pork tenderloin with lemon zest marinade, snapshot by Donna

Our last night in Florida, my mom, having no real plans for dinner, thawed a pork tenderloin she’d been wanting but was in a quandary how to cook it. I find pork tenderloin a little on the ho-hum side, but a marinade 0f some kind would help it considerably.

Marinades can be a contentious subject, especially when you include something acidic, vinegar or citrus juice.  Marinades do not tenderize meat.  I almost never include acid in a marinade because it “cooks” the exterior of the meat (in a good way if you’re making the ceviche below).  If I want something acidic with the meat, I add it just before or during the cooking.  Nor do marinades penetrate the meat, not to any real effect.  If I want flavors to penetrate meat I use salt or a brine to get them in.

What is the purpose of a marinade? Flavor! Marinades flavor the exterior of the meat, clinging to it, cooking with it.  So how to flavor this pork tenderloin?  I thought back to one by Francis Mallman and Peter Kaminsky, from their book Seven Fires, which Peter guest posted here last year that I admired. But we had not a single orange.

We did however have plenty of lemons, and what I liked best about their pork recipe was the cooking of the zest, the “orange confit.”  I used this idea to create a marinade for the pork, one with lots of aromats that would cook with the pork on the grill.  I cut the zest off with a knife, not a zester; it needed to be thick to hold up to the cooking.  The final last step in my strategizing was to make the most use of a marinade.  Since marinades only flavor the surface, I doubled the surface area of the tenderloin by butterflying it.  I cooked strips of zest in olive oil and wine with shallot and garlic, pepper and coriander, and a little brown sugar, let it cool, covered the meat with it and let it sit for a half hour, long enough for the marinade to get its hooks into the meat.

When we grilled it, the lemon and garlic and shallot took on a sweet char, not too much because the pork, flattened, cooked so quickly.  This is an enormously satisfying way to cook a pork tenderloin.

Grilled Pork Tenderloin with Lemon Zest-Thyme Marinade

1 pork tenderloin

salt to taste

1/2 cup olive oil

zest from two lemons, pith removed, cut in thin strips

3 cloves garlic, smashed with a knife

1 shallot, thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon coarsely cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon coarsely cracked coriander

2 tablespoons brown sugar

a bunch of fresh thyme

1/4 cup white wine

Slice the fat end of the tenderloin down the center about three quarters of its length so that you can flatten it out into a uniformly thick piece (I also gave it several whacks with a heavy pan to even it out.  Season the pork with salt with plenty of kosher or sea salt.

In a small pan combine the oil, zest, garlic, shallot, pepper, coriander, brown sugar, and 7 or 8 stems of thyme and cook it over medium high heat until the garlic and shallots are bubbling.  Add the wine, bring the oil back up to heat for a few minutes, then remove the pan from the heat (it should cook for about 10 minutes in all) and allow it to cool till it’s not hot to the touch.

Pour it over the pork, add several more stems of fresh thyme, and let it marinate a half hour (or for up to three days, refrigerated, if you’re making this ahead).

Prepare a hot grill and cook the pork, removing the thyme stems, but keep as much of the aromats as will adhere to the pork, to medium rare.

One tenderloin should serve 4 to 5 people.


31 Wonderful responses to “Marinades: Grilled Pork Tenderloin
with Lemon Zest-Thyme Marinade”

  • wife mom maniac

    I’ve also read repeatedly that marinades change meat chemically to be less carcinogenic when grilled/BBQ’d. Google marinade+cancer and you’ll find heaps of info. It’s considered best for health reasons to marinade meat before grilling/BBQ’ing, adding an acid just before cooking wouldn’t work the same.

  • Jeff

    I agree that the acid changes the texture of the meat and the zest is a great way to get the citrus flavor into the meat without the acid of the juice. A micro-plane will increase the effect. I have a venison recipe that says to marinate in red wine and aromatics for 4 days to tenderize the meat and have the flavor penetrate, but it takes that long. I have a Sauerbraten recipe says to marinate beef bottom round in wine and vinegar for 4 days and that certainly penetrates the meat. Certain fruits when added to the marinade could dissolve a piece of meat if left in too long. Putting the meat and marinade under vacuum will help the flavors penetrate deeper and or can shorten the time required.

  • Veron

    I think marinades with yoghurt will tenderize the meat. I think something in yoghurt breaks down muscle fibers that if you left the meat too long in the marinade it falls apart.

  • Kirsten

    We love pork tenderloin, because it is so quick and easy to prepare. I always marinate it for the extra flavor. Thanks for the new recipe idea.

  • Casey Angelova

    Bulgaria is a very pork heavy country, so I love to try out new recipes. It also helps I have 3 thyme bushes in the garden :)

  • Susan

    This sounds delicious. I guess I’ve been mistaken in thinking that an acidic marinade tenderizes the meat. It’s more likely that the oil in the marinade keeps the meat moist so that cooking doesn’t dry it out and render it tough. Learn something new every day!

  • Barbara

    Just read Tony’s blog over at the Travel Channel. Looks like he’s doing
    an actual cooking show tonight, and will feature several different people
    doing different techniques. Just wondered if you will be demonstrating?

  • Paul

    re: ‘Nor do marinades penetrate the meat’. I remember watching a British show featuring that Heston fellow from The Fat Duck called ‘In Search of Perfection’. He was doing an Indian Dish ( Chicken Tikka Masala i think ? ) and part of his testing he used some sort of xray or MRI machine to measure the how far the different marinades penetrated the meat. I’m certain that they did penetrate through, especially one with yogurt in the mix.

    I highly recommend the series, he does some really cool stuff in it.

  • Cali

    Is there a reason you don’t maximize contact between the marinade and the meat by using a zipper bag?

  • Jose Canseco

    Huh – diffusion, osmosis, hydrolysis, and denaturing don’t occur when there is marinade on meat?

  • Sandy Netherton

    I know exactly what you mean about pork tenderloin. It’s nice to get a new recipe that tempts me. It looks beautiful and delicious.

  • allen

    Americas Test Kitchen just did an episode on pork tenderloin, they used corn starch (seered the loin) to allow adhesion of the basting liquid.

  • Christie Ison

    Thanks for this, and as usual, the amazing photography. Does your mom get worn out with the “extra fuss?” LOL

    I recently did a coffee and peppercorn crust on a pork tenderloin that turned out amazing:

    And as for the acid thing…they told us in culinary school that it does tenderize when used as a marinade. But it could be in the same line as the old thought of searing meat to “hold in juices.” Who knows.

  • bunkycooks

    I imagine the flavors in the marinade would be delicious when grilled with the pork. I am not a huge fan of pork tenderloin, but do find that it is a good option every now and then for dinner. I usually sear mine with seasonings and then finish it in the oven, however, I will try your recipe next time I prepare one.

  • Matthew Adams

    Daniel Clifford of Midsummer House has a brilliant pork loin recipe, that involves cooking it out sous-vide with a few fresh herbs, then resting and wrapping in wafer-thin-bacon-of-your-cultural-choice, that has been spread with with a black pudding puree, then crisping in a hot pan (I think; I’ve only seen this dish made once, but eaten it many times; my version comes out similar enough for me!).

    When I’m doing it at home, I serve with a little more of the black pudding puree, a calvados apple sauce and some cabbage greens wilted in a pan with some blue-cheese infused creme fraiche.

  • John G

    You don’t need to zest the lemon.
    When I use lemon in a marinade, I just chuck the washed lemon, quartered and pips removed, into the food processor with 6 cloves of garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, and powdered mustard. The pith does not contribute any bitterness to the marinade. For use with lamb, add 3 sprigs of rosemary or a generous amount of mint.
    The meat is imbued with rich, earthy, permeating aromas from the moment you remove it from the bag of marinade.

  • bobdelgrosso

    I don’t like acidic marinades either, but have a slightly different take on how they behave.

    If left in contact with the meat long enough (typically >24 hours), acidic marinades will definitely penetrate and permeate. That is why Veron’s yogurt marinade is able to virtually decompose meat: the lactic acid from the yogurt travels throughout the meat and interrupts protein bonding. Also, there are are protein digesting enzymes in fermented milk that penetrate the meat and catalyze the breakdown of muscle fibers thereby making products like yogurt, buttermilk and creme fraiche very effective tenderizers. I never use anything with enzymes to tenderize meat, because I don’t like the resultant texture and prefer to tenderize meat by pounding, grinding or long cooking.

    Acidic marinades that lack proteolytic enzymes and are used for shorter periods of time have, in most instances, negative effects. Here’s why.
    >Whenever you lower the pH of muscle (make it acidic) it lessens its ability to hold water. So an acidic marinade will tend to dry out the outer layers of the meat making it tough and stringy (because the acid interferes with protein bonding).
    >Lowering the pH of protein retards Maillard browning. So meat that has been marinated in an acidic marinade takes longer to brown thus causing the meat to take longer to look “cooked” Because it takes longer to look cooked (browned) it cooks too long and dries out.
    In my investigations of how marinades behave, I have dropped the pH of meat so low that it turns to leather before it browns.
    Lastly, if there is sugar and or salt in an acidic marinade, these two substances will tend to ameliorate the negative effects of low pH because 1) sugar promotes browning 2) sugar and salt both enhance water retention. However, unless there is a lot of sugar and salt, they are not usually sufficient to compensate for the damage done by low pH.

  • troy body

    There is a difference between tradition and bad habits. Marinades are just bad habits that we all have/do. They add absolutely nothing to the meat (that is not true for veggies, though.)

    I don’t know why we do it. Get a quality, well-cut piece of meat – season appropriately during or after cooknig – then enjoy.

  • luis

    I am glad to read your thinking on marinades. I always felt my marinades were falling short of were I want the taste to be.

    So I make sauce to force the flavor. I know, don’t force.. complement..
    I meant complement. But garlic, shallots, sugar, lemon zest..coriander…These are not shy ingredients boss. You did say pork tenderloin is well a bit boring…and I have to agree.

    My foodsaver has this special vaccum chamber attachment that evacuates all the air from inside it and supposedly opens the protein’s pores and allows the marinade to achieve deeper penetration. Then there are the siringes for even deeper massive penetration.

    An issue with marinades is if I am not careful making the sauce similar to the fllavor induced by the marinade I have a probable culinary fooopah!!! in the works. It’s not easy……….

    So… I always reserve half of the marinade to make the sauce from afterwards…Then life in the kitchen is good and the dish tends to work out nicelly.

  • stephen Doherty

    my wife, who is a great cook, hooked me up with a great pork tenderloin recipe, a “marinade/baste of garlic, ginger and soy sauce. The beauty of this baste is that, as you grill, you baste on the soy and it creates a delicious salty crust on the tenderloin that cannot be beat. Try it!!

  • Keith

    Some marinades do penetrate the meat. A typical Indian marinade can be yoghurt based. And is the perfect example.

    Heston Blumenthal, in his In Search of Perfection T.V. series had an episode on Chicken Tikka Masala, where he marinated chicken in yoghurt, and MRI scanned it at several stages.

    After quite a short time, the MRI shows clear penetration, and after several hours, the yoghurt (typical ph circa 4….) has gone very deeply into the meat.

    Depends on the marinade.

    I’ll bow to “Bob above”, on the tenderising aspect.

    • ruhlman

      i do recall seeing that show. I suppose does require some clarification. and yes, i’ve used yogurt marinades with chicken and lamb that definitely impact texture though not in a good way necessarily.

  • robert

    If marinades don’t penetrate my meat, then I guess I can toss my bressaola curing technique out the window?,,,,,,,,