heat. The tenderloins are so close to being done at this point and the grill is so hot that I simply turn off the grill and, in five minutes, the residual heat will fully cook them. For me, “fully cooked” means that a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest section of the pork registers 145° to 150°F.
Keep it Juicy with a Brine
Pork tenderloins may have the texture of red meat, but their flavor isn’t quite as exciting. For this reason, I’ve found that soaking them in a salt-sugar brine helps immensely. Depending on my schedule, I’ve developed two brine strengths. When I’m in a hurry, I use the stronger brine and soak the pork tenderloins for just 45 minutes. With this brine strength, the tenderloins tend to taste a little salty on the surface, so I rinse them and pat them dry.
If I have more time, I halve the amounts of sugar and salt in the brine recipe and soak the tenderloins for 1-1/2 hours. With this weaker brine, I’ve found the tenderloins don’t need to be rinsed. I simply pat them dry. Either way, brining not only improves the flavor but also helps the pork stay juicy.
Amp up the Flavor with a Fruit Glaze
For extra flavor and an even better crust, I brush the tenderloins with a fruit juice concentrate. I’ve found that, besides adding flavor to the pork, this also creates a subtly sweet surface that browns and caramelizes, resulting in an even more impressive crust. I’ve used three different concentrates—orange, apple, and pineapple—in three different glazes (Sweet Chili, Rosemary-Orange, and Curry-Apple) to demonstrate their use, but you shouldn’t feel locked into these recipes. Feel free to change and interchange fruit juices, spices, and herbs. For example, rosemary is equally good with orange or pineapple. Chili powder and cumin are great with orange juice. Try sage or herbes de Provence with any of the juices.
Finish with a Bright Sauce or Salsa
Wine pairings for your pork tenderloin
A recipe’s sauce or marinade can often be the dominant factor when it comes to pairing wine with the finished dish, and it’s surely the case with these tasty fruit-juice–based glazes. While most pork tenderloin recipes would have me reaching for a hearty red, the oak and tannins in a big red wine would taste clumsy and dull next to the vibrant fruit and spice flavors here. But there are plenty of other options. Ale is a good all-purpose bet for any of these fruit glazes, provided that the ale is richly flavored. I’d go for Red Hook or Anchor Liberty—both are available in supermarkets.
If you want to tailor your drink choices to suit each particular recipe, here’s what I would do. With the curry-apple glaze, consider an Alsace Pinot Blanc. The wine’s apple fruit and the pork glaze’s sweet-spicy flavors would be delicious together; try Marcel Deiss Bennwihr.
With the rosemary-orange glaze, try a slightly chilled Grenache blend with little or no oak. The savory and citrus spices in the glaze will highlight the youthful fruit in Grenache; look for d’Arenberg “Stump Jump” from Australia and Côtes du Rhône “Parallèle 45” from Paul Jaboulet.
And instead of wine with the sweet chili glaze, try a rich Belgian ale. I like Chimay Red and Affligem Tripel.
—Tim Gaiser, master sommelier