Sometimes I forget that what is normal to me as a meat scientist is weird to other people. I was reminded of this recently when I made an off-hand comment to some hospitality management students about the fact that the pig carcasses we were looking at had been hanging in the cooler for about two weeks.
“TWO WEEKS?!,” they said. “There was no way that meat could stay good for two weeks!” I went on to explain that pork they would find at the grocery store would typically be stored at refrigeration temperatures for 10-21 days post-mortem, and that storage period made the pork better, not worse. This post-mortem aging improves meat tenderness. Given that this was a foreign and unthinkable concept for my students, maybe it is for you, too.
Tenderness is one of the most important traits in determining the overall eating experience of pork. No one has ever raved about that great tough pork chop they had last night. However, tenderness is also a complex trait, influenced by three main factors. They are 1) the length of sarcomeres, the functional unit of muscle themselves; 2) the amount and form of connective tissue in meat; and 3) the extent of post-mortem protein breakdown that has occurred. We’ll focus just on post-mortem protein breakdown for now.
As pork ages at refrigeration temperatures after processing, enzymes in the muscle break down structural proteins, a process known as post-mortem proteolysis. By disrupting muscle structure, meat becomes more tender and easier to chew through. This is the reason you want pork to be stored for a bit before you eat it—to allow these enzymes time to work. During post-mortem storage, pork loin chops can experience a 15% increase in tenderness. But there is no need for you to continue to age pork in your refrigerator after you purchase it. That post-mortem aging period is part of our distribution system ensuring that optimal protein breakdown and tenderization has occurred before pork reaches your shopping cart. Just another way that we meat scientists are looking out for you.
What can you do to maximize the chances that the pork you eat will be tender? Cook it properly. This means choosing the right cooking method for your cut and the correct final cooked temperature.
For cuts from the shoulder that are high in connective tissue, low and slow is the recipe for a tender eating experience. This means cooking in a crock pot, a smoker, or in the oven at a low temperature, sometimes for several hours. Final cooked temperature may reach as much as 180°F but the cut should still be juicy as the melted connective tissue will provide both moisture and flavor. For cuts from the loin, direct heat from a grill, the stove, or roasting in the oven at a higher temperature is appropriate as long as you keep an eye on the final temperature of the pork. Our target is 145°F followed by a 3-minute rest. This means it will still be a little pink on the inside. This medium-rare degree of doneness will lead to a tender and juicy cut of pork.
Keeping these guidelines in mind means you can always brag about that great, tender pork you had last night!
Anna Dilger is a meat scientist at the University of Illinois. Her research focuses on improving the efficiency and sustainability of meat production while also improving the quality of meat people consume.
Is bigger better when it comes to pigs? Read more by Anna Dilger at porkbusiness.com/is-bigger-better