If you’ve ever been to a county or state fair in Indiana, Illinois, or Iowa, or even if you’ve ever stopped at a roadside diner in those states, you’ve probably encountered one of the Midwest’s great contributions to American cuisine: the fried breaded pork tenderloin sandwich.
The breaded pork tenderloin is a marvel of simplicity: pork loin, pounded flat, is dredged in cracker-crumb breading, fried, and served on a bun that is minuscule in comparison to the meat itself. Sure, you can top it, but a simple slice each of tomato, onion, and pickle is about as dressed up as these hearty, filling sandwiches get.
Today, we’ll look at this great American classic sandwich so that you can make your own without having to search through the backwoods of Indiana. Of course, we’ll visit the critical temperatures along the way!
Pork tenderloin sandwich basics
First, it is important to note that a traditional pork tenderloin sandwich is not made with tenderloin. It is, in fact, made with a cutlet of pork loin that has been flattened out by pounding. You certainly can use tenderloin, and we do in this recipe because it’s delicious, but if all you have is loin—or if you’re making a lot of sandwiches—loin is just fine. A medium-sized, boneless pork chop is perfect for a portion and should flatten out so that it is well larger than the hamburger bun on which it will be served. A good tenderloin sandwich should have massive wings hanging out the side of the bun, as if it were about to try to take off and fly away. If your tenderloin sandwich fits neatly in the bun, you’re at the wrong diner!
A perfect fried tenderloin sandwich has a crisp, golden, flavorful coating. There is no absolute consensus on how to bread a tenderloin sandwich. Some cooks go for a double-coating of seasoned flour, others use a single coating of breadcrumbs (one of the very best examples I ever had was pulled straight from a bath of buttermilk, dredged in crumbs, and put directly in a pressure fryer). But no matter the number of coatings, the most common practice is the use of cracker crumbs. Saltine cracker crumbs are most common, and they are fantastic! Cracker crumbs provide a crust that is light and crisp and perfect.
How to fry the meat for a tenderloin sandwich
As with all crisp-fried food items, a pork tenderloin schnitzel (that’s really what we’re making here) needs to be fried at a temperature that is high enough to keep the breading from getting oil-logged and soggy but low enough that the meat has time to cook before the breading burns. 350–375°F (177–191°C) is an ideal frying range for these sandwiches.
At many restaurants, the pork is cooked in a fryer (or even a pressure-fryer, as noted above), and if you plan on making these sandwiches for a crowd of people, a deep fryer is probably the way to go. But if you’re just cooking for a small group, pan-frying is much more economical, and will give you results that are just as good. Don’t let the lack of a fryer hold you back from making this sandwich!
If you deep fry, use the ChefAlarm® with its high- and low-temp alarms to keep your oil temperature within ±25°F (14°C) of your target temperature. If you’re pan-frying, you can temp the oil with a Thermapen® Mk4, or use an infrared thermometer like the IRK-2 industrial IR with circle laser. With the IRK-2, you can quickly gauge the temperatures across the whole pan, and even find hotspots to be aware of.
Whatever your method of cooking, you want to make sure your pork cooks to a safe-but-juicy temperature of 145°F (63°C). After cooking on one side for 2-3 minutes, flip your pork over and cook it for another minute or so before you start taking its temperature. Lift the fritter from the oil and slide the tip of your Thermapen Mk4 deeply into the meat at an angle. Pull it out through the meat and watch the temperature as you do so, making sure the lowest temperature is at least 145°F (63°C).
A fried pork tenderloin sandwich does not need to be fancied up. It stands on its own humble feet, and it rewards an attitude of restraint in regards to toppings. A little mustard, maybe some mayo, lettuce, tomato, and the absolutely essential pickle slices are all you want to put on this. Oh, maybe a splash of hot sauce. But there is no need for expensive buns or bacon, cheese, avocado, pineapple, or anything else that might make this a “gourmet” (whatever that means) sandwich. Its beauty lies in its simplicity and straightforwardness. You’ll love it!
Fried Pork Tenderloin Sandwich Recipe
Based on the recipe from Tuffy Stone’s book Cool Smoke: The Art of Great Barbecue
- 1/4 C mayonnaise (optionally mixed with 2 tsp hot sauce)
- pickles (bread and butter preferred)
- 1 C all-purpose flour
- 1 Tbsp plus 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 Tbsp fresh ground black pepper
- 1 tsp granulated garlic
- 1 tsp granulated onion
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 C cracker crumbs (saltine is traditional, but something like Ritz Crackers® is even tastier)
- 1 (1-pound) pork tenderloin, cut into 4 large medallions
- 1/4 C buttermilk
- 4 large eggs
- Neutral, high-heat oil for pan-frying
- lettuce (optional)
- In a large bowl, mix together the flour, 1 Tbsp salt, most of the pepper, the garlic, onion, and cayenne. Set aside.
- In another bowl, whisk together the eggs and buttermilk. Set aside.
- Place the cracker crumbs in a third large, shallow bowl.
- Cut the pork tenderloin into 4 equal pieces. (If using pork loin chops, skip this step.)
- Working one piece at a time, place each piece of pork between two sheets of plastic wrap and pound them out with a meat mallet until they are about 1/4″ thin.
- Season both sides of the flattened pork pieces with the remaining salt and pepper.
- Following the standard breading procedure, dredge each piece of meat first in flour, then egg mixture, then cracker crumbs. Make sure each piece is well coated. Set them aside on a plate.
- Pour oil into a heavy-bottomed frying pan to a depth of about 1/4–1/2″. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until it reaches 350°F (177°C). Use an infra-red thermometer like the IRK-2 to measure the oil temperature.
- If deep-frying, use your ChefAlarm to monitor the oil temp, setting the low-temp alarm for 325°F (163°C) and the high-temp alarm for 375°C (191°C).
- Place a sheet pan with a double-layer of paper towels near the stove for draining the pork after frying.
- Working one or two at a time, slide a pork loin into the hot oil and cook for about 2 minutes.
- Using tongs, flip the pork over and cook another minute or two, testing the temperature with a fast, accurate instant-read thermometer like the Thermapen Mk4. Once the cracker-coating is golden and crisp and the internal temperature reaches 145°F (63°C), remove the pork to the draining tray.
- Assemble the sandwiches by smearing the bottom of each bun with a little of the spicy mayo then topping with a pork loin piece, a slice of onion, tomato and a few pickles each. You can also use a little mustard to liven things up.
Whether the idea of a tenderloin sandwich is new to you or you’re from deep inside the tenderloin belt, this is a sandwich you simply must try making at home. When made correctly, it’s simple, delicious, American food at its best. Get those temps right with a Thermapen Mk4 and spoil your family and friends with this Midwestern delicacy—without even having to cruise the backroads or county fairs of Indiana.
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