Dry-cured pork tenderloin

I'm not a big meat eater, but as a typical Frenchman, if there's one thing I have a hard time living without — aside from bread & cheese — it's charcuterie. Most types of charcuterie have to be made in curing caves with highly controlled temperature and humidity levels, but some of the simpler variants can be done at home without any sort of complicated setup.

I've prepared quite a few kilos of dry-cured meat this past year, from duck magrets to italian pitinas, but my favorite so far has to be pork tenderloin or as we call it, « filet mignon ». Strong flavor, low-fat, tender. The perfect protein-fueled snack. It also works wonders with red wine (just saying).

Ingredients

  • Pork tenderloin
  • Kosher salt1
  • White sugar2
  • Pepper
  • Wild garlic
  • Herbes de provence3

No quantity is specified on this list; we'll calculate everything after weighing the meat, as you'll see later on. Note that you will also need access to the following kitchen tools:

  • Vacuum sealer
  • Precision scale

Recipe

Start by dressing the meat. Grab a sharp butcher knife, remove any visible nerves and the big chunks of fat tissue, if any. Do not trim all the fat, though; leaving some does help with flavor.

Once you're done, put it on a scale and note its weight.

The first step in dry-curing meat is to cure it with salt. This will kill harmful bacteria and initiate the dehydration process by extracting a good part of the water contained in the meat. This is generally done by burying the meat in salt and waiting 12 to 24 hours, but I'm not too fond of this method as it wastes a tremendous amount of salt.

This is where our vacuum sealer comes into play.

We'll use the 4-2-1 rule, as in 4% salt, 2% sugar and 1% spices. For instance, the tenderloin I'm dealing with here is 470g so I'll use:

  • 18.8g salt
  • 9.4g sugar
  • 4.7g spices
    • 1g black pepper
    • 1g wild garlic
    • 2.7g (remainder) herbes de provence

We know what the salt is for. What about the rest?

Sugar is used to improve the flavor and keep nitrites in, which in turn prevents the development of some microbiological organisms, and as an added bonus, helps keep this nice « deep red » meat color. Pepper won't make it spicier but will add an additional antiseptic action (better safe than sorry). The rest is just about taste.

Put all of these in a bowl and mix them well.

Lay down some plastic wrap, put the tenderloin on top and spread the salt & spice mix on the meat by massaging it and making sure to fill every nook and cranny.

Wrap it up, no need to over-tighten it.

Vacuum seal it. Look for the thickest part of the tenderloin and measure its width, divide that number by two and add one. This will dictate how many days you'll need to keep it vacuum-sealed. For instance, mine were all ~6cm wide. So they'll need to be cured for 4 days (6 / 2 + 1).

Put it in the fridge and turn it upside down every day.

Once these few curing days are over, remove the tenderloin from its vacuum bag. Beside the divine smell, notice how much water got extracted from it! Rince all the salt and spices away using cold, slow-running water and dry the meat delicately afterwards using clean paper towels.

Don't worry about drenching it in water, it won't have time to absorb any of it back so it won't negate the dehydration process that started earlier.

Once all is clean & dry, do another spice mix without any salt or sugar this time. Quantities are less important at this point. It's all about taste. In my case I used black pepper, some wild garlic and enough herbes de provence to cover the whole piece. I also did a « red variant » using black pepper, paprika and espelette chili pepper. It's up to you, really, this is the part where you should experiment.

Spread this mix on the meat as before, covering as much as possible.

Put it on a cooling rack to keep the air flowing around it, and drop it in the lower section of your fridge.

And now we wait.

From this point forward, you should leave the meat alone and only check its weight every few days. The goal is to reach an approximate 40% weight loss, which is considered the sweet spot for dry-cured pork tenderloin. If you like it softer, try 35%. Drier, more like 45%. For a ~450g piece of meat, it takes between 10 and 14 days for me.

Now, once you've reached the desired weight loss it means the dry-curing process is done! Can you eat it now? Yes. But if you try and cut it, you'll notice that it hasn't dried homogeneously, it's actually drier on the outside and the inside is still a bit raw. We call this a crust. This happens because we cured it in a fridge, and modern fridges are notoriously dry & colder than actual curing chambers, so the outside part of the meat cured too fast, thus trapping the humidity in the center.

The good news is that it's very easy to fix.

Vacuum-seal it again, drop it in the fridge, and forget about it for two more weeks! Because it's in a vacuum, the drying process will stop, and the meat will balance itself with time.

And that's it, you're done! Note that you can keep it vacuum-sealed in the fridge for quite some time, so you don't have to eat it immediately — I stored some for more than 30 days before opening them up and they turned-out perfect, as pictured below.

1

I use « Sel de Guérande », but any coarse and clean salt will do.

2

Do not use brown sugar; we're dealing with raw pork meat here, so don't any chance, use clean, processed crystal sugar.

3

A blend of dry thyme, rosemary, savory, marjoram, and oregano that is used a lot in France, especially with grilled foods. But you can use whatever herb you like, really. Be creative.