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The Food Lab's Guide to Pan-Seared Pork Chops

It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Pork has had an unfortunate history in this country. As the child of a mother who learned to cook at a time when trichinosis scares were around, all of our pork chops were cooked to well-done. Couple that with the fact that the pork industry spent years catering to customer demands for leaner and leaner meat, and it led to a generation of kids that grew up knowing pork chops only as dry, pale slabs of meat as stringy as a burlap sack and as tough and leathery as Clint Eastwood with a sunburn. Yuck.

But the times they are a-changin', and things are looking up for pork. For one thing, we now have relatively easy access to much better meat. Heritage breed pigs that are bred for flavor instead of low fat content. We also have much safer pork—pork that can be eaten at a juicy medium or medium-rare, the way it was meant to be. On top of all that, we're in a virtual renaissance in terms of novel cooking techniques; better, smarter ways to maximize the flavor and texture of a pork chop. Today we're going to discuss a few of those techniques and see if we can't nail down the best.

Choosing Chops

All pork chops are cut out of the same basic part of the pig: the loin, a large muscle that runs along its back from the shoulder to its butt.* Depending on where the chops are cut from, they'll have slightly different cooking qualities.** At the butcher or supermarket, you're likely to find at least two out of three of the following cuts:

*Its anatomical butt, not to be confused with the term "pork butt" or "boston butt," which actually refers to pork shoulder. Confusing, right?
**When talking about this in person, I have a tendency to start pointing out where on the human body these cuts would lie. This seems to make some folks uncomfortable. I don't understand why.