Chops at least 1½ inches thick
Substantial dark crust
Juicy, moist interior
Pork chops seem like a good candidate for a weeknight meal: They’re quick to cook and, when given a nice crusty sear, are flavorful. But since most pork is pretty lean, chops are easy to overcook, resulting in leathery, dried-out meat. Thicker chops—which require more time to cook through—give you a wider window of time to build up a solid sear before the interiors are overdone. But after looking for thick-cut (1½ inches or thicker) chops at a number of supermarkets and coming up short, I realized that if I wanted a juicy interior and a substantial crust, I was going to have to butcher a pork roast into chops myself.
Although rib bones insulate meat from heat, helping prevent overcooking, I decided right off the bat that I’d cut boneless chops for two reasons. First, the rib bones can be a challenge to slice through. Second, you don’t get to decide how thick to make the chops, since that is dictated by the spacing between the ribs (usually about an inch). Starting with a boneless roast would make it possible to fashion chops of any thickness.
As for the type of roast, I considered both blade-end and center-cut loin roasts. Blade-end roasts come from near the shoulder of the animal and contain more fat, which made for slightly juicier chops. But that wasn’t enough to overcome the cut’s drawbacks: For one thing, the fattier parts are found only at the very end of the roast, meaning that you can’t cut four identical chops. This roast also tends to widen toward the blade end, making it impossible to cut chops of equal thickness and weight. On the other hand, a center-cut roast, which comes from the pig’s back, is compact, cylindrical, and lean from end to end, making it ideal for home-cut chops. What’s more, it’s readily available in most supermarkets.
I cut my center-cut pork loin roast crosswise into four even pieces. The thickness of the chops varied slightly depending on the diameter of the loin, but I found that starting with a 2½-pound roast guaranteed chops at least 1½ inches thick.
We typically brine or salt pork to season it and enhance or maintain the meat’s juiciness. But since the moisture added by brining would impede browning, I dismissed it—I didn’t want to wait 45 minutes for the surface to dry out. As it turned out, salting the meat also interfered with developing a rich crust since it brought some of the meat’s moisture to the surface. I decided to simply season the meat just prior to cooking. But here was the crux of the problem: To get the rich mahogany crust and juicy interior I was after, I needed to cook the meat both at high heat and more gently at the same time, a seeming contradiction.
Until now, I’d been using a basic approach to searing, cooking the chops in a stainless-steel skillet with a couple of teaspoons of oil over high heat and flipping them once. But the skillet never got hot enough to produce a great crust. I switched to a cast-iron skillet, which gets—and stays—exceptionally hot, even when four thick chops (which absorb a lot of heat from the metal) are added. The trick with cast iron is to preheat it thoroughly, so I put it in a cold oven set to 500 degrees and waited for the oven to come to temperature, by which time the pan would be well saturated with heat—the method we used in our Cast Iron Steaks with Herb Butter recipe. I also added more oil (2 tablespoons total) to the pan, which ensured that the chops, which tended to pull away from the pan here and there as they cooked, made full contact with the heat and seared evenly.
For a better sear and deeper flavor, look for natural, not enhanced, pork. Enhanced pork is injected with a solution of salt, water, and sodium phosphate (this will be indicated on the packaging) that we’ve found thwarts browning and dulls the flavor of the meat.
Now that the exterior was gorgeously brown, I focused on the interior. The chops needed to hit 140 degrees for serving, but that didn’t mean I had to keep them in the pan to get them there, since they’d continue to cook off the heat—the phenomenon referred to as carryover cooking. Usually, we remove meat from direct heat about 5 to 10 degrees shy of the serving temperature to avoid overcooking, but I wondered if the extreme heat I was getting on the chops’ exteriors would allow me to take the meat off the heat sooner. In other words, could I use the high heat to my advantage?
It sounded counterintuitive, but it actually worked brilliantly. By the time the chops were seared on both sides, the meat registered 125 degrees, and there was more than enough residual heat on their surfaces to push them to 140 as they rested under foil. The only flaw was the gray band of overcooked meat that developed just below the surface as each side spent several minutes sitting over the heat to sear. The fix was to flip the chops every couple of minutes as they cooked, which slowed down cooking and just about eliminated the overcooked layer of meat.
The chops ultimately spend the same amount of time in contact with the pan as they would with uninterrupted searing on each side, but with every flip, some of the heat that accumulates in the chop dissipates, preventing overcooking on the interior.
Hotter Pan, Juicier Chops
Searing pork chops in a blazing-hot cast-iron skillet was an obvious way to brown them deeply. But as we discovered, it was also a great way to keep a relatively lean cut juicy. That’s because the internal temperature of the chops continues to rise off the heat—the phenomenon referred to as carryover cooking—and the hotter the exteriors of the chops got, the more heat there was to transfer to the centers. As a result, we were able to take the chops off the heat 15 degrees shy of the serving temperature and rely on much gentler residual heat to finish cooking them as they rested.
No brining. No salting. No fancy techniques. These were by far the easiest pork chops I’d ever made, and they looked and tasted great. But to give the recipe plenty of utility—even for company, since thick-cut chops are nice for entertaining—I decided to develop a few sauces to dress up the chops. I made them intensely flavored and relatively rich to give the meat plenty of character, but they’re still quick enough to whip up any night of the week. In a nod to the vinegar-pepper topping commonly found in Italian pork chop recipes, I created a roasted red pepper–vinegar sauce. I also pulled together a couple of pesto-like concoctions: a French mint persillade (a parsley-based sauce with garlic and oil) and a Sicilian-inspired walnut and raisin pesto.