Roasting Perfect Pork Every Time: Simple Principles

Sometimes it is very valuable to get advice from professionals. When it comes to cooking the perfect pork roast, that would have to be chefs.

When Chef magazine drew up blueprints for the “perfect roasted pork” project, they had big ideas about how to proceed. Test four different cuts in three different ovens at three different temperatures with three different seasoning configurations, and….

It was soon clear that, when it comes to roast pork, opinions abound about the “best” methods, seasonings and techniques. But there is some fantastic takeaways from the process.

They had decided there had to be a straightforward way to answer a question that was on a lot of chefs minds: What is the optimal way to roast fresh pork to bring out its exquisite, juicy, roast-meat flavor and texture?

Much of the initial discussion centered on the best cuts to test. They decided on three:

  • tenderloin,
  • bone-in center-cut loin
  • and boneless center-cut loin.

These cuts appeared to be the most versatile and useful to a broad spectrum of chefs.

Ovens For The Best Roast Pork

For ovens, they chose

  • conventional (conduction),
  • convection
  • and combi ovens.

Probably most chefs use conventional and convection heat on a regular basis.

Interestingly, no chef interviewed mentioned the combi-oven option. But their thinking in including this option in the testing was that combi might provide a moist result with good holding qualities because of the combination of steam and dry heat.

The advice varied on the question of oven temperatures, from the all-purpose 350’F oven to high-to-low temperature and low-to-high. For example, several chefs we interviewed suggested that coddling a larger cut of meat a bit in a slow oven (with searing at a high temperature toward the end of cooking) would result in a tender, juicy roast.

Lean Pork Lessons

Even if you have the ultimate system in place for roasting pork, consider one issue before you touch that oven dial: pork’s leanness.

Pork today isn’t the fatty animal it was just a few years ago. Like many other animal proteins on the market, pork is bred to be very lean. So lean, in fact, that one chef we talked to predicted that in the next 10 years the pork industry will grow fatter hogs to counter their present leanness.

Until the public’s fat-free mania subsides, pork will probably stay lean (or leaner). Though much-maligned, fat in any meat-indeed, in many foods is a good thing, too, at least culinarily speaking. Fat adds richness and the sensation of moistness. According to Harold McGee in his book On Food and Cooking The Science and Lore of the Kitchen (Simon & Schuster, 1997), “fat contributes to the tenderness of the meat by acting as a ‘shortening’ agent, much as it does in pastry. When it is melted during cooking, fat penetrates the tissue and helps separate fiber from fiber, lubricating the tissue and so making it easier to cut across or crush.”

Therefore, it’s safe to conclude that the leanness of pork is a good argument for cooking it slightly pink, not the opaque gray 170*F pork most of us are familiar with. By the time it gets up to that temperature, a lot of the water will have been driven out of the muscle fibers, and you’re left with dry, tough meat (but lots of pan drippings!).

Internal temperatures When Roasting Pork

They thought that asking chefs what internal temperature to cook pork to might be like asking what their favorite colors are. In other words, purely personal opinion. What we found were remarkably consistent recommendations, with one thing in common: Don’t overcook it.

Whether this advice is part of a general trend to cook food very rare-think of nearly raw tuna and capriccios of every stripe we can’t say for sure. What it does seem to suggest is a sensitivity to the leanness of pork and an awareness that today’s pork is safe compared to years past.

Several chefs like the bone-in center-cut loin as their cut of choice. At least two chefs said they partially cooked this cut, chilled it down, and sliced off chops per order, finishing them on the grill to customer specification. In other words, internal temperature of the meat played less of a role than the partial cooking the pork underwent to keep its shape and give it a good outside color. This eliminates the problem of holding a perfectly cooked pork roast for service: The chef cuts off bone-in chops or boneless medallions to order and finishes them on the grill.

Carl Huckaby, chef-owner of Chez Jean, Camby, Ind., uses the center-cut bone-in loin at his operation. He calls the dish pork porterhouse, which is a center-cut chop with the tenderloin attached.

Huckaby roasts the loin in a conventional oven at 350OF to a pre-resting temperature of 130’F. After resting, the internal temperature rises to about 140*F, which is still medium-rare. Customers are then asked how they want their pork done. The kitchen cuts a 2-inch, 2-bone chop off the loin, and the meat is plated like a beef prime rib.

Christopher Ray, executive chef of C.J. Callaways, Sioux Falls, S.D., roasts his pork to an even lower internal temperature than Huckaby. Like Huckaby, Ray favors the center-cutbone-in loin, and he often marinates it in a sweet-salty honey brine, giving the approximately 9-pound loin a 24-hour soak in the marinade.

As a general rule, Ray believes in lower oven temperatures for larger cuts of meat like the rack. Cooking them at higher oven temps, is, for Ray, like working against the cut. “If you cook the meat slowly enough to let the cartilage and collagen cook down or away and go into the meat, then it becomes flavor for the meat,” says Ray. “You need the elements of the cut to work with you.”    

Tracy Cisneros, sous chef at Kinkead’s, Washington, D.C., frenches the rack and sears it in a 450’F convection oven for 10 minutes. This gives the meat a good surface color and helps hold its shape. After the initial searing, the rack-still nearly raw on the inside-is cooled and cut into individual portions, which are grilled to order.

As for internal temperature, Cisneros says roast or finish the pork in the oven to a temperature at least high enough to kill Trichinosis, but don’t overcook it She recommends a final internal temperature of about 145’F.

Shaun Doty executive chef of Mumbo Jumbo Atlanta, recommends rose’ pork, but cautions that the type of cut is more important than just the point of having it pink. Doty says the tenderloin makes an excellent pinkish roast, but overall, he doesn’t like the taste of pork that’s too pink.

Jim Gerhardt, executive chef of The Seelbach Hilton, Louisville, Ky., likes to roast pork to about 140’F to 150’F, then put it in a holding oven, where it stays moist and maintains an even temperature. Interestingly, Gerhardt says most customer expectations are for pork done to medium, adding that customers at his operation are pork devotees, whether it’s cured or fresh ham, bacon, sausage or fresh boneless and bone-in-loin.

Jason Tsoris, executive chef of The Quincy Grille, Chicago, is an advocate of pink pork, so he roasts it in a 3250F oven to an internal temperature of 130’F-quite pink. Tsoris often marinates pork, particularly when using the boneless loin, his favorite cut. Flash finishing in the oven with wine, stock or pan reduction is a way to give the surface some color and cook it to customer specification.

Conclusions For Perfect Roast Pork

Chef magazine and the test kitchen chefs who helped with this project listened to a lot of chefs’ opinions about roasting pork. But we didn’t want to take anyone’s word for granted. We had to see with our own eyes what perfect pork looked like. Along the way, we prodded, poked, squeezed, cut, smelled and, most importantly, tasted a lot of pork.

What we found was a bit of a surprise, given all the talk about pink pork. Our conclusion is this: Pork tastes, looks and has the best mouth feel when it’s “perfectly” done; that is, when the final internal temperature is right around 160*F. At 160’F, pork is white, not pink, but it does have an almost indiscernible rosiness about it. The juices and flesh are gold or bronzy. The aroma is warm and full, with the smell of crispy brown skin and roasted meat. The texture is chewy-tender, with a good “squeak” between the teeth, and a sensation like that of biting into a crisp apple, the mouth flooding with juice.

Undercooking Results In Undesirable Results

On the other hand, undercooked pork gave undesirable results. Despite chefs’ calls for pink pork, they weren’t pleased with the taste of undercooked pork. Below about 155’F, pork has somewhat of an off aroma. The texture is spongy or wobbly, not firm.

Combe-ovens Ideal

Another surprise: the combi-oven. If you haven’t used one before, you might consider trying one now. Combi-ovens cook with a combination of steam and dry heat. In our tests with the combis, we roasted pork using wet heat at the beginning, and finishing with dry heat. This allows for even cooking and coloring throughout. Plus, searing isn’t needed.

Perhaps the most interesting result with the combi: Not only is the roast very moist, it also has great holding ability; an hour later, the meat is still juicy. With the conventional and convection ovens, pork was best when served immediately. This is an important consideration for the chef who wants to serve a pork roast, but might be concerned about holding it throughout an evening’s worth of service.

By far, the best results were achieved in the conventional and combi-ovens. The 4-star roast was a boneless centercut loin cooked in a conventional oven. After rubbing the roast with oil and quickly searing it, the loin was roasted at 250’F to an internal temperature of 130*F.

Oven temperature was raised to 500’F, and the roast was cooked to an internal temperature of 150’F. After a 15-minute rest, the internal temperature rose to 160’F. The result: even cooking and coloring throughout; the crust was brown and crispy; juices were clear; the meat was very moist and tender with a perfect roasted aroma and flavor.

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