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Fire up the grill for juicier pork

The USDA recently lowered the internal cooking temperature for pork, allowing for juicier, more tender pork dishes. .

By Matt Reese

During the summer grilling season when meats aplenty and fire are united for top-notch seasonal dining, a favorite in the Reese house is slow-cooked pork tenderloin on the grill. While otherwise God-fearing law-abiding folks, the Reese family’s grilling techniques for pork tenderloin, though, have long been a dark secret due to our blatant disregard of federal government recommendations.

Three burners are required on the grill. The outside two burners are left on low and the middle is turned off, with the pork raised up slightly off the grill surface above the middle burner. The low temperature and slow cooking allow for apple wood smoke to penetrate the meat rubbed with ample seasonings.

The key, of course, is not over cooking the meat so it remains moist and tender. After about 45 minutes or so, the pork needs to be checked fairly regularly with a thermometer so it can be promptly removed from the grill when it is just under 145 degrees. It then must be quickly wrapped in foil, and left to sit for up to an hour to let it finish cooking. The resulting delicious, tender, moist meat, complete with a pink smoke ring, never fails to dazzle diners with its apple-smoked flavor. Mmmmm…delicious.

Now, if you know anything about cooking pork, that 145 degrees has long been lower than proper according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards that have recommended cooking pork to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. With that in mind, Reese grillers (my father developed the technique and I claim to have perfected it) have been grilling on the fringe, thwarting the system with technically undercooked, though delicious, pork – a dark secret indeed.

But, we are pork-temperature-deviants no longer thanks to a welcome change from the USDA. The federal agency recently announced that pork can be consumed safely when cooked to an internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit, followed by a three-minute rest time. The new recommended temperature is a significant 15 degrees less than what was previously recommended and typically will yield a finished product that is pinker in color.

“Our consumer research has consistently shown that Americans have a tendency to overcook common cuts of pork, resulting in a less-than-optimal eating experience,” said Dianne Bettin, a pork producer from Truman, Minn., and chair of the Checkoff’s Domestic Marketing Committee. “The new guidelines will help consumers enjoy pork at its most flavorful, juicy – and safe – temperature.”

The revised recommendation applies to pork whole-muscle cuts, such as loin, chops and roasts. Ground pork, like all ground meat, should be cooked to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Regardless of cut or cooking method, both the USDA and National Pork Board recommend using a digital cooking thermometer to ensure an accurate final temperature.

This new recommendation stems from a 2007 Pork Checkoff-funded research project conducted by Ohio State University to measure consumer eating preferences. As part of that project, university researchers tested how various end-cooking temperatures affected eating preferences. But the researchers needed to know if temperatures below 160 degrees would be safe if that turned out to be consumers’ preference.

From there, a Pork Checkoff funded study with Exponent Inc., an engineering and scientific consulting firm, to evaluate any food-safety implications of cooking temperatures within a range of 145-160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Additional Checkoff-funded research conducted by Texas A&M supports the fact that meat temperature continues to rise after being removed from the heat. With this in mind, USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service agreed that the cooking temperature for pork could be lowered.

“It’s great news that home cooks can now feel confident to enjoy medium-rare pork, like they do with other meats,” said Guy Fieri, a chef, restaurateur and host of several food-focused television programs. “Pork cooked to this temperature will be juicy and tender. The foodservice industry has been following this pork cooking standard for nearly 10 years.”

And now the foodservice industry (and the Reeses) can finally enjoy delicious, guilt-free pork cooked to 145 degrees, in perfect accord with the recommendations of the land.

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