In Praise of Pork Loin
This question pops up regularly on barbecue-oriented social media sites: “Can I make pulled pork from a pork loin roast?”
In a word, no. By the time you smoke-roast this cut to 200 degrees—the point at which the collagen breaks down and the meat fibers separate—the pork will be insufferably dry. Mega-drought dry. Pork loin roast is simply too lean to treat this way; it lacks the rich intramuscular fat that makes slow-cooked pork shoulder, the proper cut for pulled pork, one of the stars of American barbecue.
Another common misconception is that pork loin and pork tenderloin are the same. They are not. A pork loin roast, which can be bone-in or boneless, is harvested from an area between the shoulder and leg. It is 4 to 5 inches in diameter and can weigh up to 20 pounds. Usually, however, it is sold in 2- to 4-pound portions feeding 4 to 8 people or more. A pork tenderloin is always boneless. It lays near the spine and is significantly smaller—usually not much more than a pound; it serves 2 to 3 people.
A pork loin roast is also distinguished by a cap of fat and by the fact that it could have bones. (Surely you’ve seen the magnificent crown roasts of pork sold around the holidays.) When cut apart, individual portions are sold as pork chops.
How to Prepare Pork Loin for Grilling or Smoking:
A pork loin roast—especially a boneless one—is one of the most versatile cuts of meat you can grill or smoke. It’s also relatively inexpensive, and in our experience, has been plentiful even as other meats have become scarce or pricy in the wake of the Covid pandemic. Here are a few of the many ways it can be prepared:
- Roasted whole (bone-in or boneless) using indirect heat or a smoke-enhanced fire;
- Butterflied and stuffed, like Tuscan porchetta, and roasted indirectly;
- Cubed and threaded on skewers for kebabs;
- Shaped into a crown roast (requires 12 bones) and tied with kitchen twine;
- Brined (cured) and smoked, as in Canadian bacon
- Spit-roasted on a rotisserie
- Sliced into chops or steaks and direct grilled;
- Draped in slices of bacon or covered with a bacon weave and roasted;
- Sliced into thin cutlets, pounded to enlarge, then stuffed and grilled for a kind of pork braciola;
- Thinly sliced for live-fire stir-fries in a cast iron skillet, in a grill wok, or on a plancha.
The loin’s mild meat pairs beautifully with a wide range of ingredients from the world’s food cultures, and is compatible with just about any barbecue rub, sauce, or glaze you can imagine.
Or purchase from a local farmer or meat market whose products you trust implicitly. (Unlike beef, pork is not graded, so it’s imperative that you find a good source.) Look for meat that exhibits a healthy pink color; the meat will be somewhat darker if it comes from Heritage breeds.
Many of us remember when pork roasts were usually overcooked and predictably dry. Harboring a fear of trichinosis (which was a valid concern generations ago when hogs were fattened on garbage), the meat was often cooked to a dessicating 180 degrees. Today, the minimum USDA-recommended temperature for pork is 145 degrees. And boy, does that 35 degrees make a difference. (Note: Ground pork should be cooked to 160 degrees.) The meat will still be slightly pink, but will be considerably more tender and juicy.
Pork Loin Recipes to Try:
Here are links to several of our favorite pork loin recipes.