My Goals

  • Moist, juicy pork chops

  • Bold, balanced, complex coating

  • Crunchy crust

You wouldn't usually call upon the devil to save a weeknight dinner, but that's exactly what Mr. Micawber does in Charles Dickens's novel David Copperfield (1850) when he covers undercooked mutton with mustard, salt, and black and cayenne peppers. It is a classic example of “deviling,” the practice of seasoning food with some combination of mustard, pepper, and/or vinegar, which dates back to at least the 18th century. Nowadays, the term refers to any treatment that uses those components to punch up mild-mannered foods such as hard-cooked eggs, deli ham, or bland chicken breasts and pork chops.

The ease and bold flavors of deviling appeal to me, particularly when applied to boneless pork chops, which I often make for weeknight dinners. But recipes vary widely when it comes to the type and intensity of heat—from a weak sprinkle of black pepper to a thick slather of sharp mustard, neither of which offers the complex, balanced spiciness and acidity that I would want in this dish. Plus, mustard-coated pork chops are often covered in bread crumbs, but I've found that the fine crumbs soak up moisture from the mustard and turn soggy.

Speak of the Devil

In his 1797 The Romish Priest. A Tale, British author John Wolcot used the term “devil” to refer to “a red-hot bit of meat” that was “loaded with kian” (cayenne). The spicy snack was savored in the wee hours by 18th-century gentlemen who found themselves hungry after a night of carousing.

The definition of the term has broadened over the years to encompass any spicy, pungent treatment, but its purpose—to revive jaded appetites and even to strengthen character—remains much the same.

But those are just the surface issues related to deviling, and they would be relatively simple to fix. The bigger problem with most deviled pork chops is how they're cooked: They're usually coated with mustard and then seared or broiled, the goal being to develop a deeply browned, flavorful crust. But inevitably, the lean meat dries out and toughens.

To fix these issues, I would start by finding a cooking technique that produced tender, juicy chops. Then I would need to fine-tune a mustard-based deviling paste that would be assertive and vibrant enough to perk up the pork without overwhelming it. Once those elements were in place, I'd see about adding a bread-crumb crust.

The Lowdown

The more I thought about the role of well-browned meat on deviled pork chops, the more I wondered if it was necessary. Once the chops were covered with the punchy mustard paste and, potentially, a crunchy bread-crumb coating, would you really miss the flavor and texture of the seared meat? I did a quick test and confirmed that the answer was no; the mustard-based paste I'd used to coat the meat more or less camouflaged the flavor of the sear. Searing was out.

Instead, I would try to slow-roast the chops, as we often do with large roasts and thick steaks. The benefit is twofold: Lower heat keeps the temperature of the meat's outermost layers low; this prevents them from squeezing out moisture and promotes more-even cooking by reducing the temperature differential between the meat's exterior and interior. Lower heat also encourages enzymes within the pork to break down some of the muscle protein, leading to more-tender meat.

Roasting the chops on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet allows air to circulate all around the meat for even cooking.

I placed four boneless, 1-inch-thick chops on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet so that air could circulate around them for even cooking. Then I slid the sheet into a 275-degree oven and left them alone until they hit 140 degrees. That took about 40 minutes, which was longer than I'd ever waited for pork chops to cook. But the juicy, tender results were worth it. The only hiccup was that the chops stuck to the rack, so the next time I coated it with vegetable oil spray to ensure that the meat released cleanly.

The Devil Is in the Details

On to the mustard paste. I followed the lead of other recipes and started with Dijon, which offered an assertive punch of clean heat and acidity along with a creamy texture that clung well to the chops. Then I took a cue from the Dickensian formula and seasoned the mustard with salt as well as black and cayenne peppers; each type of pepper lent its own distinct heat, and both enhanced the mustard's burn. For savory flavor, I worked in a small amount of garlic that I had minced to a paste (which resulted in even flavor distribution) and balanced the fiery concoction with a couple of teaspoons of brown sugar. After patting a new batch of chops dry, I brushed the entire surface of each one with the paste, set them on the rack, and popped them into the oven.

Science: Calibrating the Best Burn

Our “deviled” paste draws its complex fiery flavor from a combination of spicy components: Dijon mustard, dry mustard, and cayenne and black peppers. Each of these ingredients activates pain receptors in your mouth—TRPV1, which is the same nerve channel that responds to the pain of piping-hot liquid, and TRPA1, a close relative. But the different ingredients stimulate the nerves in different ways, so the combination adds up to a much more complex experience of spiciness. The stimulation of pain and other tactile nerves in the mouth, called chemesthesis, can take many forms—a quick jolt of heat, a lingering burn, the sensation of a pinprick—and can even affect different parts of your mouth and nose. Here’s what each deviling component brings to the mix.

The paste was nicely seasoned and packed decent punch, but now that I was tasting it with the pork, I wanted even more of that nasal bite. A heavier coat of the paste wasn't the way to go; for one thing, I wanted more heat but not more acidity. Plus, it would be messy to both slather more paste on the meat and clean it off the wire rack after cooking; the baked-on coating from the underside of the chops was already sticking to the rack. Instead, I tried adding dry (also known as English) mustard, a variety of hot mustard that's sold in powdered form. In many cases, the powder is reconstituted in a little water before being used, but that wouldn't be necessary here since the Dijon contained plenty of moisture. I ran a few tests and worked my way up to a hefty 1½ teaspoons of dry mustard, so that the paste's heat was potent but still layered—a sharp punch that tingled on the tongue and tapered off into a slow, satisfying burn.

I ran two more quick tests. The first was to see if I could get away with coating just the top and sides of the chops now that the paste was so potent. I could, which cut back considerably on the mess before and after roasting. The second test—whether to brush the chops with the paste before or after cooking—confirmed that we preferred the drier consistency and more rounded flavor of the cooked paste. The only downside was the visual: a dull, mottled, ocher coating. It was time to consider that bread-crumb crust.

Crunch Factor

Besides visual appeal, a crust would offer nice textural contrast to the meat, and the mustard paste would be the glue I'd need to help the crumbs adhere to the chops. To keep the coating process simple, I decided to cover just the top surfaces.

Coarse, pretoasted panko bread crumbs offer more substantial texture and crunch than either fresh or conventional commercial bread crumbs. Before applying them to the chops, we toast them in butter to give them deep golden color and rich flavor.

To prevent the crumbs from soaking up moisture from the paste and turning mushy, I employed a two-pronged solution. First, I used panko: pretoasted coarse bread crumbs that we always turn to when we want a craggy texture and great crunch. Second, I sautéed the panko crumbs in butter so that they would turn golden brown; they wouldn't get any color in the low oven. I pressed about 2 tablespoons of crumbs onto the top of each chop and slid them into the oven.

This batch was golden and crispy on top and moist and juicy throughout and boasted a fiery but balanced flavor that kept you going back for more. Best of all, the method was dead simple; once the chops were in the oven, I didn't have to flip them or tend to them in any way until they were done.

I never thought I'd get so excited about a boneless pork chop. I guess you could say the devil made me do it.

Keys to Success

  • Moist, juicy pork chops

    Slow-roasting the pork in a 275-degree oven gently cooks the lean meat evenly from edge to edge. Setting the chops on a wire rack in a rimmed baking sheet allows air to circulate all around the meat.
  • Bold, balanced, complex coating

    A combination of heat sources—Dijon mustard, dry mustard, cayenne and black peppers, and minced garlic—plus a touch of salt and brown sugar makes for a layered, well-rounded paste. We brush the paste on the tops and sides of the chops (not on the undersides, to avoid messy contact with the rack) before roasting so that the harsher flavors of the mustard and garlic mellow somewhat during cooking.
  • Crunchy crust

    Toasting panko bread crumbs in butter renders them deeply golden brown, and the fat helps prevent them from absorbing moisture from the mustard coating, so they remain crisp. Coating only the tops of the chops provided just enough crunch with minimal effort.