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03/01/2011 04:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Zen of Pork Chops

Pork chops are blank canvases. They love to be painted with herbs, spices, smoke, and sauces. There are several different cuts you need to know, but my favorite cooking method works equally well on all cuts. When handled properly, all cuts make richly flavored and juicy fun. The major differences are tenderness and price.

The different pork chop cuts


Moving from the front of the hog to the rear, here are the five most common pork chops:

2011-03-01-country_ribs2.jpgThe shoulder chop a.k.a. blade chop a.k.a. country ribs. Yes, country ribs rarely have ribs in them. They are usually cut from the shoulder and they have several muscles and a section of shoulder blade in them. They can be up to 6" long and tend to have veins of fat and sinew running in several directions through them. They can be chewy, so it is important to cook them low and slow, but they are the most flavorful. Shoulder chops are usually the cheapest. That's a plateful of shoulder chops with Columbia Gold Sauce above. The recipe is below.

The bone-in loin chop comes from the loin muscle that runs along the backbone. The meat is very lean and a uniform pale color since it is all one muscle. It usually has a thin belt of fat on one side, and a rib bone attached to another side. This is the "other white meat" you've heard of, mild and tender because the loin muscle does not get a lot of work. It is usually about 4" diameter.

Contrary to popular belief, bone does not add flavor to roasted/grilled/barbecue meat. It does not somehow dissolve or send out flavor compounds across 4" of solid protein. Besides, the bone is mostly calcium on the outside. Bones add flavor to stews and other wet cooking methods, but not in grilling or roasting methods. The bone does impede heat transfer slightly, so meat next to the bone tends to be a bit less cooked. But the bone is also fun to gnaw on.

2011-03-01-pork_chop.jpgIn the picture at right, we see a bone-in loin chop that has been cut partially loose of the meat to make a cutesy lollichop. Usually this bone is attached and the meat is more oblong shaped.

The boneless loin chop is the same cut as above, but the rib slab has been removed from the loin before it is cut into chops. Think of these chops as a chicken breast. Simple, tender, unless you overcook it, and a sponge for flavor. Sometimes it is slit along the side and folded open like a book making a butterflied loin chop. Boneless loin chops are usually the most expensive.

The T-bone is a lot like a beef T-bone or porterhouse. Cut from behind the rib cage, there is a T-shaped bone with lean loin meat on one side, like the strip steak on a beef steak, and on the other side of the bone there is a round, very tender section of the tenderloin muscle, similar to the filet mignon on a beef porterhouse.

The ham chop. A butcher can cut a cross section from the raw ham, but this is rare. Usually hams are cured first, and if steaks are cut out, they are already cured. You can recognize this cut easily because it has a round cross section of the thigh bone in the center.

Click here for more on the different cuts of pork.

Tips

All pork chops are best when cut thick, at least 1", when brined for about an hour and no more, then gently cooked with a little smoke, and flavored with herbs and/or a sauce. Thin chops are easy to overcook and there is less room for error. You can ask your butcher to cut them thicker than those on display if you wish. Most butchers are happy to do this for you at no extra charge.

If you're in a hurry, you can skip the brine, but brining adds moisture, amplifies flavor, and helps prevent overcooking. It is crucial to not overcook pork chops or they lose flavor and moisture, and become tough. The problem is that they are easy to overcook. To make sure you get it right, I recommend you cook low and slow with indirect heat at about 225°F. Low and slow is especially important for shoulder chops which have a lot more connective tissue.

Shoot for meat that is about 140°F in the thickest part and don't allow it to go higher than 145°F. Make sure you don't overshoot the target by using a good digital thermometer. You may see a little pale pink in the meat, but don't worry about trichinosis. Trich is, for all practical purposes, extinct in USDA inspected pork. When there is a hint of pink, it is at its peak tenderness and juiciness. Resist the temptation to cook pork chops over high heat. We like to sear beef steaks, but dark colored pork is not as flavorful as dark colored beef, so don't worry if you don't get the outside brown. It is far more important to get the insides right.

To knock them outta the park, add smoke. For more on how to add smoke, read my article on the Zen of Wood. To knock them outta the state, top them with caramelized onions.

I'm sorry, but I don't recommend that you stuff porkchops. Stuffed chops are made by cutting a slit into a thick chop and working a knife around to create a pocket. The process makes a thicker entity, and by the time the center of the stuffing is warm, the meat, which you have now, for practical purposes, reduced to two thin chops held together at one end, is overcooked as the heat works its way toward the center. If you must stuff a chop, precook the stuffing so you can get them off the heat sooner.

Recipe: Kermit's Second Favorite Pork Chop


This is Kermit's Second Favorite Pork Chop. For Kermit's all time favorite pork chop, just watch the ending of the movie The Muppets Take Manhattan, below.

Yield. 2 pork chops
Preparation time. 3 minutes
Cooking time. 45 to 60 minutes
Total time. About 60 minutes

Ingredients
2 pork chops at least 1" thick
2 cups of basic brine
1/8 teaspoon pepper, approximately
1/2 cup Columbia Gold BBQ Sauce

About the brine. Click the link above for two brine recipes. You can use the flavored brine if you wish, but I don't think it is necessary in this case. Use the simple brine of just salt and water for this recipe.

About the sauce. You can use your favorite barbecue sauce, but I've tried them all and by far, my favorite is this mustard based sauce. The combo is like chocolate and cherry. Mustard and pork, especially smoked pork is common throughout Germany and Eastern Europe (think hot dogs or Polish sausages).

Do this

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1) Trim excess fat. If you have loin chops, there is a band of fat around the perimeter. Beneath the fat is a thin layer of connective tissue called silverskin. You should remove it because as it cooks it shrinks and causes the meat to form a cup. The fat will not penetrate the meat so there is no reason to leave it on unless you like eating the fat. In that case, cut at least two slits through the fat and the silverskin right down to the meat.

2) Fill a 1 gallon plastic zipper bag with the brine, add the chops, place the bag in a bowl to catch any leaks, and refrigerate for no more than hour. Thinner chops will take half that time. While they are brining, setup your grill for 2-zone indirect cooking.

3) Season the chops with black pepper, but no salt (they have enough from the brine). Don't bother with your favorite barbecue rub. Not needed.

4) Put them on the indirect side of the grill, paint both sides with sauce, and let them cook with the lid down until. Flip them after about 20 minutes and paint them again. If your indirect side is about 225°F, cooking time will be about 45 to 60 minutes for 1" chops. Please use a good digital thermometer to get it right. If you are cooking over direct heat, don't add the sauce until just before the chops are ready or else it will burn.

5) If you want to get fancy and add grill marks, when the meat hits about 125°F, move them to direct heat and remove the lid. After 3 minutes rotate them 45 degrees to get cross hatching. 3 minutes more and flip, 3 minutes more and rotate. You've got to be careful here, this is a great way to incinerate the sauce and overcook the meat. You want the lid off so the meat is cooking only on the bottom side. Remove them when the centers are 140 to 145°F.

6) Put them on a plate and put another plate upside down over the top of them to keep them warm and let them rest for about 10 minutes. This allows the pressurized juices to reabsorb into the muscle fibers.

7) Serve with grilled asparagus, spätzle, and a dry riesling.

What's you favorite way to cook pork chops?

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