Growing up in the South, I could depend on being served pork one way or another at almost every meal. For the kids, bone-in pork chops were our favorite. I loved that bone and the delicious bits of meat that clung to it. That was back when pork tasted like something—it had fat and, consequently, a whole lot more juicy flavor. I’m still a big fan of pork, but cooking today’s lean pork requires some different flavor-boosting strategies, on the stovetop and off.
Brown for flavor. The best way to deal with modern pork’s lack of flavor is to cook it properly. That starts with browning it. Browning is flavor—deep, rich flavor. To get good browning, you’ll need to cook over medium-high heat (or even higher if your stovetop’s heat tends to run low). But such a strong heat can quickly dry out a lean pork chop, so you have to be vigilant not to overcook it. Pork just isn’t as forgiving as a steak that way.
How browning works
The delicious browning that occurs when pork chops are sautéed results from a complex sequence of reactions between the meat’s proteins and its natural sugars. Known as the Maillard reaction, this form of browning takes place only at high temperatures (above 300°F). Moisture in or around the meat will inhibit the reaction (since the water won’t get hotter than 212°F). That’s why it’s important to pat the chops throughly dry with paper towels before cooking them.
The thicker the chop, the juicier
You’ll find it worth your while to find a market that carries thick chops—1-1/4 to 1-1/2 inches thick—which are better at holding their juices. One-inch-thick chops will work, too; you just have to keep a close eye on them since they’ll cook through quickly. (For more on which cut to choose, see What to look for in a pork chop.) Even with good thick chops, it’s crucial to keep the cooking time brief. I cook them long enough on the first side to get them well browned. Then I flip them and cook until they’re just done, usually another two to four minutes. The second side might not brown as deeply, but that’s fine. The best way to test for doneness is to make a small cut into the chop, about 1/4 to 1/2 inch away from the bone. When the meat is still slightly pink, remove it from the pan. It will continue to cook through without drying out in the few minutes of resting time before serving.
Spicy rubs, mango salsa, and more. Good browning is a start, but to be sure that my chops never fall short, I add rubs packed with plenty of salt and pepper and quick-to-prepare condiments, all with big flavors and all terrific with pork.