We often talk about the wisdom of playing to our strengths, and in Maryland that means eating pork chops. Although poultry and beef are our leading proteins, pork comes in at an important third place. And with the rediscovery of heritage breeds, we are living high on the hog. Chef Jerry Pellegrino is very well informed on this subject and knows there is some delicious pork out there.
Jerry tells us that after WWII the American food industry decided that what we needed was a lean hog that came to maturity quickly and was a good meat producer. They settled on the Yorkshire White as their candidate, and carefully bred away as much unsightly fat as they could. They got their meat, but they lost the flavor, because with pigs, like all other domesticated livestock, fat means flavor.
By the time of the Millennial change was in the air. At the prodding of forward thinking chefs, small farmers began to question the conventional wisdom. Enter the concept of heirloom varieties and heritage breeds; long forgotten alternatives to the industrialized food of the late 20th century.
Farmers like Shane Hughes of Liberty Delight Farms began working with the noble Berkshire breed of hogs, (to my utter and complete delight). Native to the English county of Berkshire, the breed all but disappeared in America by the 1950's when industrial scale breeders went for lower fat hogs. What a mistake! The high fat content in the Berkshire is the secret to its juiciness and flavor. Your standard supermarket pork chop is almost certain to dry out to cardboard stiffness when cooked, while your Berkshire stays moist and oh, so flavorful.
There are several other notable breeds making a comeback including Duroc (from New Jersey) and Tamworth (an ancient breed from England). One thing these breeds have in common is excellent fat that is well-marbled in the animal's musculature.Probably the way we most frequently encounter hogs is by way of the pork chop. These tender, flavorful cuts come from along the spine and usually have a bit of rib attached to them. Working from the shoulder down to the hip we have the shoulder or blade chop; rib chops; loin chops; and the sirloin chops. The prized "center cut" pork chop, technically a loin chop, is a big piece of meat with a distinctive "t-bone" embedded.
Here are some tips for cooking pork chops.
1. Go for "bone-in" cuts. The bone protects the meat from over-cooking and has some fat associated with it that adds to flavor.
2. Thicker is better. A good pork farmer like Shane Hughes will gladly provide you with a "double thick" chop which will be about 1 1/2". The thickness makes it hard to overcook the meat.
3. Brine the chop either with a dry brine rub or with a salt/sugar water bath. This helps maintain moisture and flavor.
4. Avoid over-cooking like the plague. One technique is to give the chops a few minutes in a low 250 oven and then finish in a hot skillet using a high flash point oil like canola oil. You're shooting for an internal temperature between 145° and 160°. And always let the meat rest.
Another approach, much preferred by Jerry, would be to sous vide the chops. To do this you will seal the chops in a plastic bag along with seasonings and aromatics. (Keep it delicate, Jerry urges.) Evacuate the air and sous vide to a temperature of 140°.
Pre-heat a cast iron skillet over high heat, melt a generous lump of butter, sprinkle herbs and garlic and pop the chops right in. Although the skillet will smoke, the chops will quickly sear and the fat will caramelize. Get a good sear on one side, then turn and quickly do the other. It should take about 45 seconds per side. The internal temperature will rise a bit, but because you cooked it to a precise 140°, you can still bring it in medium rare with just a touch of pink.
On the subject of marinades, Jerry takes a somewhat contrary approach. Although many recipes call for olive oil, there is no logical reason to use it. Being an oil, it does not penetrate the meat, which is water based. And if you are grilling, all that olive oil will drip onto the burners or coals and produce a sooty black smoke.
A good pork chop marinade might include apple cider vinegar, mustard, brown sugar, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce and various seasonings. Bag your chops with the marinade and keep refrigerated for up to 8 hours, turning them occasionally for even coating. Drain off the chops, and cook, preferably on a medium grill. The marinade keeps the meat moist and very flavorful, but should never be used as a sauce after cooking.
Here is Al's standard pork chop marinade.
GRILLED PORK CHOP MARINADE
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tbs dijon mustard
2 tbs brown sugar
2 garlic cloves, minced
1. Bring the liquid ingredients to room temperature. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk to incorporate the mustard and brown sugar.
2. Place your trimmed pork chops into a large zip-lock bag and pour the marinade in. Shake well to cover the chops, then place in your refrigerator for between 4-8 hours. Be sure to turn the bag occasionally to ensure thorough coating.
3. Discard the marinade after use.