The mantra "low and slow" comes from the way authentic barbecue is prepared. Low heat, slow cooking.
And on the weekends, I love nothing more than to spend the whole day smoking a large piece of pork or beef, lazily watching and waiting for it to become meltingly tender.
But when time is of essence, I fall back on my "barbecue quick fix" — grilled pork tenderloin glazed with my Dr Pepper barbecue sauce. Making the Dr Pepper sauce doesn't take very long and I often make it ahead of time on the weekend. That way, when the Monday-through-Friday dinner bell rings, all I have to do is grill and glaze the tenderloin.
If you are surprised by the Dr Pepper part, don't be. There is a long tradition of cooking with soft drinks on the competition barbecue circuit and some "legends" credit it as the secret to their success.
When I first got into barbecue, I was intrigued by the use of soft drinks as a sweetener. I figured it was used because there was always a Coke or Pepsi near the pit master and it's an easy and inexpensive addition — just open and pour. And, it makes sense. Traditional — not diet — soft drinks are mostly sugar and can easily replace white and/or brown sugar in a sauce. But the cola sauces fell flat on my palate.
As a life-long fan of Dr Pepper, I felt that was a better choice, offering more complexity and deeper flavor. It didn't take long for me to try it and as soon as I did, I fell in love with both the flavor and the fun of it. Besides tasting great, people get a kick out of the unexpected addition of Dr Pepper.
Over the years, I've made the sauce mostly for slathering on baby back ribs. But it wasn't until a few months ago that I tried it on pork tenderloin. The great thing about tenderloin is that it is quick and easy to grill and, if you season it right, the lean meat has the texture of a great bite of a baby-back rib.
I prepare the meat very simply with my tried-and-true grilling trilogy of olive oil, salt and pepper, then grill it using the combo method. It works by searing the tenderloins over direct heat, getting great grill marks, then moving the meat to indirect heat and brushing it with the sauce. This method is a bit different than my traditional tenderloin method, but it really gives the meat that slow-cooked flavor in a short amount of time. The exterior gets nicely glazed and has time to become slightly burnished and caramelized without burning.
Any time you brush a sweet sauce on food, you have to watch the heat level because sugar burns very quickly. The basic rule of thumb is to only brush with sauce during the final 10 minutes of cooking. Because pork tenderloin takes just 20 minutes over direct heat, we lower the heat and cook for 30 to 35 minutes, brushing it every so often with the sauce.
PORK TENDERLOIN WITH DR PEPPER BARBECUE SAUCE
Leftover barbecue sauce is great for pulled pork sandwiches, chicken, shrimp, hot dogs, barbecue pizza, burgers or baked beans.
Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours (45 minutes active)
For the sauce:
4 tablespoons butter
1 large yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup ketchup
3 tablespoons tomato paste
12-ounce can Dr Pepper soda (about 1 3/4 cups)
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground ancho chili powder or New Mexican chili powder
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the tenderloins:
2 pork tenderloins (1 1/3 pounds each)
Freshly cracked black pepper or your favorite barbecue rub
In a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and garlic and saute until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining sauce ingredients and simmer for about 15 minutes. Continue cooking until the sauce begins to thicken, about another 20 to 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper.
Let the sauce cool for about 10 minutes, or until it is warm but no longer hot. Using an immersion or traditional blender, puree the sauce. Let cool and, if not using immediately, pour into a clean glass jar. The sauce can be made in advance and refrigerated for 2 weeks.
To grill the pork, heat the grill to medium.
Wrap the tenderloins in paper towels to remove any surface moisture. This will help you to get great grill marks. Brush the dry meat with olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Place the meat directly over the heat to sear. Grill for 2 to 3 minutes, turning once or twice, or until you get good grill marks.
Switch to medium indirect heat and move the meat to the center of the cooking grate and cook for 30 to 35 minutes total, turning once during cooking and brushing with the barbecue sauce every 5 to 7 minutes until the tenderloins are done and the sauce has created a glaze. Using a meat thermometer, make sure the tenderloins read 145 F at the thickest part.
Remove the tenderloins from the grill, allow them to rest for 5 to 10 minutes, then slice on the bias.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 470 calories; 130 calories from fat (28 percent of total calories); 14 g fat (7 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 145 mg cholesterol; 43 g carbohydrate; 42 g protein; 1 g fiber; 1,220 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."