Everything About Pork Tenderloin: How to Buy It and Cook It to Perfection

published Mar 3, 2017
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(Image credit: Susanna Hopler)

Pork tenderloin is the lean cut of meat you need to know if you’re really into pork chops. As its name implies, pork tenderloin is the most tender cut of pork, and it cooks up into a mild-flavored main in under 30 minutes. From buying pork tenderloin to the prep and cooking that happens before it hits your table, here’s what you need to know to master this cut of meat.

What Is Pork Tenderloin, and Why Should You Cook It?

Pork tenderloin is a lean, boneless cut of meat that comes from the loin, which runs from the hip to the shoulder of the pig (it’s also the same place pork chops are from). You may also see this cut labeled as pork fillet or pork tender; it’s always sold whole, averaging about one pound. And as its name implies, this is the most tender cut of pork.

If pork chops have a special place in your heart (and meal plan), it’s time to branch out to pork tenderloin. It’s a super-lean cut, with a delicate, mild-mannered flavor. Also, like pork chops, it’s quick-cooking and ideal for weeknight dinners.

Buying and Storing Pork Tenderloin

Here’s what you need to know about buying pork tenderloin, and what to do with it when you get home.

Know that pork tenderloin is different from pork loin.

While these cuts do share a few similarities, they are quite different (they’re even cut from different parts of the animal!). Pork tenderloin is considerably smaller than the loin and benefits from quick cooking over high heat. Because they vary in size and cooking method, pork tenderloin should not be substituted for pork loin, and vice versa.

Choose a pork tenderloin with pinkish-red color.

To ensure you take home a good piece of meat, use visual cues to help you buy pork tenderloin. Look for a tenderloin that’s pinkish-red in color with some marbling in the meat (remember: fat equals flavor!). Steer clear of meat that’s pale in color or has dark spots on the fat. Pork tenderloin will average about one pound in weight, although it can range from 3/4 to 1 1/2 pounds.

Store fresh pork tenderloin in the fridge for up to two to three days before cooking.

It’s best to cook pork tenderloin soon after buying it, although it will keep for two to three days in the fridge. Any longer than three days and it’s best to store it in the freezer, where it will keep for up to six months. Plan to give pork tenderloin roughly 12 to 14 hours to thaw in the refrigerator before cooking.

Cooking Pork Tenderloin

Pork tenderloin is super versatile and quite easy to cook. These are the essential things to know to get it right every time.

Use a dry rub or marinade for more flavor.

Because it’s so lean, pork tenderloin comes with a very mild flavor and can benefit from a spice or herb rub or even a quick marinade. It pairs well with just about any flavor profile. Try a blend with chili powder and cumin, a Chinese five-spice blend, garam masala, or a pungent rub of minced garlic and ginger.

Don’t cook pork tenderloin straight from the fridge.

Instead of cooking pork tenderloin straight from the fridge, let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before you get started. Giving the meat a chance to warm up will ensure more even cooking.

When searing, start with a screaming-hot skillet.

For the seared crust that makes roasted pork tenderloin so irresistible, always start with a super-hot skillet. Place the skillet in the oven as it preheats for 10 to 20 minutes before starting to cook.

It will cook in under 30 minutes.

Part of the beauty of this ultra-tender cut is how quickly and easily it makes its way to the table. Whether you roast it, sear it, or stir-fry it, pork tenderloin is a meat to lean on for easy 30-minute meals.

Don’t worry too much about pink meat.

Yes, despite what you may have been told, a little bit of pink is perfectly fine. For pork tenderloin, as with all meat, internal temperature (not color) is the best indicator of doneness.

Cook pork tenderloin to 145°F.

Measuring internal temperature with a probe thermometer is the best way to measure the doneness of pork tenderloin. Cooked to 145°F, the meat is tender, juicy, and just a touch pink.

5 Essential Ways to Cook Pork Tenderloin

Pork tenderloin is a lean cut, with very little fat. It’s ideal for weeknight dinners since it’s quick-cooking and lends itself to a variety of cooking methods.

1. Roast it in the oven.

This is the go-to method for cooking tender, juicy pork tenderloin with a wonderfully seared crust. It starts with a quick sear on all sides, in a super-hot skillet on the stovetop, and then the tenderloin goes into the oven until the meat is cooked through.

Recipes for Roasted Pork Tenderloin

2. Wrap it in bacon.

A riff on our classic roast pork tenderloin, this version ups the ante with a bacon blanket carefully secured around the meat before cooking. The extra fat gives the overall flavor a big boost. This weeknight-friendly method starts with a sear on the stovetop, and is then cooked through in the oven.

3. Cook it on the stovetop.

Sliced into round medallions or cut into chunks, pork tenderloin can also be seared and cooked entirely on the stovetop.

4. Stir-fry it.

Because of its lean, quick-cooking nature, pork tenderloin lends itself to stir-fries. Start by cutting the tenderloin into 1/2-inch rounds, and then slice each piece into two to three strips.

Pro tip: Swap sliced pork tenderloin for stir-fry recipes that call for pork chops or cutlets.

5. Grill it.

Pork tenderloin also excels at being cooked on the grill. Cooked over medium-high heat, this method takes just six to eight minutes per side.

Recipes for Grilled Pork Tenderloin