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James Beard, for whom the prestigious culinary awards are named, once said, “If I had to narrow my choice of meats down to one for the rest of my life, I am quite certain that meat would be pork.”
This makes sense, considering the creature’s remarkable versatility: ham, pulled pork, baby back ribs, prosciutto, the ubiquitous pork belly restaurant appetizer, almost every type of sausage, and—let’s not forget—bacon. It’s understandable that among all of these popular porcine products, the humble pork chop is often forgotten. You might even say the others hog the spotlight (I’m sorry).
What Is a Pork Chop?
Every animal has tough cuts and tender cuts. Tough cuts, like brisket and pork butt, come from the hardest working parts of the animal, often near the legs. To accommodate their daily workload of supporting the animal as it tromps around, these muscles develop a lot of connective tissue (called collagen) around their normal muscle fibers. As a result, you should cook these tough cuts “low and slow” to gently melt the collagen and tenderize them.
Tender cuts—like chicken breast, expensive steaks, and pork chops—come from parts of the animal that don’t work very much. As a result, they don’t develop much collagen and are therefore tender by nature. That’s why steaks like ribeye and New York strip are so desirable—you can quickly cook them to a tender medium rare.
Pork chops share the exact same real estate on a pig that make up these high-dollar parts of the cow, but the popularity of the pig’s other parts—the hams, ribs, bacon—drives down the price of the chop. This leaves you—the consumer—with an excellent opportunity for value.
“But I Don’t Like Pork Chops”
The most common complaint about pork chops is that they’re too dry. I get that—my mom had to coat them in corn flakes and serve them with applesauce for me and my siblings to even consider touching them (love you, Mom). But pork chops are wet when they come out of the package, so if the chops are dry after you cook them, how is that the chops’ fault? Not liking pork chops for being dry is like not liking your car because you crashed it on your way home from the dealer.
Most of us only know dry pork chops because we only know overcooked pork chops, and that’s not our fault—or our mothers’. And it should please you to know that, like seemingly everything nowadays, you can blame the government.
Until 2011, the USDA recommended cooking pork to 160 degrees to prevent trichinosis, which has all but been eradicated in pork (most cases nowadays come from consuming wild game meats like bear and boar). So if you’re a millennial like me, every package of pork chops during your childhood came with a sticker from the government insisting they should be overcooked. Even if you’re Gordon Ramsay, 160 degrees gets you a dry pork chop.
If you cook them less and take a few other pointers, pork chops will quickly become one of your (and your family’s) favorite things to eat—I promise. And what better time than grilling season to give them a try?
Tips for Pork Chop Justice
1. Cook them less
The USDA currently suggests cooking pork chops to an internal temperature of 145 degrees, which in more tangible terms is about medium. I know some chefs who prefer them medium rare, but I think the USDA-compliant 145 degrees yields the perfect moistness and chew in pork chops.
Invest in an instant read thermometer—I bought mine in the $20 to $30 range on Amazon and I use it all the time. It sticks to the fridge magnetically so I always have it handy.
2. Season them well
Pork chops are great flavor sponges, so feel free to use your favorite rub or seasoning blend (I’ll include my favorite rub at the end of this article). Whatever you put on your chop should taste very salty—remember, you’re using a lot of salt on the outside of the meat to compensate for the inside.
3. Season them early
I highly recommend seasoning your pork chops at least an hour and up to a few days ahead of time. Food nerds like me call this process of pre-applying a salty rub dry brining or curing. I won’t bore you with the science of how dry brines work (plenty of great info if you Google it), but take my word for it—salting sooner yields moister, more flavorful meat 100 percent of the time.
4. Crank up the heat
Get your grill (or pan, if cooking indoors) hot enough that it may concern those around you. Your objective is to get a nice sear on the outside of the meat before overcooking the inside, and it’s always easier to turn down the heat or flip the chop if it’s searing too fast than it is to heat the grill—so start hot, and adjust if necessary.
Chorizo Pork Chop Cure
Ever since I studied abroad in Spain, I have been obsessed with Spanish chorizo. It’s fatty, smoky, garlicky, robust, a tiny bit spicy—everything you want in a sausage. About ten years ago, in an effort to consume fewer calories, I took the seasonings that go inside my favorite chorizo recipe and liberally applied them to the outside of a pork chop before letting it sit in the fridge overnight. The result of this experiment is one of my proudest recipes.
I recommend smothering the pork chops on all sides before letting them sit for a few hours or up to a few days. This rub is versatile stuff, so save leftovers! It’s a favorite among my friends on roasted veggies or grilled okra.
3 Tbsp. kosher salt
2 Tbsp. sugar
3 Tbsp. smoked paprika*
1 Tbsp. chipotle powder
1 Tbsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. dried thyme, crumbled up between your fingers (or ¼ tsp ground thyme)
*It’s worth buying nice paprika. I prefer sweet smoked paprika from Spain.
In this series, local chef Bobby McFarland offers tips on how to cook like the pros. Currently the lead culinary consultant at The Kitchen Raleigh, McFarland loves eating pomegranate, cheese and all things pork. His culinary hero is Alton Brown.
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