Big Little Recipes

This Pantry Staple Yields the Most Flavorful Pork Chops

March 17, 2020
Photo by Rocky Luten. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog.

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re giving pork chops a little sugar.

Not too long after I started working here at Food52, we rolled out a community contest for Your Best Hands-Off Recipe, the eventual winner of which I still think about, often: Halfsies Chicken.

From a distance, this looks like any other grilled chicken recipe. Or, any other grilled chicken, period. There are no herby toppings, no dipping sauces, no side dish. So what’s the deal? What you can’t tell from the photo is that, long before the grill heats up, the chicken spends the night covered in sugar (plus salt, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper).

You probably already know that salting meat in advance—also known as a dry brine—yields juicier, tenderer, tastier results. As Samin Nosrat writes in her book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, “I can’t remember the first time I tasted—consciously, anyway—meat that had been salted in advance. But now I can tell every time I taste meat that hasn’t.”

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“That said, you wrote, "4 pounds bone-in pork chops (about 2 pounds/907 grams total)" - did you actually mean "4 bone-in pork chops (about 2 pounds/907 grams total"?)”
— BeyondBrynMawr

Sugar has a totally different, though similarly aha-inducing, result. While salt alters meat’s protein and water structures, “sugar has little if any effect on the texture of the meat,” according to Cooks Illustrated. It does, however, “add flavor and promotes better browning.” And who doesn’t want that?

The best part is: You can sugar-brine a lot more than chicken. In 2015, Food52er SavorThis shared a recipe for Vietnamese Sugar Steak, which boasts a crackly-caramelized crust thanks to brown sugar. More recently, Associate Editor Coral Lee wrote about her love for Momofuku’s Bö Ssam—a honking pork butt, marinated in lots of granulated and brown sugar that turns into a “glossy bark” in the oven.

If you’re like me, you were persuaded long ago to make your desserts salty, savory, and even spicy. Say, adding flaky Maldon to Genius cocoa brownies, miso to caramel sauce, or black pepper to chocolate chip cookies. But perhaps you’re just coming around to the flip side—incorporating something sweet into an otherwise savory dinner. For me, this is just as eye-opening and habit-forming.


Especially when it comes to pork chops. These are one of my favorite proteins—they’re cost-effective, cook quickly, and, most importantly, taste like a big hunk of bacon. I used to salt them in advance, sear in a pan, and serve with whatever vegetables were nearby. But now I know better—because I sugar them in advance, too.

Malty brown sugar brings out pork’s natural sweetness. It also creates a varnished, mahogany crust that’s so deep and dark, you might think it’s burnt. It’s not. As the meat browns, the sugar caramelizes into, yes, literal caramel. Bittersweet, salty, porky caramel.

To go with, I turn to one of my back-pocket sides: sautéed bell peppers and onions. These are sweetish in their own way, but also vegetal and savory. And, for a little contrast, I throw in some spicy pepperoncini, whose punchy, puckery brine steps in as a splashy wake-up call.

The only question is: Which meat should we sugar-brine next?

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Fbrenz1
  • BeyondBrynMawr
  • tpssteph
  • Emma Laperruque
    Emma Laperruque
Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Fbrenz1 March 19, 2020
This does sound so wonderful. Unfortunately, I am diabetic and this would be very bad for me. But I thank you for at least letting me imagine the greatness... lol
tpssteph March 31, 2020
try cinnamon! my partner uses salt, pepper and cinnamon on our pork chops and they are delicioussssss. he also makes it on a bed of turmeric onions and they are maybe even better than the meat itself
BeyondBrynMawr March 18, 2020
I want to try this - this looks delicious!

(That said, you wrote, "4 pounds bone-in pork chops (about 2 pounds/907 grams total)" - did you actually mean "4 bone-in pork chops (about 2 pounds/907 grams total"?)
Author Comment
Emma L. March 18, 2020
Yes! Just fixed, thank you so much for the catch!