This Little Piggy I
FOOD FOR THOUGHT - September 12, 2007 Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Archive
This is the first of a two-part article about pork. In this half we will discuss some general issues about pork. In the next edition of “Food for Thought” we will review the specific cuts of pork and how they should be cooked.
(This Little Piggy II)
It is universally agreed that the pig is one of the most bountiful animals on the planet; hence the saying that everything but its squeal is useful. While various parts of the animal are employed for a wide range of purposes, its meat, known as pork, is the focus of our concern. Pork is an extremely versatile meat and takes well to multiple cooking and flavoring techniques.
Let’s not waste any time. I want to get right down to business and address one of the oldest and most tenacious myths of the culinary world, namely that pork should be cooked well done. Decades ago, prior to modern methods of animal husbandry, pigs ran the risk of being contaminated with trichinae, a parasitic roundworm. Roaming free to forage on whatever refuse they could find, pigs would ingest the little bugger and become infected. If their meat was not then cooked to the proper temperature, the parasite would be transferred to the human host. Ignorant to the exact nature of the pathogen and what temperature spelled its demise, the only viable solution to ensure safety was overcooking the meat. People were specifically instructed that no pink color should remain.
We now know that trichinae croaks at 137 degrees Fahrenheit and that some pinkness to the meat is not only safe, but desirable. Moreover, it is virtually unheard of for today’s pork to be infected with the parasite due to modern production methods. Trichinosis is quite rare in the US with less than 20 cases a year, with almost all of these deriving from wild game.
Most chefs recommend cooking pork to a temperature in the 140’s, not 170+ as in the antiquated directions. The 140’s is sufficiently above the 137-degree marker and allows for some variance in your thermometer. (Carry-over cooking will raise the temp even further). Every degree you go over this zone buys you no additional safety. Even if trichinae were present, (a big if), they’re already dead. The only thing to be accomplished by additional cooking is rendering the meat drier and tougher.
This is precisely the problem with visual indicators such as eliminating any pink when cooking pork or looking for the juices to run clear on chicken. Prior to advances in food science, and the widespread use of thermometers, there was no way of knowing the precise temperature when meat was safely cooked. There was no choice but to rely on visual indicators, all of which occur at temperatures beyond the safety zone and knocking on the door of leather-ville. Nevertheless, generations of Americans have associated pink pork and unclear poultry juices with the bubonic plague.
Unfortunately, notwithstanding our gains in food science, modernization does not always bring psychological advancement. Despite our increased knowledge of pork biology and the virtual eradication of trichinosis, legions of Americans remain steadfast in their beliefs about incinerating pork, incited by their fears of food-borne illness.
Ironically, the biggest “outbreak” in this country has been a full blown neurosis regarding food, fueled by a host of new fears. For example, because of our obsession with fat-phobia, the pork producers have genetically engineered and bred pigs to be leaner, as much as a third leaner than the porkers of yesteryear. And while the health fanatics are cheering, the rest of us who don’t have issues with food, are now forced to consume drier, tougher pork. So now, when you combine modern pork with the “well done” myth, it’s no wonder most pork chops are the equivalent of shoe leather.
One way to beat the system and add much needed moisture to your pork is to brine it. A brine is basically a salt-water solution. Via the process of osmosis meat soaked in a brine will absorb some of the fluid and therefore be juicier. Moreover, the salt thwarts some of the coagulation of the protein strands during cooking, thus rendering them more tender. The meat will also absorb some salt, (not as much as you’d think), but nevertheless you can compensate by not salting the exterior as much prior to cooking. The meat will also absorb other flavor elements in the brine. Therefore, brines may contain sugar, fruit juices, aromatic vegetables, herbs, spices, etc. But at the very least, employ one cup kosher salt for every gallon of water. Dissolve the salt in the water and submerge the pork. The larger the piece, the longer the soak. Thin pork chops need only an hour or two, 4-6 hours for thick chops, 6-8 for a whole tenderloin, and overnight for a whole loin. When finished brining remove the pork, dry it off with paper towels, and proceed with your recipe.
When choosing pork look for meat that is pale pink in color. The darker the pink, the older the animal was when slaughtered and the less tender it will be. Try to find specimens with decent marbling, which can be tough to do nowadays. Marbling is the intramuscular fat which adds flavor and richness to the meat. Pork, (like all meat) packs a wallop of protein and B vitamins, as well as decent amounts of phosphorous, zinc, magnesium and iron. Just like beef, ground pork will spoil faster then whole cuts. Use fresh, refrigerated pork within 2 days. Freeze for 3-6 months depending on the size. See you at the next edition of “Food for Thought” where we’ll be happy as a pig in…….uh…….chopped rosemary?
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