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Each week this summer, Cara Nicoletti of The Meat Hook is helping us get to know our favorite cuts a little bit better – and introducing you to a few new ones, too. Read on, study up, then hightail it to your nearest butcher.
Today: What meat should you be eating this season? Pork chops.
There are certain cuts of meat that are better suited to summer than winter, and vice versa. In the summer we tend to choose cuts that fare well on the grill, or ones that cook up hot and fast in a pan, to keep our kitchens as cool as possible. When fall and winter arrive we turn on our ovens, seeking out cuts that we can slowly braise and roast, cuts that will fill our kitchens with good, cozy smells.
Pork chops are lucky -- they're champs all year long. They work beautifully grilled, pan-cooked, braised, or roasted, which makes them a perfect fit for the transition from summer to fall. Here's everything you need to know about this versatile cut of meat, and the best ways to prepare it in any season.
Pork chops come from the loin of the pig, which runs along the spine from just behind the shoulder all the way to the sirloin of the animal, just before the leg. On a cow, we would separate this giant loin into two sections -- the fact that this muscle is kept as one piece on the pig means that your chops will differ depending on which part of the loin they’re cut from.
Shoulder end chop
This is my favorite of the two cuts. Because of its proximity to the shoulder, this area of the animal works slightly harder than the sirloin chop, which means chops cut from the shoulder end are more flavorful. They also have a good deal of intermuscular fat, which gives the chops an extra flavor boost and helps to keep them moist. If possible, ask your butcher to keep the bone in and the skin on -- this will lead to an even more flavorful chop.
Sirloin end chop
This cut is the equivalent of the porterhouse steak on a cow; a T-shaped bone runs through its center to separate the loin from the tenderloin. These chops will be leaner, slightly more tender, and a tiny bit less flavorful than shoulder end chops. They are great on the grill because less fat means fewer insane flare-ups, but they also fare well in a pan.
If you have good-quality pork chops, a simple preparation is the best way to go. Coat them in a good dose of salt and coarse black pepper, then let them sit for about 30 minutes so that they can come to room temperature and absorb the salt. Get a cast iron skillet ripping hot with some neutral oil and sear the chops for 4 minutes on each side to give them a nice crust. Sear them all along the skin until it gets blistery and golden, and then throw the chops in a 400° F oven for 10 to 15 minutes, or until your meat thermometer reads 135° F (the temperature will rise after cooking). Let the chops rests for 10 minutes before digging in. If you're feeling particularly indulgent, top them with a pat of unsalted butter while they're resting.
If your chop is lean -- or you just want to impart some extra moisture -- brining is a great strategy. I typically brine my sirloin end chops, which are the leaner of the two. You can brine your chops for as little as two hours, or as many as twelve.
Makes enough for 2 pork chops
2 cups water
1/3 cup kosher salt
1/3 cup brown sugar (granulated sugar will work too)
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 sprigs thyme
4 cloves garlic
1 chile de arbol (optional)
4 cups ice cubes
Two 1-inch pork chops
Note: There's really only one tried-and-true trick to excellent pork chops: buy well-raised pork. Pork that is raised in a pasture, rather than crammed into tiny, unsanitary spaces, doesn’t have to be cooked all the way through. I’m not saying eat your pork chops raw, but I am saying that keeping your meat a little bit pink in the middle will make a big difference in terms of flavor and moisture. The USDA recommends that supermarket pork be cooked somewhere between 145° F to 160° F (they’ve eased up on the hardline rule of 160° F in recent years), and I would recommend sticking to this range if you don’t feel confident about where your pork came from and how it was raised. However, if you do feel good about your pork, try pulling your chops off the heat at 135° F and letting them come up to 140° F to 145° F with residual heat. I think the moisture and flavor will really surprise you.
What's your favorite way to prepare ever-reliable pork chops?
Photos by Mark Weinberg