Be a Home Superstar Chef (Part 7 – Pork Chops)

This is part 7 of our on-going Home Superstar Chef series. The previous posts in this series were Part 1 – Good Pans, Part 2 – Shallots, Part 3 – Pine Nuts, Part 4 – Knives, and Part 5 – High Heat Cooking, Part 6 – Restaurant Supply Houses. This entry will deal with pork chops.

Pork ChopI am sure many of you are thinking, “Pork chops? Really? Pork chops will make me a superstar in the kitchen?” They will if you learn to cook them properly. It is surprising how many people do not know how to get the most out of these delicious hunks of succulent pork flesh.

Most people seem to fall into two camps when it comes to pork chops; either they drool at the thought of them, or they think they are dry and tasteless. Sigmund Freud and I agree on this issue; your mother is to blame for the camp you fall into. Either she made fabulously juicy chops with delicious crispy edges, or she fed you shoe leather.

The latter was understandable back then, but completely inexcusable now. There was a time when pork had to be cooked to 165-170° F to ensure that it was free of trichinosis. Now that trichinosis is quite rare, and that we have found that it dies at about 140°F, there is no need to make shoe leather out of pork chops.

Now if you are one of the lucky folks whose mother cooked the crispy, juicy version, you probably wonder why you can’t make them the same way. That is not your fault. In fact, your mother probably can’t make them like that anymore either. Pigs are genetically bred to have way less fat these days than they once had. That makes them less tasty to begin with, and those delicious crispy edges came from the fat that ringed the chops. Unless you can find a source for ‘heirloom’ pork, memories of mom’s tasty pork chops will remain exactly that, memories.

So, if those are off of the table, how do we make superstar quality pork chops at home these days? Keep reading and we will cover some of my favorite methods, but first we need to look at the choices when perusing the butcher’s case. These are typically rib loin, sirloin, center cut and blade chops.

Loin chops are from the lower back and look like t-bone steaks. They are meaty and include some tenderloin. Top loin chops are cut from above the loin chop on the shoulder near the head. They are also T-bone chops but contain no tenderloin. There are boneless varieties, as well, but bone-in is much better. Rib chops come from the center of the loin near the rib area and are on some rib bone. This group of chops will be one of the cuts we will focus on.

Sirloin chops come from the near the hip and can be either on the bone or boneless. These are fairly tasteless, tough and dry. While there are ways to use these, we will not bother with them today.

Blade chops are cut from near the shoulder area. They usually contain some shoulderblade and rib bones.  Blade chops have a good amount of fat, but also a lot of connective tissue, making them good candidates for braising. While they can be very tasty, this isn’t the kind of pork chop we are talking about.

Center cut chops come from the center of the loin. In fact, when I make these kind of chops I usually buy a tenderloin and cut my own. Center cut chops are flavorful, but lean, and are easy to overcook. This is the other cut we will concentrate on.

Whether using rib loin chops or center cut chops there are two ways to start out the process, either brining or salting. Brining can be as simple as 1 cup of salt and half a cup of sugar disolved in a gallon of water. I usually add things like apple juice, herbs, black peppercorns, etc. and use dark brown sugar, but as long as you start with the basic recipe you can add whatever flavors you like. Brining adds flavor and moisture. Just rinse or blot the brine off before cooking. I usually rinse it off, pat it dry, and then season. Leaving brine of the outside is a little too salty for my taste.

Salting is a technique that is gaining in popularity. It is very simple, you just salt the chops and let them sit for 45 minutes to an hour. It takes quite a bit of salt, 1/2 to 2/3 of a teaspoon per side. After salting, just let the meat sit on the counter and come to room temperature. What this does is start to pull out the moisture in the meat, which seems to be just the opposite of what we are going for, but is actually a good thing in this case.  The moisture that comes out mixes with the salt and then eventually is drawn back into the meat. The benefit of this technique is that it makes for a drier surface area, while still getting a lot of the benefits of brining. It also leaves some extra proteins on the surface for browning. Just gently remove the excess salt before adding to the pan, do not rinse or blot the surface.

Now that we have properly prepared our meat for cooking, let’s move on to some cooking techniques. The first application will involve center cut chops and will work well with either brining or salting. If brined, pat the meat dry and let it sit on the counter to air dry and come up close to room temperature.

Place a heavy bottomed pan, not non-stick, over medium heat. Once your pan is hot add a little olive oil. Once the oil shimmers and you see very tiny wisps of smoke coming off of the surface add the chops, taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Overcrowding will cause steam which will impede the browning that we are going for. Do not move your chops around or turn until they are nice and browned. Your chops are cooked when they reach 140° to 145°F. If they are thick cut that may require a few more minutes in a 375° oven. Once they reach your target temperature, loosely tent them with aluminum foil and let them rest. Do not cover tightly or your beautiful, delicious brown crust will steam away.

While your pork chops are resting, drain all but about 1 tbsp of the oil in your pan and return it to medium heat. Toss in one minced shallot and two very thinly sliced cloves of garlic and stir constantly for about 1 minute, taking care not to burn it. As soon as you start to really smell the garlic cooking (not burning) add in 1/2 cup of white wine and 1/2 cup of chicken stock. Scrape and stir to deglaze the pan. Turn the heat down to a simmer and reduce for about 5 minutes. Add a few grinds of black pepper, a pinch of dried thyme and about a tsp of freshly grated lemon zest. You can add a squeeze of lemon juice if you want too.

Once the sauce has reduced by half, remove from the heat and immediately whisk in 2 tbsps of good, brown, stone ground mustard. As soon as the mustard is fully incorporated, start whisking in cold butter, 1 tbsp at a time until your sauce reaches the desired consistency. This should take about 3 tbsps of butter. Your sauce should easily coat the back of a spoon and have a little gloss to it. Serve it with the rested chops and wine that can handle the mustard. A German Riesling, Alsatian Pinot Grigio, or good Rose′ should do the trick.

Our second application uses rib loin chops and works best with salting. Carefully remove the excess salt. Loin chops should have some fat around the edges. We want to leave this on, but it will cook (and contract) at a different rate than the meat, causing the meat to roll up into a cup shape. To keep this from happening, use a sharp knife to cut verticle slits into just the fat, spacing them out about 2 or 3 inches apart. Season with a little ground pepper.

Pre-heat your oven to 275°F, place a wire rack into a baking sheet, and arrange the pork chops on the rack. It makes no difference how thick your chops are, what we are looking for is an internal temperature of about 120°F. As soon as they reach the desired temperature, remove from the oven and place them in a heavy bottomed (again, not non-stick) pan with a little cooking oil. The pan should be on med-high heat and be smoking hot. Do not crowd the pan, cook in shifts if necessary.

What we are looking for is a nice brown crust, which should take anywhere between 1 to 3 minutes. If they, or the bits on the bottom, show any signs of burning, reduce the heat. Once browned on both sides, remove chops and reduce heat to medium. Add a little oil if needed, and using tongs to hold two chops at a time, brown the edges all around the chops. Let the meat rest like in the previous recipe.

The above mustard sauce is delicious with these as well. It, your favorite pan sauce, or the one below will all be good on these spectacular chops. I like this one because it pairs well with a bold Pinot Noir or even something like a good Malbec. I’d go with the Pinot though.

Start like before with just a tbsp of oil and some diced shallot and garlic. Also like the other sauce, deglaze as soon as you smell the garlic cooking. This time use 1 cup of port wine. Stir in 1/2 cup of dried cherries, and a heaping tbsp of seedless red raspberry preserves and scrape up all the goodies from the bottom. Simmer until reduced by half. Remove from the heat, whisk in 1 tbsp of dijon mustard, and finish with cold butter as before. Salt and pepper to taste. Both of the sauces in this post are enough for 4 chops, adjust as necessary.

There are plenty of other ways to cook them, grilled, jerked, braised, etc. but if you serve pork chops like these you truly will be a superstar in your kitchen.

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