My Goals

  • Tender, juicy interior

  • Rich crust

  • Flavorful seasoning and garnish

Anyone who has simply thrown a pork tenderloin over a hot fire knows that its exterior will quickly overcook before its interior comes up to temperature, guaranteeing a thick gray band of dry meat between the tenderloin’s crust and its thicker center. That’s why many pork tenderloin grilling recipes call for setting up a half-grill fire, where the hot coals are spread evenly over just half the bottom of the grill. That way, there’s a hotter side for searing the meat to develop flavorful browning and a cooler side for cooking it gently so that it stays tender and juicy. But does it matter if you sear the meat before or after it cooks on the cooler side?

To find out, I seasoned four pork tenderloins with salt and pepper, set up two grills with half-grill fires, and started one pair of tenderloins over the cooler sides and the other pair over the hotter sides. We’ve successfully used this reverse-searing technique in the past to cook pan-seared thick steaks and beef roasts, so I was placing my bets on the pair started on the cooler sides of the grills. In this setup, the bulk of the cooking takes place over low heat, resulting in meat that is cooked evenly from edge to edge (the lower the temperature, the less variation in doneness).

We often employ a reverse-searing technique when grilling steaks. That method didn’t exactly translate to lean pork—but could switching the order of operations give us the rich crust and perfectly cooked interior we were after?
Searing the meat first, when any charcoal grill would be at its hottest, was the best way to guarantee a rich crust and a juicy, rosy interior every time.

But as it turned out, this technique didn’t translate well to grilling pork tenderloins. The key with reverse searing is knowing when to move the meat from low heat to high heat to ensure that the interior is just cooked through at the same time the meat is sufficiently browned. Stovetop heat is fairly standard, meaning meat will brown within the same narrow window of time from one stove to the next. But the heat output of grills (especially gas grills) is far more variable. Moving the meat to the hotter side when it reaches, say, 110 degrees might give it enough time to brown on one grill, but it might take far longer on another.

Searing the meat first, when any charcoal grill would be at its hottest, was the best way to guarantee a rich crust and a juicy, rosy interior every time. To minimize any gray band, I also turned the meat every 2 minutes as it seared (it took about 8 minutes total) and again every 5 minutes once I moved it to the cooler side.

We take advantage of the hotter side of the grill to cook some ingredients for a quick salsa that complements the delicate flavor of the pork tenderloin.

All these beautifully browned tenderloins needed was a bit more seasoning and character. So I applied a simple spice rub to the exteriors of the roasts: salt; sugar, which aided browning; and cumin and chipotle chile powder for savory smokiness. I also created an easy grilled pineapple–onion salsa that added bright punch and made use of the hotter side of the grill while the tenderloins cooked through on the cooler side.

Keys to Success

  • Tender, juicy interior

    Flipping the pork often as it cooks—every 2 minutes while it sears and every 5 minutes once it’s on the cooler side of the grill—minimizes overcooking directly under the surface.
  • Rich crust

    Searing the pork before moving it to the cooler side of the grill guarantees that there will be time to develop flavorful browning before the interior is cooked through.
  • Flavorful seasoning and garnish

    Seasoning the pork with a simple rub of salt, sugar, cumin, and chipotle chile powder adds savory flavor and encourages deep browning. Making a grilled salsa while the pork rests adds smoky, punchy flavor and makes the most of the fire.