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While I stand firmly behind my statement that skinless, boneless chicken breasts are one of the most difficult meats to grill well, pork chops are not far behind. Suffering some of the same problems as chicken breasts—minimal fat, often too thin, lacking a strong flavor—pork chops can confound the griller, but luckily the path to killer chops is not difficult and the results have the power to change your perception of what makes a great grilled pork chop.
The Right Chops
Cut selection is key to pork chop success on the grill, and while there's many cuts to choose from, they're not all well suited for flames. Running along the loin, the front most cuts are the blade chops, whose large amount of intermuscular fat will not fully render over the quick cook on the grill, making them chewy and tough.
Then comes the ribs chops, comprised largely of pork loin, which has enough fat to allow it to stand up to the heat well along with having a nice amount of flavor. From within the rib chops, try to get center-cut, which will have the largest piece of loin. Finally you come to the loin chops, where the balance between loin and tenderloin can be more evenly weighted, and since the tenderloin is prone to cook faster than the loin, in turn, drying it out, it's not the best choice for the high heat of the grill.
The cut is only half the battle though; size is just as important. As we learned from chicken, thin pieces of meat can quickly go from great to overdone in a flash on the grill. While thinness is an inevitability with chicken breasts, it's something we have a say in with pork chops. Chops about 1 ½-inch thick seem to be the perfect size, allowing some insurance in perfect cooking by later letting us take a two-zone, more controlled approach to grilling. You can probably pick up any of these pork chop cuts in the grocery store, but you'll most likely need to visit your friendly neighborhood butcher to get the nice thick slabs you really need.
With a thick-cut rib chop, we have the perfect pork chop for the grill, but that doesn't mean it won't benefit from a brine. An hour soak in a salt and sugar solution reshapes the proteins in the meat in such a way that they retain moisture better when cooking. The end result will be a juicier, and more flavorful chop, so it's a step you don't want to skip.
After the brine, the chops just need to be patted dry with paper towels, given a heavy dose of freshly ground black pepper, and they're ready for the flames.
A Double Dose of Grilling
The grill can be a thin-cut pork chops worst enemy, but a thick-cut chops best friend. The unique ability to easily sear and roast on a grill is the magic to fantastic chops. To accomplish this, first start with a two-zone indirect fire—where all the coals are piled on one side of the charcoal grate, creating hot and cool zones. The chops can now be safely seared over high heat, where they quickly develop a beautifully brown crust. Just be careful of flare-ups here—caused by rendering fat dripping on the coals and igniting—which can be mitigated by temporarily moving the chops to the cool side of the grill until the flare-up has ceased.
With the chops well seared, they still will not be cooked through, thanks to their large size. To finish up the cook, they're moved to the cool side of the grill, bone side facing the flame, and covered. This indirect heat is gentler to the meat and allows easier monitoring of the internal temperature—you can stick a probe thermometer in the thickest part of the chop and watch the temperature rise without even opening the lid. That temperature you're looking for is 135°F, which is just at the high end of medium-rare, letting the final chop come to a rosy and juicy medium 145°F during the mandatory ten minute rest off the grill.
Unlike chicken, where even hard work results in a somewhat flavorless end product, a brined, well seasoned, and properly grilled pork chop can be truly fantastic on its own—the meat is incredibly moist and the crust full of flavor. Still it doesn't hurt to add a extra little something.
On of my favorite things is to use a complex barbecue spice rub in place of pepper alone as the seasoning. These chili-rubbed chops deliver on this method very well. Another option is topping with a finishing sauce like a corn relish or peach and ginger sauce. Finally, the thick chops also make them a great choice for stuffing.
Versatile and delicious, pork chops are just crying for the grill, and with your new chop know-how, you should be able to churn out perfect pork time and time again.