Everything you need to know to ensure it's just right every time.

By Micah A Leal
December 15, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Hector Sanchez

Regardless of the cut of pork, the finished cooking temperature should be 145°F for tough and tender pork alike. For an accurate temperature reading when checking for doneness, make sure your meat thermometer is not touching bone, fat, or gristle. It’s also imperative to allow the meat to rest for a few minutes. The guidelines of the USDA say that the meat should rest for at least 3 minutes as this time allows for the last of any harmful bacteria to be killed by the 145°F temperature, but for most large cuts of meat (like a tenderloin or pork chop), the meat should rest for at least 15 minutes so the juices in the meat do not leak from the flesh when cut (usda.gov).

In terms of safety, the main focus should be ensuring you raise internal temperature of the meat to 145°F. However, the other most important factor is taste. Cooking meat is complex, because the composition of different meat cuts are not the same. Different muscles have varying amounts of collagen, fat, and meat fibers and are best when prepared with a certain kind of heat for either a short time or a prolonged cook time.

Tough Cuts of Pork: Cooking Time and Temperature

Muscles that are more responsible for movement or weight bearing are tougher and have larger deposits of collagen in the meat. Collagen breaks down into gelatin when the meat maintains a temperature of 160°F for a prolonged period of time, and it’s this liquified gelatin that makes the meat succulent and moist when prepared properly.

The juiciest pork ribs and the tenderest pork shoulders (Boston butts) are always prepared in lower heat for longer periods of time to allow plenty of time for collagen break down. These muscles should be cooked for a long time at a temperature at or below 275°F until the meat is tender. For this reason, these cuts are often used in slow-cooker recipes because the slow cooker gently cooks the meat for hours at a time. But with this prolonged time comes the threat of moisture loss, so a liquid for the meat to cook in is essential to maintain the moistness of the meat. 

Tender Cuts of Pork: Cooking Time and Temperature

The muscles that are used the least by the animal are the most prized for their tenderness and juiciness. If prepared like the tough cuts of meat, the tender pork would be dry and hard (why you won’t find a good pork tenderloin recipe for a slow cooker). The general rule is that these cuts should be cooked at a high temperature for the briefest period of time it takes to reach an internal temperature of 145°F.

The most foolproof way to prepare a cut like a pork tenderloin or a nice bone-in pork chop is to sear the outside of the seasoned meat in a cast iron to make a nice crust before transferring the cast iron to a hot oven (425°F) until a thermometer reads 145°F at the thickest part of the meat. As soon as the thermometer indicates the proper temperature, the meat should be set aside to rest, as the tender (and expensive) cuts are the easiest to overcook. Compared to the several hours it takes to prepare a large tough cut of meat, these cuts are done cooking much faster—typically less than half an hour. This quick method of cooking allows for minimal muscle fiber firming and moisture loss, resulting in mouth watering and tender cuts of pork.

Knowing the science behind the times and temperatures best suited for different cuts of pork makes you a formidable cook with the intuition so many professional chefs rely on in their day-to-day work.