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The Brown Sugar Balsamic-Glazed Pork Loin that Pinterest Loved

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There's a game of telephone woven into almost every recipe: They're passed along—horizontally, from friend to friend, or vertically, from generation to generation—and inevitably, the recipe transforms, based on preferences or whatever the maker happens to have in the pantry or how legible the handwriting on the original recipe card was. It's how new recipes are made.

But this particular recipe—for Crockpot Brown Sugar Balsamic Glazed Pork Tenderloin—surprised all of us in just how much a game of telephone it involves. Especially because today, April 7, it's the ninth most-visited page on our site out of all our recipes and posts, even though the recipe was published on our site, founded in 2009, in 2013. It's consistently been in the top 10 most visited pages since the summer of 2014.

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Crockpot Brown Sugar Balsamic Glazed Pork Tenderloin
Crockpot Brown Sugar Balsamic Glazed Pork Tenderloin

The recipe has 247 likes and nearly 60 comments—numbers usually reserved only for Genius recipes. It was our second most-viewed page in all of 2015. But we've never featured the recipe before; it's not a Community Pick (for reasons I'll explain a little later), it wasn't photographed by us, and as far as I can tell, no one on the Food52 staff has made it before.

So what's the deal with this recipe? Where did it come from?

While it appears on the first page of search results when you search "pork tenderloin" on Food52, that alone couldn't explain the numbers. But when I went to our Director of Audience Development to see if she could help me track where the page views were coming from, she knew exactly the recipe I was talking about: It went viral on Pinterest the summer of 2014—it has over 4150 repins and over 260 likes—and two years later, it's still going strong.

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Sometimes, when we see recipes catch on like this, we'll test them ourselves and designate them Wildcard Winners. And when the Crockpot Brown Sugar Balsamic Glazed Pork Tenderloin started to pick up speed in 2014, we thought about it—but then we realized that the recipe here, posted by Melissa Bossler (who didn't respond to my email regarding this story), gives another blog credit for the recipe and the included photo.

We try to be very thoughtful about featuring recipes (by naming them "Community Picks" or "Wildcard Winners") that weren't developed by the poster—or we're careful to attribute clearly and with the original recipe-writer's permission. The recipe clearly wasn't Melissa's, since she links to her source. And then, upon closer inspection, we realized that the recipe isn't original to the blog Melissa credits, either. We decided it would only be fair to feature the recipe on Food52 with the original recipe-writer's permission, and because that recipe-writer remained a watery figure somewhere off in the internet-distance, we never did.

But let's back up a few steps: The recipe wasn't original to Melissa Bossler or the blog she credits, Laura's Sweet Spot. Laura links out to a user-submitted recipe on the website BigOven, where it has 4 1/2 stars and has been saved over 2000 times. The only difference between the recipe on Laura's Sweet Spot and the recipe on BigOven is that the BigOven iteration is made with a pork loin, not a pork tenderloin. This is an easy mistake to make, writes our butcher friend Cara Nicoletti—and, as it turns out, a crucial one. Pork tenderloin has very little fat; the fat on a pork loin is necessary to keep the meat from drying out during its long cook time.

The tenderloin is just a small part of a pork loin—tucked up into a cavity. Cara Nicoletti explains that the sirloin end of a roast, where the tenderloin's located, tends to be leaner and less flavorful than the fattier rib-end roast.
The tenderloin is just a small part of a pork loin—tucked up into a cavity. Cara Nicoletti explains that the sirloin end of a roast, where the tenderloin's located, tends to be leaner and less flavorful than the fattier rib-end roast.

The rabbit hole goes on and on: A quick search using the same recipe name "Crockpot Brown Sugar Balsamic Glazed Pork Tenderloin" on Google gave me a string of recipes and blog posts 354,000-links long. The same search on Pinterest produces what seems to be a zillion results—many of them with different photos, each cook's own adaptation of another recipe. Sometimes that recipe is exactly the same as the one posted on BigOven and sometimes it's got a few variations: Maple syrup and honey appear in place of the brown sugar; blueberries make an appearance. Sometimes the meat is shredded for sandwiches. The loin becomes chops and ribs and, as on Laura's blog and on Food52, tenderloin.

So we tried it, following the recipe exactly. But, like some of the commenters on the recipe, we found that the cooking time was too long, resulting in a pretty dry roast. Which is a gentler way of saying that when our Associate Editor Ali, who was styling the pork for its photo-op, brought over the tenderloin to show me, we exchanged grimaces. After 8 hours of slow cooking, the tenderloin, one of the leanest cuts of pork, was impossibly dry. (Someone might even have called it inedible.)

The Crockpot Brown Sugar Balsamic Glazed Pork Tenderloin.
The Crockpot Brown Sugar Balsamic Glazed Pork Tenderloin. Photo by Bobbi Lin

For what it's worth, it was marginally less dry when we tried it a second time, using the loin rather than the tenderloin; this may have to do with differences between the leaner, less flavorful sirloin-end roast and the fattier, more flavorful rib-end roast of a pork loin. But we were still pretty surprised, especially considering how the recipe went viral. As mentioned above, some commenters, who also had issues with dryness, suggested cutting the cook time to 4 1/2 or even 4 hours and debated the appropriate cut of meat: tenderloin? loin? shoulder?

Was the key to its success all in the visual? (Many bloggers' photos of the pork are very luscious—not a look we were able to recreate in the Food52 test kitchen.) Was it in the buzzword-filled name? I would have suspected yes, that the name and the photo were responsible for its success; that is, I thought people were re-pinning on Pinterest before actually making it. But people do make it, and overall, the comments on the recipe are hugely positive: "Just perfect." "Even the picky eaters loved it!!!" "One of the best things to ever come out of my crock pot." "SOOO tender!"

Our Creative Director, Kristen Miglore, attributes its success to the brown sugar-balsamic glaze, which is shiny and thick and sweet-salty. "You could put this on anything," she told me. Our Test Kitchen Chef, Josh Cohen, thought the same. Ultimately, the slow-cooker just isn't the best method for cooking this recipe—especially with as lean a cut as a tenderloin or even a loin. (We did try the recipe with a very fatty pork shoulder and the fattiest piece of loin—a rib-end roast—we could find. Both were better than the tenderloin or the first piece of loin we tried with, but we still thought an oven would be much more appropriate than a slow-cooker.)

The exact same recipe—made with pork loin.
The exact same recipe—made with pork loin. Photo by Alpha Smoot

Did the writer of original recipe—Hippiehello on BigOven, a.k.a. one Jennifer Cardwell—know that her pork recipe (which, she confirmed, she makes with a pork loin and not tenderloin) had gone viral? I sent her a message on Facebook to find out, and she got right back to me. "I am amazed that so many people shared it," she wrote in an email. "I had no idea it was so popular!" The reason for its success, at least in her house, she explained, was:

...Balsamic wasn't a flavor that we worked with very often. I didn't think that my girls or my picky partner would eat it, as anything different is regarded as weird and icky. Adding the brown sugar really sweetens it up and takes it [balsamic] from a "fancy" ingredient to something that has become a staple and is now used in other recipes that we feel aren't saucy enough. When we cook this recipe, we actually double the balsamic vinegar to 1/2 cup because my family is loving the flavor. We will also cook our pork loin in the oven if we are running low on time and it works really well because the sauce forms a nice crust on the outside of the pork loin but [it] is still so juicy on the inside.

But she also said that it wasn't really her recipe, that she—whose recipe was the recipe that seemed to have launched a thousand imitators—had copied it into her recipe book (and then to BigOven, mistakenly forgetting to credit the original source when she posted) from another blog. Luckily, she'd made a note of that blog in her recipe book: Let's Dish Recipes. (Jennifer has since updated the headnote of her recipe with a link to Let's Dish.)

[Side note from the author here: This is crazy! The recipe had been borrowed from yet another blog! In varying levels of attribution and adaptation, this recipe is all over the internet. This BigOven recipe—the one I thought might be the original recipe—is just the one that, by chance and/or hands of the viral internet gods, achieved fame. If Jennifer had not written down the name of the blog she'd found the recipe on, there's a good chance we'd have lost the next link in the chain. Madness! Okay. Back to the main program.]

On Let's Dish, the recipe has a slightly different name, "Brown Sugar & Balsamic Glazed Pork Tenderloin (Slow Cooker)." The writer, Denelle, originally published the recipe on her blog sometime in 2010 (three years before it made its debut on Food52)—and then reposted it in 2011, since, as she notes in the post's headnote, it's been one of her most popular recipes.

Photo by James Ransom

When I reached out to Denelle, explaining to her that it was one of the most popular recipes on our site, she wasn't surprised—she'd seen it make the rounds on Pinterest, and pointed me to a post that another blogger, Mel of Mel's Kitchen Café, had written on the recipe and its social media fame. Mel's Kitchen Café links the recipe back to another blog, which then links back to Let's Dish. (Recipe attributions on the internet give a whole new meaning to "web.")

For Denelle, recipe adaptation mandates attribution, forming a breadcrumb trail that will link any new cooks back to the original recipe. This is what she did when coming up with this recipe: Her recipe links back to an AllRecipes posting by the user WENDEE_H for "Herb Roasted Pork." Aside from a few basic ingredients (soy sauce, cornstarch, vinegar, sugar) the two recipes have in common, the Herb Roasted Pork is a completely different recipe from Denelle's—the herby pork uses pork loin (not tenderloin), and is cooked in the oven (3 hours at 325° F). If I had to say that one person came up with the Crockpot Brown Sugar Balsamic Glazed Pork Loin, it would be Denelle.

Crockpot Brown Sugar Balsamic Glazed Pork Loin Recipe-Origin Flowchart, 2010 to Present

The recipe got our attention with its runaway success, but it's the winding, winding road it took to get there—and the debates about ownership, adaptation, and a recipe's transformation—that held it. It's wild and satisfying to be able to trace a recipe back to its roots once it's gone through the great tangler of the internet (or Pinterest alone, a platform that, because we can simply drag original photos from the page to our desktops and re-upload them as our own, makes it very easy to not attribute).

But why does it matter? Is it the satisfaction of seeing something very large from above? Or is it the completely understandable desire for credit where credit is due, for ownership of ideas? I think it's both: Recipe ownership has always been a matter of debate, usually coming down to the differences—even minute differences—in ingredients, measurements, and methods between two recipes held up next to each other. The debates can even get a little vicious. Fair enough.

What's even more curious, in this instance, is how much the recipe stayed the same. If this were a game of telephone, with either the Herbed Pork Loin or Denelle's Brown Sugar and Balsamic Glazed Pork Loin on one end and the Food52 recipe on the other, it wouldn't actually be that funny of a game: There's the loin/tenderloin confusion, sure, but other than that, the two are almost identical.

And even more curious: When we tested it here, it didn't blow our minds—which, to be honest, is what we were hoping for. When one recipe is driving that much traffic to a recipe website, you want it to be really good. You want it to knock your socks off, to earn its keep as the most popular recipe on the site, to be a kicker, to be worthy of its fame over in Pinterest-land. And there, in Pinterest-land and elsewhere, people will keep re-pinning and blogging and making this recipe. And, having made it in-house (four times, as a matter of fact, with four different cuts of pork), we want to know why. You'll have to tell us about it from your own experiences.

Have you made this pork loin, or some iteration of it? Tell us in the comments!

Tags: pork loin, slow cooker, blogging, pinterest