Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Thomas Keller's Brined Pork Tenderloin (and a lesson about varying salt densities)

I don't often write about my cooking failures. Truth is, I don't have too many. Sure, I make dishes that I'm not wild about -- I don't post about those either because why would I want to share a recipe that isn't all that great? Every once in a while I'll make something I don't like, but then I'll mess around with it until I am happy with it (a certain lamb vindaloo comes to mind...). Recently though, I had an Epic Fail that led to a noteworthy lesson learned so I am going to share.

My March Cookbook of the Month is Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home. When my sister and BIL were here a couple of weeks ago, I decided to make Keller's Brined Pork Tenderloin since they are fans of both brining and pork. We've brined our turkeys for at least the last four or five Thanksgivings, and in between the holidays, gone on kicks during which we brined chicken and various cuts of pork before throwing it on the grill. DH's award-winning barbecued chicken thighs were brined before being rubbed, grilled and sauced.
The recipe's use of preserved lemons is another reason that the dish caught my eve. A couple of weeks prior, I had been unable to resist Earth Fare's offer of 10 Meyer lemons for $2.00. Since I didn't have any immediate plans to use them, I decided to try my hand at preserving lemons as I've seen a number of recipes that I'd like to make that call for preserved lemons. Keller's book includes a recipe for preserving lemons, but it was not on my radar at the time so I used this recipe which calls for blanching six lemons, then cutting each in 8 wedges and discarding the seeds. The lemons are tossed with 2/3 cup coarse salt (I used Morton's Kosher) and packed into a jar, or in my case, jars. After 5 days, a layer of olive oil is added on top of the lemons and the jars are refrigerated. My lemons were ready and waiting.

The recipe for Brined Pork Tenderloin is on page 64 of Ad Hoc at Home. The pork brine recipe, however, is on page 339. Okay, I can deal with that. The recipe for the pork brine looked pretty straightforward -- honey, herbs, garlic and peppercorns are combined with a cup of kosher salt and 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil, stir to dissolve the salt, then cool before using. Add the pork tenderloins and brine for not more than 4 hours. Below the pork brine recipe, the reader is referred to page 75 ("Brining Meats and Fish") and page 52 ("On Salt"). And if you don't go to page 52, chances are your Brined Pork Tenderloin is going to be barely edible because that's where Keller tells you this important tidbit: "Because of the wide variations in salt densities, we recommend you weigh salt when you're using a lot of it, as in brine."

Michael Ruhlman also discusses the varying weights of salts in Charcuterie. According to Ruhlman, a cup of Morton's Kosher salt (which I use) weighs almost 8 ounces. A cup of Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt weigh's 4.8 ounces. That's a big difference! In Ruhlman's Charcuterie, the measurements are based on Morton's Kosher Salt. That works well for me. In Keller's pork brine recipe specifies Diamond Crystal... which means that I used almost twice as much salt as I should have.

So while the pork tenderloin was beautifully cooked, it was waaay too salty. And my lovely preserved Meyer lemons were lost in all that salt. Saving graces: rocking side dishes, a confession by my BIL that he had made a similar mistake with an even worst outcome, and a really excellent lesson about salt density and the science behind brining.

I tell my students they have to read the footnotes, and most are surprised at that expectation. Apparently, Keller wants us to follow the page references. Not really too much to ask I guess, just not what I'm accustomed to in a cookbook for home cooks.

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