Picture this: You’ve pulled your beautifully prepared pork tenderloin off the grill. After letting it rest for a few minutes, you sharpen your knife and prepare to carve that first slice–only to find that the meat is still pink in the middle. Can pork tenderloin be pink and still be safe to eat?
As luck would have it, there’s no need to panic in this scenario. As long as the meat has reached an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit, it will still be safe to eat. Let’s find out why.
Can Pork Tenderloin Be Pink and Still Be Safe to Eat?
In a word, yes. The pink color doesn’t mean that the meat is undercooked. In fact, when pork is cooked to the recommended internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s normal to see pink in the center. In fact, even when the pork is well done, it might still retain a hint of pink.
Pork Tenderloin in a Nutshell
The pork tenderloin is a long, cylindrical cut of meat that’s taken from the central spine region of the hog. The muscle doesn’t get much use, which contributes to the tenderness of the meat. Beef tenderloin, which is often cut into medallions to make filet mignon and beef tournedos, has a similar texture.
Because the tenderloin is a very lean cut, the meat doesn’t have a lot of pork flavor. As a trade-off, it cooks quickly and readily absorbs marinades and seasonings.
At What Temperature is Pork Tenderloin Considered Safe to Eat?
For years, people lived in fear of cooked pork that didn’t have a matte grayish hue. We’re fortunate that we no longer live in such uninformed times, as properly cooked pork tenderloin is one of life’s greatest pleasures.
The USDA once recommended cooking pork until it reached an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit. At these temperatures, the meat is completely opaque and, yes, somewhat gray in the center. This resulted in generations of diners believing that pork was underdone if there was any pink meat visible at all.
To be fair, these fears were not unfounded at the time. Uncooked pork can harbor trichinosis, a parasite that causes serious illness when consumed. These days, the risk of contracting trichinosis is extremely minimal.
Eating raw pork can still put you at risk of contracting illness from E. coli bacteria. That’s why the USDA recommends cooking pork to an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. In this state, the meat still might be pink in the center, but it’s perfectly safe to consume. This rule was officially changed in 2011, and it was an eye-opener for many home chefs.
If the sight of pink pork tenderloin puts you off, it’s fine to cook the meat a bit longer. However, be sure to remove it from the heat as soon as the temperature reaches 150 degrees. If you leave it on any longer, the meat will be overcooked and dry (see How to Tell When Pork is Done, below).
What Does the Pink Color Mean?
If you’ve ever cooked steaks on the grill, you’ll know that you can determine the “doneness” of the meat based on the color. A shiny red center means rare, a pink center indicates medium doneness, and when the meat is light brown it’s considered well done.
This test doesn’t apply to pork for several reasons. First of all, if the pork has a high pH factor, the meat might remain pink even after it’s been cooked to a high temperature. You’ll be able to tell whether this is the case if the pink color becomes more evident after you’ve carved the tenderloin into slices.
Pork that’s been pre-cooked and vacuum-packed is also prone to something called “color reversion,” also known as “return to redness.” In these cases, the pork can turn pink again even though the meat was cooked to a safe temperature before it was packed. This is why you should never rely on color alone when you’re testing pork for doneness.
Preparing Pork Tenderloin For the Grill
When buying pork tenderloin, look for meat that has a glossy pink exterior. There should be no discoloration or graying areas whatsoever. The tenderloin will usually be dark pink, but a lighter color is also acceptable.
Before cooking the pork, pat the meat dry with paper towels. Remove the silverskin, which is the gray-white strip of connective tissue that runs down the entire length of the tenderloin. Just insert a short, sharp knife beneath the silverskin, starting at the butt end of the tenderloin, then carefully peel it off.
Season the pork with a blend of brown sugar, cumin, smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper. You can keep it simple with salt and pepper, but remember that the pork has a very mild flavor, so be sure to season the meat well or it may come out too bland.
Before putting the meat on the grill, let it rest at room temperature for about half an hour. During this time, you can preheat the grill to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. For gas and charcoal grills, a medium-hot fire should do the trick.
Cook the pork tenderloin for about 20 minutes total, rotating the meat every 5 minutes or so to ensure even cooking.
A Word About Marinades
Instead of using a seasoning rub to flavor the pork, you might consider using a liquid marinade instead. Here are a few of our favorite recipes:
Teriyaki: Whisk together canola oil, tamari or soy sauce, pineapple juice, and dry sherry. Add a few smashed cloves of garlic and a tablespoon of freshly grated ginger.
Lemon Pepper: Combine freshly squeezed lemon juice, white vinegar, olive oil, kosher salt, and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.
Maple Dijon: Use red wine vinegar, coarse-grain mustard, maple syrup, olive oil, and finely chopped fresh rosemary.
Mexican Carnitas: Mix together fresh orange and lime juices, olive oil, fresh cilantro, ground cumin, chili powder, oregano, garlic powder, and salt.
When marinating pork, always use a nonreactive container or zip-top bag. We would recommend the bag method, as it allows the ingredients to fully surround the pork. Just be sure to squeeze as much air as possible out of the bag before sealing it.
Try not to leave the pork tenderloin in the marinade for longer than 3 hours, especially if the marinade contains acidic ingredients. If it marinates for too long, the pork might have an unpleasantly gummy texture once it’s cooked.
How to Tell When Pork is Done
Some people like to use the “nick and peek” method to check their meat for doneness. This consists of cutting into the meat and inspecting its color to determine whether or not it needs more time on the grill.
That’s not a good idea in this case because the pork is so lean. If you cut into the tenderloin, it will lose much of its juicy texture. In any case, when it comes to pork, color is not a good indicator of doneness (see What Does the Pink Color Mean?, above).
Instead, rely on an instant-read thermometer to get the job done. The digital readout will give you your answer right away, without causing undue damage to your finished product.
Once the pork has reached your desired temperature, remove it from the grill and set it aside to rest. Don’t forget that it will continue to cook during this time, which should bring the temperature up another 5 degrees or so.
Slice the tenderloin into medallions before serving. If you’d like, you can also drizzle it with the pan juices to keep the meat nice and moist. If you’re serving it with a sauce, we would recommend passing the sauce separately at the table instead of drowning out the meat.
Be sure to refrigerate any leftovers. If cooked pork is left at room temperature for longer than two hours, it should be discarded immediately.
So, can pork tenderloin be pink in the center and still be safe? Absolutely. Although it’s possible to tell when beef has finished cooking based on color, the same can’t be said of pork. The pink color doesn’t necessarily indicate rawness, which is why it’s important to rely on a thermometer rather than going on sight alone.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!