How to grill moist, tender pork chops

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I used to avoid barbecuing pork chops–they always ended up dry, overcooked, and blah. To compensate, I’d slather them with sugary barbecue sauce, which meant all I tasted was the sauce. I may as well have grilled up a nice piece of cardboard. But over the years, I’ve improved my pork chops, so now they’re tender and juicy and don’t need to be covered up. Here are some tips:

1. Start with better chops. Thin, “fast-fry” chops cook so quickly that the inside is overdone long before the outside gets any colour. Thicker chops–at least an inch–grill better and stay moister. As you would with steak, look for chops that have generous marbling, the thin streaks of fat that will help keep the meat succulent and flavourful. (Thick bands of fat on the outside edge of the chop aren’t the same as marbling–they can be tasty, but they don’t do anything one way or the other for the meaty centre.) A marbled chop is sometimes hard to find. Pigs have been bred to be so lean, and we’re so used to seeing pork with little fat, that’s often all you can find at the grocery store. But even at my local Food Basics (not a high-end store by any standard), I found this decently marbled chop:

2. Brine, baby, brine! Soaking meat in a weak salt solution adds moisture to the meat. The brine essentially opens up gaps in the meat proteins and liquid gets sucked in. Brining has become a bit of a show-off technique that cooks reserve for holiday dinners because it works really well to moisten turkey, but it’s a pain. It’s hard enough to fit a turkey in the fridge, let alone a turkey in a pail of brine. On the small scale of pork chop brining is as easy as using an acidic marinade, and is more effective. It should be part of your everyday cooking skills.

Make a basic brine by dissolving 1/4 cup (60 ml) each of salt and sugar in 4 cups (1 L) water. If you like, boil the water and steep a bunch of thyme, rosemary, savory, or another aromatic herb, or garlic, or other flavourings in the brine. Once the brine has cooled, marinate the chops for three hours or so. If you brine, don’t salt the meat.

3. Grill a chop like a fine steak. It is a steak, after all, just a pork steak. As with all meats, dry the surface of the chops with paper towel before it goes on the grill. I start chops over direct, high flame and, unless it’s cold, windy, or rainy, I keep the lid open. Once one side has a good set of grill marks, I turn the chops over. With chops on the thin side, direct grilling is often all you need; with thick chops, once the surface is done, I move them off the flame and close the lid until they’re done (see #6).

4. Get some colour, fake if you have to. Pork just doesn’t brown the way chicken skin or a marbled steak does, at least not in the time it takes for the inside to cook. If you’re serving the chops with a sauce that has some sugar in it, you can brush a thin layer on the chops after a couple of minutes on the grill–the sauce will brown. But some sauces–apple sauce, for one–don’t work that well on the grill. Sometimes I “spray-tan” pork by making homemade caramel colour (a.k.a. gravy browning): put about 1/4 cup (60 ml) sugar in a dry pan over medium heat. The sugar will start to melt and brown. Don’t stir. When it’s the colour of molasses and you’re sure the smoke detector is about to go off, take it off the heat and add about 1/2 cup (125 ml) water. Be careful; it will sputter. You can brush a little of this liquid on the pork chops as they grill to give them a completely natural fake tan.

5. Grill the edge. Here’s a neat tip I picked up from a new book, Charred & Scruffed, by Adam Perry Lang: Put a brick (I wrap it in foil) on your barbecue. When chops or steaks are almost done over direct heat, prop them up so the edge gets some exposure to the flame. This works best and matters most for thicker cuts.

6. Don’t overcook. This is the most important tip. Again, think of a chop as a steak–and cook it to medium, maybe medium-well, but no more. The USDA says pork is safe if it’s cooked to 145°F (70°C). That’s way less than what we’ve all been told to do for years, so stop worrying about undercooking pork. You won’t. When this recommendation came out, I roasted pork to exactly 145°F as a test. It’s a little rare for my taste, so I aim for about 150°F. That gives me a pork chop that’s moist with some pink inside, especially near the bone. Delicious.

If you use a thermometer to check your chops remember to insert the probe in from the edge, and don’t let the tip touch the bone.