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.
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.
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.
- Blade chops: Cut from the shoulder-end of the loin. These chops tend to have the darkest meat, and plenty of surrounding fat and connective tissue. They're packed with flavor, but can have some tough or stringy bits.
- Rib chops: Cut from behind the shoulder. Rib chops are easily identified by their large eye of tender meat. Depending on which end of the rib section the chops are cut from, they can have either a ton of fat and connective tissue around them (when cut from the blade end), or very little (when cut from the sirloin end).
- Center-cut chops: The porcine equivalent of a T-bone steak, with a large eye of meat on one side of the bone, and a smaller eye of tenderloin on the other side. Because tenderloin and loin cook so differently, it's very difficult to cook a center-cut chop evenly without over- or under-cooking one side or the other.
- Sirloin chops: come from the end closest to the rump. They contain many different muscle groups, some of which can be quite tough. Save these cuts for braising or stewing.
Tastes can vary, but I generally recommend rib chops for pan-searing, and I prefer chops cut from the blade end. Their higher fat content translates to more flavor and easier searing down the line.
I also like to get my chops cut THICK—I'm talking at least an inch and a half. Any thinner than that and it's difficult to appreciate the nice balance between crisp crust and moist, juicy interior.
How to Cook
There are a few important elements I look for in the perfect pork chops:
- Internal juiciness is the most important to me. After having spent an entire childhood full of dry, well-done pork chops, I never want another person to have to experience that particular form of torture again.
- Evenness of internal cooking. I want my chops to be juicy the whole way through, with no dry, stringy edges. The temperature gradient within the chop should be minimized as much as reasonably possible.
- A deep, dark, crisp crust, because what good is a moist interior without a crisp crust to contrast it? Browning also builds up complex flavors, making the chops taste meatier and emphasizing their sweet porkiness.
So here's the thing: internal juiciness is almost entirely related to the final temperature to which you cook your meat. The hotter it gets, the dryer it becomes. Here's a rough outline of what happens in that chop as you cook it:
- Below 110°F your pork chop is still very close to raw. It'll be translucent in color, like raw meat, and have a soft, unpleasant texture.
- Between 110 and 120°F you're in rare territory. The meat is starting to firm up a bit, but is still translucent and deep pink or red. Some folks like the very center of their chops to be rare.
- Between 120 and 130°F you're at medium-rare. The meat is firmer and no longer translucent, but rather a pleasant rosy pink with tons of moisture. This is how I like my chops.
- Between 130 and 140°F you're in medium territory. Your meat will be mostly white with a faint pink hue; quite firm, but still plenty juicy. This is generally how I cook pork chops for guests unless they specifically ask for them less cooked. It's a good range—solidly in the comfort zone for those afraid of pink or undercooked pork, but still quite juicy.
- Above 140°F things start to go south pretty fast. Muscle fibrils tense up very tight, expelling internal moisture in copious amounts—a chop can lose up to 30% of its moisture when cooked to 150°F or higher. Here be dragons. You want to stay away.
So when cooking a pork chop, the goal should be to keep as much of it in that 120 to 140°F sweet spot as possible.
On the other hand, searing requires extremely high heat in order to produce the browned colors and flavors we love so much. The so-called Maillard browning reactions, named after the 20th century French chemist who first described them, only take place to a significant degree at high temperatures—we're talking in the 350°F+ range.
You see the problem? In order to maximize internal juiciness, you want to cook your meat at as low a temperature as possible, but to maximize browning, you need to cook the exterior at as high a temperature as possible. These two goals are directly at odds with one another, and most cooking methods attempt to balance out the equation by applying a combination of two or more cooking techniques and temperatures.
Some, like traditional pan searing, start by developing a nice brown crust on the exterior in a ripping hot skillet, before transferring the whole thing to a gentle oven to finish cooking the chop through to the center. Whether the chop stays in the skillet or is transferred to a separate vessel (like a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet) varies, but the basic concept is the same.
For the next series of photos, I seared all the chops in the same cast iron skillet heated to the same temperature, flipping each chop after 30 seconds to show how rapidly a crust can develop. I cooked each to an internal temperature of 135°F before letting them rest, and then sliced them open to reveal the interior.
As you can see, with the traditional chop, there's a decent amount of browning. The interior, however, leaves something to be desired, with a dry, stringy layer of overcooked meat around the edges. It lost about 18% of its weight in moisture in the cooking process.
To solve this problem, some folks turn to brining, the process of soaking meat in a salt or salt-and-sugar water solution in order to improve its moisture-retention capabilities. How does it work? Normally, a pork chop loses moisture because its muscle fibers tighten up as it's heated, squeezing out juices like a tube of toothpaste. The salt in a brine will dissolve myosin, one of these muscle proteins, which in turn prevents it from tightening. Less tightening = less moisture loss = juicier meat.
The pork chop on the left is fresh, while the pork chop on the right has been brined for 4 hours in a salt and sugar solution. Even before cooking, it's gained about 4% of extra weight in retained brine. It can't help but to lead to a juicier chop, right?
And indeed it does: brined pork loses only 15% of its starting weight in moisture as it cooks, leading to a juicier end product. But there are two major pitfalls to brining. First, that extra moisture in the pork chop is basically pure water, which gives you a chop that's moist, but more diluted in flavor. (Read more about that effect in this article on The Truth About Brining Turkey.)
But there's an even bigger hit to flavor caused by brining. Check this out:
See how pale that chop is compared to the plain chop? Brined meat has so much free water stored up inside of it, that as soon as it hits a hot pan, it begins to shed it in copious quantities. Evaporating this water takes lots of energy from the skillet that would otherwise be going toward browning the chop. Your meat ends up steaming for the first few minutes in the pan, which means that it's very difficult to develop that gorgeous browned crust.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: I never brine my meat, and it's for these very reasons. It's a band-aid that causes more injuries than it mends.
So what are better alternatives?
I'm a strong advocate of dry-brining: the process of heavily salting a piece of meat and letting it rest before cooking it. A lot of folks get annoyed at the term "dry-brining," because, well, it's technically an inaccurate term. Yet it gets the concept across elegantly, so I'll stick with it for now, and those folks who get annoyed can go peddle their pedantry elsewhere.
When you salt a piece of meat, initially moisture is drawn out of it through the process of osmosis, creating a brine of meat juices and dissolved salt on the surface of the meat. This brine then works in the traditional way: it dissolved muscle proteins, whereupon it gets reabsorbed and slowly but surely works its way into the meat. You end up with a chop that retains moisture just as well as a regularly-brined chop,* but is much more concentrated in flavor, and easier to sear, to boot.
*Like a regularly brined chop, a dry-brined chop cooked to 135°F will lose about 15% of its starting weight in moisture.
If you pair dry-brining with an overnight rest in the fridge, uncovered in order to drive off surface moisture, you can improve browning even more.
This chop was salted heavily, left on a rack uncovered in the fridge overnight, then seared the next day.
Check out that gorgeous crust! Because there's less surface moisture to evaporate, you're able to get good browning with less time spent in the pan. This means less overcooked internal meat; a juicier chop with a richer crust than you'll get from either regular brining or traditional pan-searing. The only downside is that it takes a bit of planning: you have to buy the chops and salt them the day before you want to eat. In my book, it's a small price to pay for porky perfection.
Wondering if I could get my chops to brown even faster, I tried using a combination of both salt and sugar in my dry brine, knowing that sugar would increase the rate at which those Maillard reactions take place. I wouldn't do it with a steak, but pork has a naturally sweet flavor, so it's not out of place here.
Long story short, it works: I dry-brine pork chops with a mixture of salt and sugar.
So far so good, but can we do even better? My gut (and my brain) tells me yes.
Sous-vide cooking, the process of placing meat (or other things) into hermetically-sealed, air-free bags and submerging them in very precisely-controlled water baths to cook, is gaining more and more mainstream popularity, and with good reason. It's the most reliable, fool-proof way to guarantee perfectly cooked meats, and the home options are getting cheaper and more reliable all the time.
The idea is that by submerging a piece of meat at the exact temperature you're going to serve it—say, 135°F for a pork chop—you can get it cooked from edge to edge with absolutely no overcooked gradient at all.
Sous-vide cooked meats come out of their air-tight bags looking something like this:
Not too attractive, right?
That's because sous-vide cooking doesn't produce heat high enough for any sort of browning. You need to add that browned crust after it's been cooked through, by searing the meat in a hot skillet.
Sous-vide cooked meats will brown better than either brined or plain chops, developing a great browned crust with very little overcooked meat around the edges, but slightly less efficiently than dry-brined meats. Still, the extra juiciness can be worth it. If I have the inclination to pull out my sous-vide cooker, it's my go-to method for serving pork chops to guests. (Check out my full sous-vide pork chop recipe here.)
The Reverse Sear
But what if you don't have a sous-vide machine? Not to fear, there are easy home solutions that produce results nearly as good. Listen up, because this might be the most important meat cooking technique you'll add to your arsenal. It's called the reverse sear, and it does wonders for chops, steaks, roasts, even poultry.
It's a technique I first developed when working on a recipe for Pan-Seared Thick-Cut Steaks (warning: paywall) for Cook's Illustrated back in 2007, based on the same principal as sous-vide cooking.
Traditionally, steaks and chops are cooked by searing first, and then finished off in the oven to cook the meat through. This method is based on the myth that searing locks in juices (it doesn't). What I discovered is that if you reverse these two steps—start your meat in a low oven first then sear it after—you get far superior results. Why is that?
Just like with sous-vide cooking, starting the meat at a relatively gentle pace leads to meat that's far more evenly cooked from edge to edge. What's more, the exterior of your chop will dry out significantly during its stay in the warm oven, leading to faster searing.
I put my chops in a 250°F oven until they hit between 110 and 120°F (knowing that they'll continue to heat up a bit in the pan) before pulling them out and placing them in a ripping hot cast iron skillet with oil and butter to sear.
By combining this technique with dry-brining, you get what I believe is the ultimate non-sous-vide pork chop experience. I mean, just look at how well browned that chop gets after just 30 seconds in the skillet:
To add even more flavor to the mix, I do what I do to my Pan-Seared Steaks: baste them with aromatics as they cook.
Some sliced shallots and thyme do nicely, and piling them on top of the chops, spooning hot butter and pork drippings over them, helps get their flavor to coat the meat without burning.
The best part about the reverse sear? As with sous-vide cooking, because the temperature gradient inside the meat is so minimal, the chop requires very little resting time after it comes out of the skillet. All you have to do is plate it up and go.
I went a little fancy with this guy, serving it with a carrot purée, glazed carrots, sautéed brussels sprouts leaves, and a buttery wild mushroom sauce. But trust me: cook your chops using this method and they will be so juicy and flavorful that you won't miss the sauce or accompaniments one bit.
Next item on my list: develop a time machine so I can go back to the mid 70's, drop this info on my mom, and rescue my childhood. Any tips would be appreciated.