A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don’t count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we’re guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re making extra-juicy, spicy-sweet pork tenderloin for dinner.
Of all the pork in all the land, tenderloin is, by far, the most searched-for cut. It racks up roughly 135,000 Google searches a month—25,000 more than second and third place (a tie between baked pork chops and pork chops), and 61,000 more than fourth place (pulled pork).
This makes sense when you consider its fat content, which is minimal. Tenderloin is the animal’s trimmest cut, on par with a skinless chicken breast. So, for anyone looking for lean protein, tenderloin probably seems pretty cool.
The fine print is that lean proteins can be tricky to imbue with flavor and even trickier to cook well. Not only does fat equal flavor, it also prevents meat from drying out. While a well-marbled cut like pork shoulder has cooking insurance (you could braise a two-pound hunk for three or four hours and it’s delicious no matter what), tenderloin has less room for error.
This is where brining comes in.
In a nutshell, brining means either salting something (dry brine) or submerging it in saltwater (wet brine). As food science expert J. Kenji Lopez-Alt notes in The Food Lab, “By brining meat, you can decrease the amount of total moisture loss by 30 to 40 percent.” Which is great. The only catch is flavor. Because while a wet brine seasons the meat with salt, it also dilutes the overall flavor with water.
How, then, do you get a pork tenderloin that’s both juicy and flavorful? You flavor the brine.
This could go in a billion directions, give or take. You could use gin or feta water or pickle juice. Today, we’re using kimchi brine—that salty, spicy, funky, bright-red liquid left behind in a jar.
My first job out of college was working as a line cook at a farm-to-table Korean restaurant, where I learned to make kimchi by hand, and took to eating it for most meals. Though my job has changed several times since, kimchi is still a staple in my fridge—for grain bowls, eggy fried rice, nori hand rolls, vegetable soup, and, my current favorite, never-dry pork.
In Big Little style, we’ll use the kimchi not one, not two, but three different ways:
- Kimchi juice plus water and salt equals a spicy (but not too spicy) and salty (but not too salty) brine, where pork can thrive. Just make sure that you dry it really, really well before searing, or else it won’t brown fully.
- After searing the pork tenderloin, add chopped kimchi and diced apples directly to the pan. (Apples get along great with pork and bring some much-needed sweetness to the mix.) As the pork finishes in the oven, the kimchi and apples caramelize alongside—a built-in side dish.
- As soon as you add the kimchi and apples, add more kimchi juice and a honking pat of butter. This simmers into a glossy sauce. Delicious, yes! Also further insurance that if your tenderloin goes beyond its happy temperature (140°F to 145°F), you’re covered.
This recipe is a dinner in itself—but if you want to bulk things up with a starch, polenta, rice, sourdough, or cornbread would all be eager to join in. And really who could blame them?