Do you have to cook pork to well done? Quite simply, no. And the USDA agrees.
But we used to, but why not now? Because it’s not the middle ages.
For years, decades and even centuries, people overcooked and ate dry, tough pork. They did so for good reason. Pigs ate garbage for the most part which could infect the pig with all kinds of nasty things that could get into our bodies if not killed during the cooking process.
Like what? Trichinosis for one. Trichinosis is not a disease but a parasite. The trichina worm comes into the body and gets lodged in the intestines where they latch on and produce larvae that pass through your intestinal wall, travel through the bloodstream before they burrow through muscle tissue. That sounds pleasant: worms burrowing through muscle mass. What’s the cure? None until the little buggers die off on their own. To counter that, people cooked pork to at least 160, but most didn’t stop there and took it all the way to 190 or 200. Nothing like a bootstrap pork chop!
Modern pig farming is regulated by the government and thus the trichina worm is non-existent in the commercial pork industry. They aren’t fed garbage and thus what goes into the meat counter and onto our plates does not need to spend hours in a blast furnace to make sure there isn’t anything extra in a mess of baby back ribs or some pork tenderloin. Speaking of pork tenderloin, it’s OK for it to look like this:
The USDA also mentions resting. What is that all about? Grilling the meat to 145 is not the final step in the process. Resting allows for the juices, which are in an excited state from the heat, to calm down and redistribute throughout the cut rather than leaking all over the cutting board the moment you slice into that piping hot meat. The USDA recommends a three minute rest time. That’s a little misleading. Yes, resting is good, but different size cuts require different resting times. A thick 12 ounce pork chop could go with a three minute rest but a three pound pork loin would need 10 minutes.
What should I do if someone will not let the old habit die of not eating pork unless it truly lives up to the “Other White Meat” ad slogan and I have to cook it to 160 or beyond? That’s a tough one, particularly with something like a pork loin or pork loin chop that has little fat in it already and a very narrow window to ensure it is tender and juicy even if it could be cooked less than 160? The simple answer is to add more liquid before the meat ever hits the grill. In other words, brine. Brining, in its most simple form, is soaking meat in a saltwater solution for 2-12 hours.
But salt dries things out, right? Salt yes, saltwater, no. And I mean water with table salt added to it, not seawater.
The salt solution actually will push liquid into a solution that is less salty, in this case, the liquid inside the meat that’s soaking in the brine. So fluid is forced out of the salt solution and into the meat. Saltwater also breaks down connective tissue so it will make the meat more tender. Both of these things make the window for cooking a pork loin to 160 and still have it tender and juicy that much larger. And to take the process a step farther, add some flavor to the saltwater and it will be carried into the meat. For instance, instead of water use fruit juice or soda. For the latter, root beer, with its robust flavor profile works wonders. For the former, don’t use citrus juice as the acid will actually cook the meat before it ever sees a grill. My go-to brine is apple juice (I prefer cider when I can get it in the colder months), a ¼ cup of minced garlic (I used the jarred, pre minced stuff for this), salt (1 cup salt:1 gallon fluid is the ratio), and black pepper. If I only have a couple hours to brine, I add 50% more salt.
The USDA says you don’t have to cook pork to 145, but if one of your guests insists, brine to compensate.
The USDA says that ground pork still needs to be cooked to at least 160. Why the difference? Because when the meat is ground, bacteria is mixed into the inside of the meat whereas a cut of muscle like a pork chop or loin will have no harmful bacteria on the inside. My idea of a great steak involves knocking the hooves and horns off and walking the cow near a grill, but not too close. When I grill a burger, I grill it to medium. Ground beef and ground pork both need to be cooked through to 160 to ensure the bacteria is killed.