We Tested 7 Methods for Cooking Juicy Pork Tenderloin and the Winner Was Perfection

published Feb 24, 2022
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pork tenderloin is a popular cut, and for good reason: It’s tender, quick-cooking, typically feeds a family of four, and is very lean. It’s that last point, though, that introduces the potential for less-than-ideal results. Because it is just as lean as boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pork tenderloin can dry out easily. 

The USDA’s safe cooking temperature for whole pork cuts used to be 160°F, which often led to those dry, less flavorful results. But the current guidance is to cook whole pork cuts to 145°F, which should give you pink, juicy slices. But what’s the best cooking method to reliably achieve that internal temperature and to set you up for success when cooking pork tenderloin? To see which methods deliver the juiciest, tastiest pork, I tested seven popular methods found online. To my delight, most of them worked quite well, with one method yielding what I consider perfection.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

A Few Notes About Methodology

Pork tenderloins: I purchased “natural” pork tenderloins — those that had not been enhanced with a brine-type solution. The tenderloins all weighed one pound each, and they were of equal thickness. Since this is a very lean cut, there was no marbling to compare; the tenderloins all appeared equally lean. 

Tests: I let each tenderloin sit out at room temperature for 20 minutes, to take the chill off, and trimmed off the silverskin. To level the playing field, I seasoned the pork with only salt and pepper (1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper on each), and the amount of oil each method instructed. I took the internal temperature of each pork tenderloin at the end of the cook time, using a Thermapen instant-read thermometer

Times: Because I streamlined the seasonings, there was very little prep involved in these methods, so the time represents just the actual time cooking plus the resting time before slicing.

Ratings: Each method is rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 representing perfection. The main factor affecting my ratings was the juiciness of the pork. Secondary factors include deliciousness of the crust (if present) and concentration of porky flavor.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pork Tenderloin Method: Slow Cooker

  • Total time: 4 hours
  • Rating: 3/10

About this method: I followed the basic instructions from a popular recipe on Allrecipes, but, again, I stripped the seasoning back to just salt and pepper, along with an oil rub-down. The recipe calls for a 2-pound tenderloin, which I could not find, so I tied two (1-pound) tenderloins together with twine. Into the slow cooker they went, topped with a little water, and then cooked on the low setting for 4 hours. 

Results: Although this method is very easy and convenient, it leaves a lot to be desired in the final product. The pork was pale and gray, and it was cooked to an internal temperature of 192°F (way overcooked). The texture was quite dry, with the pork shredding more than slicing, and all of the rich pork flavor seemed to have leached out into the cooking liquid. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pork Tenderloin Method: Instant Pot

  • Total time: 25 minutes
  • Rating: 6.5/10

About this method: Using Delish’s method, I started this test by seasoning the pork and browning it in a little oil on the Instant Pot’s Sauté setting. I removed the pork and added a cup of water to the pot. I put the trivet in, and placed the pork on top of it. With the lid locked in place, I set the pot to cook at high pressure for 5 minutes. After 1 minute of resting, I released the pressure and let the pork rest for 5 minutes before slicing.

Results: This method was surprisingly quick, as it took very little time for the Instant Pot to come to pressure. The tenderloin was very juicy inside, with a nice pink color. It was a little chewy, though, with a flavor that seemed a bit watered-down and diluted. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pork Tenderloin Method: Air Fryer

  • Total time: 27 minutes
  • Rating: 7/10

About this method: I rubbed the pork with oil and seasoned it with salt and pepper, then proceeded with Recipe Teacher’s popular technique: Preheat the air fryer to 400°F for 5 minutes, add the pork to the basket, and air-fry at 400°F until you reach an internal temperature of 145°F to 160°F (17 minutes for me, with an internal temp of 150°F). The pork rested for 5 minutes before slicing.

Results: The pork had a beautiful golden crust and concentrated porky flavor. It was a tad dry, though, lacking the juiciness of some of the other methods, and the crust was a little tough to bite through. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pork Tenderloin Method: Sous Vide

  • Total time: 3 hours, 5 minutes
  • Rating: 8.5/10

About this method: Armed with the instructions from Serious Eats, I placed my salted and peppered tenderloin in a zip-top plastic bag and used the water displacement method to lower the pork into water circulating at 140°F. Using the Serious Eats chart for cook time (1 to 4 hours at my desired temperature), I cooked for 3 hours, then quickly seared the tenderloin in a very hot skillet, rested it for 2 minutes, then sliced the meat. 

Results: The pork let out almost no juices onto the platter when I sliced into it, suggesting that all of the juices stayed inside. The meat was incredibly juicy and moist — but perhaps a little too tender, if there is such a thing. The meat was deliciously porky-rich, but the texture was very soft, sort of like rotisserie chicken breast.  

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pork Tenderloin Method: Oven-Roasted

  • Total time: 30 minutes
  • Rating: 9/10

About this method: With an average 4.9-star rating from almost 1,000 people, this method from Creme de la Crumb was one I was eager to try. To start, I pierced the tenderloin all over with a fork, rubbed it with oil, and sprinkled it with my stripped-down seasonings. The pork went into an 11×7-inch baking dish and baked at 400°F (uncovered) for 25 minutes, at which point it had reached an internal temperature of 147°F. I let the tenderloin rest for 5 minutes before slicing it.

Results: As the tenderloin rested on the platter, it let out lots of juices, which made me worry that the interior would be dry. To my delight, it wasn’t; it was a lovely pink color, and very juicy. The bites were just a bit chewy, but overall this was an easy method with tasty results.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pork Tenderloin Method: Grilled

  • Total time: 33 minutes
  • Rating: 9.5/10

About this method: I followed this intriguing gas-grill method from Fine Cooking: Preheat the grill on high heat for 10 minutes, then follow what they call the “7-6-5” timing technique, with the grill still set to high heat. I rubbed the pork with oil and seasoned it with salt and pepper, then placed it on the grill rack. I grilled it for 7 minutes with the lid closed, then turned it over and grilled (again with the lid closed) for 6 minutes on the other side. I finished by turning the grill off and leaving the pork in the closed grill for 5 minutes, then removed it to a platter to rest for 5 minutes before slicing.

Results: Despite the pork being cooked to an internal temperature of 155°F (a little higher than I would typically go), it was still extremely juicy and moist throughout. It picked up some robust grilled flavor and had a lovely burnished crust. The only minor ding is that the crust was just the teensiest bit tough, wanting to shred in places instead of slice cleanly.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Pork Tenderloin Method: Slow-Roasted

  • Total time: 55 minutes
  • Rating: 10/10

About this method: Unlike any of the other methods, this one from Cook’s Illustrated started with you pounding the tenderloin to an even 1-inch thickness, then cutting it in half crosswise to form two “steaks.” These pieces roasted on a rack set inside a roasting pan at the low temperature of 275°F until they reached an internal temperature between 137°F and 140°F (this took 35 minutes for me). After resting for 10 minutes, the “steaks” were seared in oil to develop a crust, then rested for 5 minutes before slicing.

Results: This method proved to be superb — yielding both juicy, very tender slices and also a delicious crust. The pork slightly dried out in the oven, in a very good way that concentrated its porky-rich flavor and allowed for a hearty crust to form once seared. And the low cooking temperature cooked the pork evenly and gently, safeguarding against the possibility of overcooking. This method definitely stood out as the obvious winner.

Final Thoughts

It’s great to know that so many of these cooking methods work well, keeping your pork tenderloin juicy and tender. For the absolute best flavor (and that irresistible crust!), go for the slow-roasted method, which takes about an hour. If you’re looking for a quicker option with less fuss — no pounding or searing — know that the simple oven-roasted method is also great, and if the weather is nice (or you’re OK grilling in your winter coat), go ahead and fire up the grill.