I still remember the first pork chop I ever ate. It was at a greasy spoon in Oakland that specialized in gargantuan breakfasts. Although I was a college freshman, I had never eaten pork chops before because I grew up in a pork-challenged household (bacon and ham were okay, but fresh uncured pork was not).
I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the world of fresh pork. That first chop (actually there were two) was dusted with flour, seasoned with black pepper, and thrown on a hot griddle. Though it was thoroughly overcooked, it was nonetheless very juicy and quite delicious.
More than thirty years later, that type of fatty pork is unfortunately long gone. Today’s pork comes from svelte porkers—real lean, mean machines. While that’s great news for our waistlines and arteries, it means we must become better cooks to ensure great chops. Without all the fat to baste the meat as it cooks, we run the risk of getting dry, tough, tasteless chops. But if we coat the chops with flavorful rubs and sauces, grill them to get a crisp, browned crust, and are careful not to let them overcook, the versatile pork chop can once again be succulent and full of flavor.
Pal up to the supermarket butcher for custom-cut pork chops
If you’re fortunate enough to have a local butcher shop, buy your chops there. Not only will the butchers cut them to the thickness you want, they’ll probably let you examine them up close and personal before they wrap them up.
If, like most of us, you buy your meat at the supermarket, you need to befriend the meat cutters because most supermarkets cut pork chops too thin, which makes them all too easy to ruin by overcooking. Instead, get the supermarket meat cutters to cut the chops to your specifications. They’re usually happy to do this.
Freshness is the first thing to look for in a pork chop. If you can smell and touch the chops, freshness is easy to judge. They shouldn’t have any off odors. The surface should be moist but not sticky or slimy, which suggests old or spoiled meat. The flesh should be fine-grained and reddish pink. The external fat should be creamy white and have no dark spots or blemishes, which also indicate advanced age. Never buy pork that’s soft, pale, pinkish grey, wet, or that has a lot of liquid in the package, a sign of improper processing.
Finally, be aware that some producers “enhance” pork chops with sodium phosphate. While this ensures juiciness, it also give the meat a spongy texture that I find unpleasant.
There’s no use looking for marbling (specks of fat interspersed within the meat) because today’s pork has little to none. Some cuts of pork, however, are fattier than others (see the sidebar).
One last thing to check is uniform thickness. I prefer thick pork chops, just because they’re easier to cook properly. But whether thick or thin, try to avoid chops that are thicker around the bone than anywhere else—a common problem—because they’ll cook unevenly.
How you grill depends on the thickness of the chops
Charcoal or gas, covered or not, direct or indirect heat—there’s a lot to consider when grilling pork chops. I prefer charcoal kettle grills to gas, although either will work as long as you set up areas of varying heat intensity. I often cover the grill for better heat regulation and to help dampen flare-ups. I choose direct or indirect heat depending on the thickness of the chops. The trick is to balance the quick browning of the outside with the slower cooking of the interior.
For medium-thick pork chops (3/4 to 1 inch), I cook with direct heat. I sear both sides of the chops briefly over high heat to get a nice crust and then move them to an area of less intense heat, cover the grill, and let them cook through. To set up a charcoal fire for this kind of grilling, I have one area with a thicker layer of coals for a hotter fire and another area with a thinner layer for less intense heat. I also leave a portion of the grill with no coals in case a chop is burning, is caught in a flare-up, or is cooking too quickly. For gas grills, set one burner on medium high and another on low.
For thick pork chops (1-1/4 to 1-1/2 inches), I start with direct heat and finish with indirect heat. I set up one side of the grill the same way as for medium-thick chops, with varying levels of heat. The other half of the grill has no coals. For gas grills, keep one burner off. I sear the chops over direct heat, move them to the area with no heat, and cover the grill. The chops are now roasting with indirect heat, which allows them to cook through evenly without burning.
Take thick and medium-thick chops off the grill when they’re between 145° to 150°F. After a five-minute rest, the juices will redistribute and the temperature will rise to 150° to 155°F, giving you chops that are faintly pink and succulently juicy. (The USDA recommends 160°F, but I don’t go that high because the chops tend to get dry.) If you don’t have a digital instant-read thermometer, I strongly recommend investing in one.
Grilling thin pork chops requires extra vigilance. On a hot grill, thin chops can quickly go from juicy to dried out, so you mustn’t get distracted from the moment the chops go on the grill. I like to protect the surface of thin chops with a thick, flavorful coating, such as a spicy adobo paste. (When pan-frying thin chops, a breadcrumb coating works well.) Grill the chops directly over high heat and quickly, only two to three minutes per side, and err on the side of undercooking; you can always throw them back on. These chops are too thin to get an accurate temperature reading, so you’ll need to make a small cut to check for doneness. Look for faintly pink meat. After a two-minute rest, the chops will have cooked a bit more and will be ready to serve.
Brines, rubs, and sauces put flavor and juiciness into chops
Besides careful cooking, the surest way to get juicy chops is by brining. You could use a plain salt-water solution, but I like to throw in a few sweeteners. My favorite “flavor brine” is nothing more than water, salt, brown sugar, and molasses. By bathing chops in the brine for four hours, the meat soaks up the sweetened liquid. According to food scientist Shirley O. Corriher, brining increases the amount of liquid inside the meat cells and helps the cells retain water. As a result, the chops turn out juicy and moist, even if you overcook them slightly.
Whether brined or not, I almost always add more flavor to chops by coating them with a dry rub, soaking them in a wet marinade, or smearing them with a paste. My favorite dry rub has sage, rosemary, and fennel seeds, but many other combinations of salt, pepper, herbs, and spices would be great. My marinades usually contain oil, spices, and a mildly acidic ingredient like lime juice, vinegar, pineapple juice, or yogurt. These don’t necessarily tenderize the pork, but they do add some zing to the flavor. A paste is sort of a hybrid, something like a rub that’s moistened with oil and other liquids until it’s thick enough to spread on the chops.
A pork chop lexicon
All pork chops are cut from the loin, a strip of meat about two feet long that runs from the shoulder of the pig to the hip.
Starting at the shoulder blade end of the loin are blade chops . These have the most fat of any pork chop and great flavor, but they also have more gristle and bone and can be chewy. Their flavor and tenderness can be much improved by marinating. Because they’re fatty, this cut can be cooked with long, slow, moist heat and still not dry out.
Next come rib chops , which are the porcine equivalent of beef prime rib. They have some fat and a great bone to gnaw on.
Moving lower down the back are loin chops . These lean chops, easily recognized by their T-shaped bone, are among the least flavorful, but they can be improved immensely by brining and a dry spice rub. Both rib chops and loin chops are also referred to as center-cut loin chops .
Down at the hip area are the bony, inexpensive sirloin chops . I’d only buy them if there was a big sale and I was trying to save money.
Not all chops are sold on the bone. Boneless pork chops can come from anywhere on the entire pork loin, but without the distinguishing bones, it’s difficult to know which cut you’re getting. If you’re buying boneless chops, ask that they be cut from the blade or rib areas, which have a little more fat-and flavor.