Published March 1, 2009.
Thick pork chops may boast a juicy interior or a nicely caramelized exterior—but rarely both. We wanted it all, in one recipe.
Many recipes offer one of two scenarios for cooking thick, bone-in pork chops: searing them in a smoking skillet or roasting them in a blazing hot oven. Both methods are woefully outdated. Thanks to genetic manipulation, today’s pork has about 30 percent less fat than it did just a few decades ago, and less fat means blander, drier meat. The exposure to high heat required to cook thick chops through—recipes call for up to 475 degrees—can help form a nice crust, but also turns already dry meat into pork jerky.
Pork chop perfection, which means not only a rich, brown crust but also plump, juicy meat that’s full of flavor down to the last gnaw of the bone.
We decided on rib loin chops over center-cut chops, preferring their meaty texture and slightly higher fat content. After brining—soaking the chops in a saltwater solution before cooking—we tried an approach popular in restaurant kitchens: starting the chops in a skillet and finishing them in a hot oven. The meat was pleasingly juicy, but there wasn’t much browning and the chops lacked a deep, roasted flavor. We suspected that the moisture from the brine hindered browning. We wondered if we could skip the liquid part of the brine and simply salt the chops. Although salt initially draws moisture out of protein, the reverse happens soon afterward, as salt and juices flow back in. We salted the chops, then let them sit for 45 minutes—any less and the salt would not have enough time to penetrate the meat—before searing and finishing them in the oven at a high temperature. The salt did its job, as the chops were wonderfully juicy, but they were also tough, and the crust was still meager.
For our next test, we seared the chops and transferred them to a much cooler oven to finish cooking. The chops were cooked through and more tender than chops cooked in a hot oven. Our science editor explained that enzymes called cathepsins break down proteins such as collagen, helping to tenderize meat, but these enzymes are only active at temperatures below 122 degrees. If we wanted tender chops, we would have to keep the pork at a low temperature for as long as possible.
Boldly, we decided to turn our method upside down: we cooked the salted chops in a gentle oven, and then seared them in a smoking pan until they reached an ideal serving temperature. This technique worked like a charm for two reasons: First, the meat cooked slowly, allowing ample time for the enzymes to do their work; second, the gentle roasting dried the exterior of the meat, creating a thin, arid layer. The results were tender, beautifully caramelized chops.list of recipes