Why It Works
- Slow, precise cooking using a water bath and an immersion circulator cooks pork chops to a perfectly even temperature, from edge to edge.
- A high-heat finish, in a skillet or on the grill, gives the chops a crisp, browned crust and keeps the interior juicy.
If you're like me, you grew up thinking that pork chops were the dry, tough cousin of steaks. Cheaper, sure, but as grueling to eat as the most overcooked chicken breast around. It was partially a problem with the pork back then. In the days when "the other white meat" was still the slogan, pork producers tried their hardest to breed any kind of fat out of the meat, and ended up breeding the flavor and juiciness out of it, too. (It didn't help that we were taught that pork must be cooked to 165°F, the temperature at which all organic matter spontaneously converts into sawdust.)
But pork has made a major comeback. You can find high-quality, flavorful pork from a variety of heirloom breeds with relative ease at a butcher's shop. Even some supermarkets are offering tastier pork chops than they were just a decade or two ago. But a good pork chop is only as good as the method by which you cook it. You want the most foolproof way to guarantee extra-juicy pork chops? Sous vide is the way to go.
Here's my complete guide to how it's done.
Why Sous Vide?
People often ask me, "Is sous vide really better than grilling or pan-searing?" It's really an impossible question to answer because there's no "better" or "worse" in this case. It's simply another technique, a tool in your arsenal to deploy when you want to achieve a specific result.
What sous vide will get you, on the other hand, is meat that is perfectly cooked from edge to edge in a consistent and completely reliable way. You'll have pork chops that are juicier than you've ever tasted. It also makes preparation easy: Select your temperature, put your pork in with the immersion circulator, sear it, and serve.
How to Select the Right Temperature
With traditional high-heat cooking methods, it's necessary to cook at the exact right temperature for the exact right amount of time to achieve the doneness you're after. With sous vide cooking, because you're cooking at the exact temperature at which you're planning on serving your meat, timing is much more forgiving. Temperature is by far the overriding factor. By adjusting the temperature of your cooker, you can cook your pork chops to anywhere from a pink, juicy rare (130°F; 54°C) to a firm but still moist well-done (160°F; 71°C).
Bear in mind that the hotter you cook, the more moisture you're going to squeeze out of the pork.
Here's a breakdown of the texture and juiciness you can expect at various temperatures:
- Rare (130°F; 54°C): Your meat is still nearly raw. Muscle proteins have not started to contract much and will have a slippery, wet texture. The meat will be extremely juicy, but it'll be hard to break down muscle fibers between your teeth, as the meat won't have enough firmness to stand up to chewing.
- Medium-rare (140°F; 60°C): Muscle proteins have begun to tighten and firm up. You lose a bit of juice due to this tightening, but what you lose in juice, you gain in tenderness. This is my favorite temperature for pork chops. They come out extremely juicy and tender, but have a natural meaty bite to them, without the off-putting slipperiness of 130°F meat.
- Medium-well (150°F; 66°C): The muscle fibers continue to toughen up and expel juices. The pork will still be flavorful, but it'll have lost a lot of its tenderness by this stage.
- Well-done (160°F; 71°C): The meat is completely well-done, with a texture that's reminiscent of the pork chops I ate as a kid, albeit juicier than if they were cooked via more traditional methods.
Does Timing Matter?
It's true that timing for sous vide cooking is much more forgiving than with traditional techniques—your window of properly-cooked meat opens up from seconds or minutes to hours—but even so, it is possible to over- or undercook the meat. My general rule of thumb is to allow around 15 minutes of cooking time per half inch of thickness, adding on an extra 10 minutes or so just to be safe. This is enough time to allow the meat to achieve thermal equilibrium and get cooked through to the same temperature as the water bath. Beyond that time, the meat will not lose much juiciness, but eventually, as muscle proteins break down, it will become somewhat mushy, shredding as you bite rather than tearing.
At four hours, the meat has begun to lose some of its resilience, and by eight hours, it's tender enough to pull apart with your fingers. I limit cook times to under four hours.
Temperature and Timing Chart for Juicy Pork Chops
Too much data? Okay, here's all of that information compressed into a chart with just what you need to know. The timing is given for pork chops that are around 1 1/2 inches thick. Add 15 minutes to the minimum time for each half inch if you have thicker, double-cut chops.
|Sous Vide Pork Chop Temperature and Timing Chart|
|Rare: Tender, juicy, and a little slippery||130°F (54°C)||1 to 4 hours|
|Medium-rare: Tender, juicy, and meaty (my favorite)||140°F (60°C)||1 to 4 hours|
|Medium-well: Quite firm and just starting to dry out||150°F (66°C)||1 to 4 hours|
|Well-done: Firm, a little dry and tough, but still moist||160°F (71°C)||1 to 4 hours|
A Few Notes on Sous Vide Bags
I usually use vacuum-seal bags for sous vide cooking. However, you can achieve very similar results using high-quality zipper-lock bags. To seal a zipper-lock bag, you'll want to use the displacement method: Place the pork in the bag, then seal it almost entirely closed. Next, slowly lower the bagged pork chops into a pot of water, letting the water pressure press out air through the top of the bag. Once most of the air is out of the bag, carefully seal the bag just above the waterline. If the bag is properly sealed, it should sink.
Whichever bag you choose, make sure to fold the top of the bag over itself to form a hem before adding the pork. This will prevent juices from getting on the edges of the bag, which will interfere with the seal and provide vectors for contamination. Slide the pork chops into the bag in a single layer (do not crowd the bag; use multiple bags if necessary), along with any aromatics, such as fresh herbs, if you're using them. Unfold the edge before sealing the bag.
Frequently Asked Sous Vide Pork Questions
Q: What are the downsides to cooking pork chops sous vide versus a more traditional method?
Sous vide–style precision cooking is a technique, another tool in your arsenal, and just like with all techniques, there's a tradeoff. The two most obvious downsides are that it takes longer (nothing that can't be overcome with planning) and it requires more equipment. Cooking a pork chop sous vide requires an immersion circulator and a zipper-lock or vacuum-seal bag and sealer, in addition to all the tools required for more traditional methods. Chances are, if you're reading this article, you already have those extra tools.
Finally, sous vide cooking precludes the ability to make a pan sauce; you will not develop much fond (the browned bits left in the bottom of a pan when searing meat) while crisping up a sous vide pork chop.
Remember this: Sous vide is not a silver bullet or a panacea meant to solve all of your cooking problems or to replace more traditional methods. It's a tool meant to expand your options.
Q: What are the best cuts of pork to cook sous vide?
I like using bone-in center-cut pork rib chops, which have a nice big eye of meat and are very tender. Blade-end pork chops will have a little more flavor and more connective tissue—you're trading off tenderness for flavor. Shoulder chops are even more flavorful, but again, they'll be a little tougher. Pork loin chops have a large, T-shaped bone with an eye of meat on either side. They tend to be rather lean and mild in flavor, but very tender.
Q: Is there any advantage to using bone-in pork chops over boneless?
Unlike when you're cooking directly in a pan or on a grill, where the extra flavor of the connective tissue around the bones has no effect on the rest of the meat, in sous vide cooking that flavor will actually spread around the whole chop. Bone-in chops cooked sous vide are tastier than those cooked without the bone. There are a couple of disadvantages, however. Bones can be sharp, and you run the risk of puncturing your sous vide bags. Wrapping the ends of the bones in a paper towel before bagging them can mitigate this. Bones can also make it difficult for the chop to achieve full contact with the pan when you're searing it, resulting in areas right around the bone that aren't browned as well. Overall, though, I prefer chops with the bone in.
Q: Can I brown sous vide pork chops?
Sous vide precision cooking on its own doesn't achieve the high temperatures needed to trigger the Maillard browning reactions. Foods cooked sous vide need to be finished via a higher heat method if browning and crispness are on the menu. For pork, that means hitting it in a skillet with hot oil, or on top of a grill.
Q: What about brining?
Brining—the process of soaking meat in a saltwater solution in order to help it retain moisture better in the future—is entirely unnecessary when it comes to sous vide cooking. Your pork will still come out plenty juicy.
Q: When should I season my pork chops?
If I'm going to be dropping the chops straight into the cooker, I'll season my pork chops before bagging them. If, however, I'm going to bag them and let them sit in the fridge for a day or two before cooking, I'll bag them unseasoned. Salt can interact with pork muscle fibers, giving the pork a cured, smooth, almost ham-like texture. This is not entirely undesirable (ham is delicious, after all), but it's up to you whether you want that texture or prefer a more traditional meaty texture.
Q: What happens if I leave a pork chop in the sous vide cooker for longer than the maximum time recommended? Is it dangerous?
So long as you're cooking at above 130°F, there are no real health risks associated with prolonged sous vide cooking. You will, however, eventually notice a difference in texture. For best results, I don't recommend cooking any longer than the maximum recommended time for each cut and temperature range.
Q: Can I chill and reheat my pork chops after cooking them sous vide if I haven't opened the bag?
It's true that given a high-enough temperature (130°F or higher) and a long-enough time period (several hours), the contents of a sealed sous vide bag should be close to sterile, which means that rapid chilling via an ice bath followed by rapid reheating should pose no health risks, though I still strongly recommend against it whenever avoidable. It's not doing any favors for the quality of the pork chop. Moreover, it takes just as long to reheat a chilled, already-cooked sous vide pork chop to its final serving temperature as it does to cook that same pork chop from scratch, so you really aren't saving any time by doing it.
Q: Can I cook a sous vide pork chop straight from the freezer?
Yes! It is best to seal the chops in bags before freezing. Then, to cook, pull the chops out of the freezer and drop them straight into the water bath, making sure to add an extra hour to the cook time in order to allow the pork to fully thaw.
4 bone-in pork rib chops, 1 1/2 inches thick each (about 2 1/2 pounds; 1.1kg total)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 to 4 tablespoons (30 to 60ml) vegetable, canola, or rice bran oil, divided (optional)
4 tablespoons (60ml) butter, divided (optional)
8 sprigs thyme or rosemary, divided (optional)
4 garlic cloves, divided (optional)
2 shallots, thinly sliced, divided (optional)
Place an immersion circulator in a water bath and set the circulator to the desired final temperature according to the chart above. Allow the water bath to come to temperature. Season pork chops generously with salt and pepper (see note). Place in vacuum-seal or zipper-lock bags. Seal bags (see note) and place in water bath for time recommended in chart above.
To Finish in a Pan: Turn on your vents and open your windows. Remove pork from water bath and bag and carefully pat dry with paper towels. Add 2 tablespoons vegetable, canola, or rice bran oil to a heavy cast iron or stainless steel skillet, place it over the hottest burner you have, and preheat skillet until it starts to smoke. Using your fingers or a set of tongs, gently lay two pork chops in skillet. If desired, add 1 tablespoon butter; for a cleaner-tasting sear, omit butter at this stage. Carefully lift and peek under pork as it cooks to gauge how quickly it is browning. Let it continue to cook until the crust is deep brown and very crisp, about 45 seconds.
Flip pork chops. If desired, add 1 more tablespoon butter, along with half of the thyme, rosemary, garlic, and/or shallots. Spoon butter over pork chops as they cook, if using. Continue cooking until second side is browned, about 45 seconds longer.
When pork is browned, pick it up with a pair of tongs, rotate it sideways, and make sure to brown the edges as well. Transfer cooked pork chops to a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Discard aromatics. Repeat with remaining pork chops, butter, and aromatics, adding additional oil to skillet if necessary. Let chops rest for 3 to 5 minutes.
Just before serving, reheat the drippings in the pan until sizzling-hot, then pour them over pork chops in order to re-crisp their exteriors. Serve immediately.
To Finish on the Grill: Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill, and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Alternatively, set half the burners on a gas grill to the highest heat setting, cover, and preheat for 10 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate.
Remove pork chops from water bath and bag and carefully pat dry with paper towels. Place pork chops directly over the hot side of the grill and cook, turning every 15 to 30 seconds, until a deep, rich crust has formed, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes total. If the fire threatens to flare up as pork chops drip fat into it, suffocate the fire by closing the grill lid until the flames die out. Alternatively, transfer pork chops to the cooler side of the grill using a set of long tongs until the flames subside. Do not allow pork chops to become engulfed in flames. Transfer cooked pork chops to a cutting board or serving platter and serve immediately.
If you plan to leave the uncooked pork chops in bags for more than a few hours before cooking, skip the seasoning step and instead season them just before searing.
To seal a zipper-lock bag, use the displacement method: Place pork chops in bag, then seal it almost entirely closed. Next, slowly lower the bagged chops into a pot or bowl of water, letting the water pressure press out air through the top of the bag. Once most of the air is out of the bag, carefully seal the bag just above the waterline. If bag is properly sealed, it should sink.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 45g||57%|
|Saturated Fat 17g||87%|
|Total Carbohydrate 0g||0%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||0%|
|Total Sugars 0g|
|Vitamin C 1mg||4%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|