Pork is one of the most versatile available, combining well with prominent, acidic ingredients and rich flavored seasonings and side dishes. However, unlike chicken, which is naturally tender, and beef, which can be tenderized by being cooked until undercooked or medium, pork can be quite tough and, according to common sense, it must be fully cooked (although this is being questioned recently). Learning how to tenderize it will allow you to prepare tender and flavorful dishes with this versatile meat. See step 1 below to get started!
Method 1 of 3: Tendering Pork Before Cooking
Step 1. Use a meat hammer
Its cuts are harder when the muscle fibers that make it up are long and intact. To start softening it before cooking or seasoning it, try breaking the muscle fibers with a meat hammer. It usually has a pointed surface used for striking or a sharp tool for striking. The goal is the same: beat the meat to break the muscle fibers.
If you don't have one of these special tools, don't worry: you can also use a regular fork or even your hands to achieve the same effect without a hammer. Beat the meat to break the fibers and make it softer
Step 2. Use a marinade
It's a great way to add flavor to meat and make it more tender. However, not all are the same: to tenderize pork, your marinade must contain an acid or enzyme tenderizer. These chemical elements break down the tightly coiled proteins of meat at the molecular level. However, using these substances in excess is a bad idea, as too much acid can make the meat tougher by denaturalizing its proteins, and too much softening enzyme can make the meat squishy.
- Acids such as citrus juices, vinegars and wines are common in many recipes. For example, it's not uncommon to see red wine combined with soy sauce and other ingredients (such as brown sugar) in pork marinade. To avoid the hardening effect that can occur with very acidic marinades, use an acidic dairy product instead; yogurt and buttermilk are just a little acidic and great for making pork cuts delicious and juicy.
- Softening enzymes can be found in the juice of many different fruits. For example, pineapple, which contains the enzyme bromelain, and papaya, which has papain, are excellent softening ingredients. However, it is important to remember that, in high doses, the enzymes can work too well, making the meat soft.
Step 3. Soak the meat in the brine
This technique is similar to marinade and is especially suitable for thin cuts such as pork chops. It involves soaking the meat in salt water to make it softer and wetter. Brine always contains salt and water, but it can also include other flavor enhancing ingredients such as apple cider, brown sugar, rosemary and thyme. As it can give a salty taste, you should generally avoid putting too much salt in the finished meat or rubbing salt into it after brining.
- To make a great recipe, mix 3.8 L water, 3/4 cup salt, 3/4 cup sugar and black pepper to taste in a large bowl, stirring to dissolve (heating water can speed up dissolution). Add the pork to the bowl, cover and refrigerate until ready to cook.
- Depending on the type of pork you are cooking, the brining time required will vary. For example, steaks typically need anywhere from 12:00 to a full day, while whole sirloin roasts can take several days, and filet mignon is usually ready in just six hours.
Step 4. Use a commercial meat tenderizer
Another option is to use an artificial fabric softener, which usually comes in a powder, but is sometimes also available in a liquid form. Often the active ingredient in these softeners is papain, the natural chemical found in papaya. As with fruit, it's important to remember not to overuse it, or the piece of meat can be unpleasantly tender.
- Always use a little meat tenderizer. Lightly dampen the pork surface with water just before cooking and sprinkle about a teaspoon of tenderizer for every 450g of meat, spreading it well. Pierce the meat with a fork at intervals of about 1, 3 cm and start cooking.
- If your fabric softener is seasoned, it will usually contain salt. In this case, do not salt it further before cooking.
Method 2 of 3: Preparing Tender Pork
Step 1. Seal the meat before roasting it
When it comes to cooking pork, a variety of methods can yield smooth, juicy results, as long as they're done well. For example, with thin cuts like pork chops or scallops, it may be better to quickly cook the meat on a very hot surface to give it a crunchy, flavorful exterior and then transfer it to a surface with less heat to finish cooking. You can seal your pork in a hot skillet on the stove or on a grill and then place it in the oven, or on a cooler area of the grill and cover it, for the rest of the cooking time.
- Indirect heat is vital to keeping pork tender and juicy. While sealing is great for giving the meat a delicious outer "crust", using direct heat to cook it can easily lead to an overcooked, tough piece of meat. Indirect heat from the oven or a closed grill, however, gradually cooks all the meat, leading to a smooth, evenly cooked final product.
- Since direct heat like a skillet cooks the outside of the meat much faster than the inside, you will usually only need to cook for a minute or two each side to give all the meat a good seal. However, indirect heat (like that of an oven) will take longer to prepare the meat: about 20 minutes for every 450g.
Step 2. Braise the pork
One sure way to get a soft, moist pork is to braise it. This is a slow, high-moisture process that involves placing the meat in a mixture of liquid (and sometimes solid) ingredients and letting it cook in the mixture for hours. Brazing produces extremely moist, tender and aromatic meat, so it is often the preferred method for cooking tougher pork cuts such as shoulder cuts and ribs. In addition, the liquid used for sauteing can be used as a sauce or broth, which is useful for dishes served with rice or a similar accompaniment.
- Although the time for each cut can vary, you should generally braise the pig for about 30 minutes for every 450g (longer for tough meats or meats with multiple connective tissues).
- Often, braised recipes call for the meat to be sealed or sauteed briefly beforehand to give it a crispy exterior.
Step 3. Smoke the pork
Smoking is a very gradual, low heat process used to give a smoky flavor to many traditional barbecue dishes. There are a variety of ways to smoke meat, but in general, most involve burning special types of wood (such as mesquite) in a closed container so that the meat cooks slowly with indirect heat. Over time, the wood gradually transfers its aroma and flavor, leading to pork that is not only moist and juicy, but also tastes unique and difficult to reproduce with other cooking methods.
- As the smoking process can be expensive and time-consuming, it is usually reserved for large pieces of meat that require a long cooking time (such as briskets, roasts from the palette and others) and for social events such as barbecues and dinners.
- Smoking is a delicate art for which many professionals use specialized equipment that can be quite expensive. However, it can also be achieved with a common barbecue grill. See How to Smoke Meat for an extensive guide to this process.
Step 4. Make a stew or use a slow-cooker to prepare the meat
Using the gradual, moist heat of a pressure cooker, stew or slow-cooker can give you pork so tender you won't need a knife to eat it. Stew usually involves cooking the meat for long periods of time over a low heat while it is submerged in a mixture of liquid and solid ingredients. Often the meat in the stew is cut into small pieces so that each spoonful contains meat. As with braised, this type of cooking is great for softening hard pieces or cuts with a lot of connective tissue (such as shoulder blades and ribs).
- The stew time for pork can vary, but it is generally comparable to the braise times.
- Slow-cooking pans are especially convenient for making stews. Generally, using this type of tool, you just need to put the ingredients in the pan, turn it on and let it cook for several hours without doing any extra work. Note, however, that if you use vegetables in the stew, they should be added later in the cooking process, as they are ready much faster than meat.
Step 5. Let the meat rest after it is cooked
If you're trying to make it as tender and juicy as possible, don't stop work once it's done! One of the most important, but often overlooked, things to keep meat moist and tender is the rest period. No matter which method you use to cook, after removing the meat from the heat, let it rest for about 10 minutes. You can cover it with a piece of aluminum foil to keep it warm. Once the meat has had time to rest, it's ready to be tasted!
Cutting the meat without letting it rest first makes it less moist and tender. When cooking meat like pork, a large part of the internal moisture is removed from the proteins that make it up. A quick rest after cooking gives proteins time to reabsorb this moisture. That's why if you cut a piece of hot meat off the grill, you'll see a lot of juice coming out of it right away, but if you give it a chance to rest first, the piece will lose less juice
Step 6. Cut the meat against the fiber
If you're trying to get exceptionally tender meat, you might even consider how to cut it. To get the smoothest results possible, you should cut the pork into fine pieces against the fiber of the pork. You'll know you're doing this if you see cross sections of individual fibers in the meat when you examine it closely after cutting. Cutting against the fibers breaks them into smaller sections one last time before consumption. You will never regret taking that little extra precaution!
With extra-tender methods like braising and braising, your meat will usually be so tender that you won't have to bother cutting against the fiber. However, for large, thick cuts of pork cooked on the grill or in the oven, you should cut against the fiber to make the meat as tender as possible before serving. That's why, at buffet events where a large roast is on the menu, the serving staff will almost always make thin, diagonal cuts against the fiber of the meat
Method 3 of 3: Choosing a Tender Cut
Step 1. Choose a loin cut
This is a long strip of meat near the pig's spine that runs the entire length of the pig's back. In general, sirloin cuts are some of the finest and tenderest, so they are an excellent choice not only for those looking for tender, juicy meat, but also for a nutritious source of lean protein. Some common cuts of loin are:
- butterfly steak
- rib steak
- pork chops
Step 2. Choose a filet mignon cut
This filet is a small section of pork loin that is said to produce the tenderest meat of all. It is a long, thin, lean band of muscle running across the top of the inside of the animal's ribs. Being exceptionally juicy, tender and lean, it is one of the most expensive cuts. It is usually sold:
- By myself
- In slices or "medallions"
- In a steak
Step 3. Choose a cut from the ribs
A pig's rib cage runs from its spine to the edges of its abdomen and offers a variety of delicious, meaty cuts that vary in texture and flavor according to which part is removed. Those at the top of the rib cage (near the pig's spine) may resemble sirloin in that they are naturally succulent, lean and tender. Cuts from the lower rib sections (near the pork belly) can also be very tender when cooked correctly, but they are generally fatter and require longer cooking times to achieve the perfect level of tenderness. Rib cuts include:
- slat rib
- rustic ribs
- needle chute
Step 4. Choose belly cuts
As the name implies, a pig's belly is a very fat, boneless cut taken from the area over the animal's stomach. Many people are familiar with it from bacon, which is thin pieces of meat. Because it's so greasy, the belly usually requires a long time to cook in the oven or on the grill to become edible, but the results can be deliciously juicy and tender.
Apart from bacon and related products such as pancetta (Italian bacon), pork belly is not usually sold in large supermarkets. You will need to visit a butcher or meat house to get a suitable cut from this region for a cooking project
Step 5. Choose harder cuts if you are going to cook slowly
Some of the tender cuts of pork (especially the loin) can be expensive. If you're short on money, you shouldn't feel the need to go poor just to get delicious meat. In fact, cheaper, harder cuts (such as those on the palette) can be made soft and juicy with slow cooking methods. Below are some inexpensive cuts of pork that can be made tender if cooked correctly:
Step 6. Choose less common soft cuts
If you're up for a try, some lesser-known parts of the pig offer the opportunity to make succulent and tender dishes. These cuts may be somewhat unusual in modern Western cuisine, but they are central to older recipes or traditional cuisines. If you're feeling brave, talk to your butcher about these special cuts. Some of the unconventional pork cuts that can be tenderized (usually through slow cooking) are:
- double chin
- Organs (liver, heart etc)