Childhood memories of tender pork chops, braised on the stove top and served with a side of sauerkraut or applesauce might be difficult to duplicate with today’s leaner, “other white meat,” pork. It was the hogs’ fat, laid on by free range grazing that gave pork its comfort-food appeal. The pork tenderloin provides an example of this evolution.
The tenderloin lies inside the back ribs along the back bone in the area of the hog called the loin. Its name derives from the fact that it is a little-used muscle that is finely marbled and fork-tender when cooked properly. Tenderloins range in weight from 12 oz. to 1 lb.; recipes assume a 12 oz., or 3/4 lb. tenderloin. The little roast is the leanest part of the pig; it is high in protein and a 6 oz. serving contains 125 calories.
Modern American hogs receive a diet scientifically designed to build flesh, not fat; so much so that specialty breeds such as the Hungarian Mangalitsa, a pig raised for its cream-colored rolls of fat, have become stars in culinary circles. Mangalitsa tenderloin may have a bit of fat along one side, but most of it would be trimmed for other uses. Grocery-store tenderloins, on the other hand, have become so lean that 21st century recipes specify cooking only to 160 degrees Fahrenheit internal temperature rather than the earlier 170 F.
The question of what to do with the “fat side” of the tenderloin becomes one of finding fat on the tenderloin. Tenderloins may have a layer of tissue along the side that faced the vertebral column; only free range pork such as Mangalitsa has an actual layer of fat. Recipes for tenderloin feature marinades and pan searing before 10 to 15 minutes in a hot oven. Even in older recipes, little reference is made to fat on tenderloins.
To Bard or Not
Cooks that purchase pork tenderloins at their local butcher or grocery meat counter will probably never need to deal with the fat issue. These little roasts cook quickly, however, and benefit from basting by any fat that might lie along one side, so set the tenderloin with whatever fat it has up. The “Doubleday Cookbook,” assembled in the 1970s, suggests laying a few strips of bacon atop very lean tenderloin. Alternately, seal lean tenderloins surfaces by dusting with flour or cornstarch and pan-searing.