The Perfect Pork Chop

The perfect pork chop begins long before you fire up the grill.  Fortunately, your local farmer will do most of the work for you.  Once you select the right chop, cooking it to perfection is gloriously simple.

The perfect pork chop comes from a heritage breed porker raised in a pastured program.  The perfect chop has the right amount of fat and the right pH.  The perfect chop is dry aged and thick cut.

If you have this chop in front of you, skip to The Perfect Pork Chop Recipe.  If you want to know what goes into the perfect pork chop, read on.

Pastured versus Conventional Pork

There is a profound difference between conventional and pastured pork.  In our pastured program, the porkers are raised in moveable pens in the forest, fields, and gardens of our farm.  Their diet is supplied by our own bean and corn crops, as well as grass, weeds, brush, roots, acorns, and other native forage.  We supplement their diet with a customized ration of high-quality grains.  They can walk into the sunshine any time they like, or root around in the shade.   Of course, we never use hormones, steroids, or antibiotics—healthy animals don’t need them.

The pork chops you buy from a grocery store, even a high-end grocery store, come from conventional hogs.  Conventional hogs are raised in factories on cement floors.  They are packed tightly into pens to restrict movement so they fatten quickly.  They are fed continuously to accelerate them to mature weight, and their waste is rinsed into sump drains that flow into tremendous fecal lakes.  They are given steroids and hormones to fatten faster, and antibiotics to fight the diseases that plague these miserable beasts.  The butchering of these animals is anything but stress-free and humane.

The chops from industrial hogs are bleach-rinsed to kill bacteria, and usually injected or “enhanced” with a saline solution.  Some industrial chops are better than others; nevertheless, when you buy conventional pork, this is what you are getting.  These chops are readily available at the grocery store, and they taste like how they were raised.

Raising Flavor into the Pork

We raise our food in a closed growing system, where the plants and animals of our farm feed each other in a sustainable cycle.  As a result, our food takes on a wonderful flavor.  The taste of our pork is unique to our farm–a distilled taste of our oak trees, our sandy soil, our hot sun.

We can taste the difference in our pork when acorns are in season, or when the porkers stayed mostly on garden space.  It doesn’t matter how good a chef is in the kitchen, there is no way to put that kind of flavor into a pork chop, unless it was raised into the pork.

Iberian pork from Spain, the most famous pork in the world, is marketed based on its unique flavor.  Iberian porkers are raised in a pastured program in the oak forests of Spain, and enjoy a diet rich in acorns.  This Iberian pork is fabulously expensive, and the best chefs in the world demand it.

There is little difference between Iberian pork and ours–mainly the price and 400 years of excellent marketing.

Heritage Breeds and pH

Berkshire and Yorkshire heritage breed porkers possess distinct taste advantages over industrial breeds.  Heritage breed porkers have a higher pH, due to the breed itself as well as the pastured method of raising them.  The higher pH in the Berkshire gives the meat a darker, more pinkish color.  The higher pH also gives the pork a richer flavor.

Food scientist Kenneth Prusa says pH is even more important to the taste of pork than fat content.  Check out this excellent Cook’s Illustrated Article for a good take on pork chop science.

Industrial pork factories don’t use heritage breed porkers because they take weeks longer to reach mature weight than industrial hogs.  Also, heritage breed porkers cannot adapt to the disease and stress and cramped conditions of industrial pork factories.  The advantages that industrial hogs possess in the factory turn out to be a big disadvantage on the plate.

Good Fat and Bad

The fat on a chop should be in a layer around the edge. You do not want “marbling” in your chop; the tiny striated webs of fat throughout the meat.  If the chop has a lot of marbling, the porker was fattened too quickly, and did not get enough (or any) exercise to develop good lean muscle tissue.

By keeping our porkers on pasture, they are able to move about freely, to exercise, to run and root around in the soil.  All this movement, combined with their healthy diet, helps create very lean porkers.  But it also takes a long time (twice as long as industrial hogs) to get our porkers to butchering weight.   This amount of time, however, is necessary to develop the proper richness, proportion, and flavor in the fat.

The fat in pastured pork is the “good fat”, the healthy fat you want in your diet.  Industrial pork fat, because of the diet and unhealthiness of the animals, is not good fat.  The hormones, steroids, and antibiotics fed to industrial hogs are stored mainly in their fat, and you can’t cut it out of the chop, because it is striated throughout the meat.

The Role of the Butcher

The perfect pork chop is dry aged.  After dispatch, our butcher immediately moves our pork to cold storage for the next fourteen days or so.  During this time, the pork loses 10% or more of its weight through evaporation of moisture from the meat.  This process of dry aging creates very tender pork, and concentrates and enhances the flavor.

Most butchers don’t like the idea of dry aged pork.  Butchers want to move product quickly through their shop, and letting porkers hang for two weeks in cold storage takes up limited cooler space.

Pork producers reject the concept of dry aged pork, because the 10% loss of weight to moisture evaporation is lost profit to the producer.  If the pork hangs for only a short time, as with conventional pork, the moisture does not evaporate–and the customer pays for it.  The moisture then evaporates during cooking.  If you ever pan fry a grocery store pork chop, all the popping and sizzling in the pan is moisture escaping from the chop.  If you pan fry one our chops, you will have none of this.  So, with a conventional chop, you pay an extra 10% to evaporate moisture while cooking, but get none of the taste benefit or tenderness of dry aged pork.

Another important step at the butcher is decreasing stress prior to dispatching.  Most butchers dispatch the animals as soon as they are unloaded from trailers, when porkers are at the peak of stress.  When distpatched immediately, high levels of stress hormones and lactic acid are locked into the muscle tissue and influence the taste of the pork chop.

The most stressful day in the life of our porkers is their travel to the butcher.  We took a lesson from the Kobe beef producers who relax the animals as much as possible prior to dispatch, to minimize stress hormones.  Our butcher keeps our porkers overnight before dispatching them.  Overnighting the porkers allows them to relax, and allows the stress hormones to circulate out of the muscle tissue.  Of course, butchers do not like to feed, water, and house porkers overnight who are not paying rent.

We value our partnership with our wonderful butcher, who goes the extra mile with us to make the perfect pork chop.

Thick Cut Chops

After cooking hundreds of chops, we find 1 1/2 inch thickness is ideal for a moist and flavorful chop that cooks in less than 30 minutes.  Thinner cut chops tend to dry out too quickly and thicker chops take too long to cook through.

If you can only find 1 inch cut chops, they will also work well, but should spend less time on the grill (maybe 12 to 15 minutes on indirect heat, instead of 20 minutes).  Use a meat thermometer to check doneness and determine exactly when to take them off the grill.

Finding Pastured Pork Chops

The only place in South Texas to find pastured pork is from Coastal Bend Health Foods in Rockport, or from my friend Greg Edelen of Edelen Farm, who sells our pork at various farmers’ markets around Texas.  You can also enjoy our pork chops cooked to their perfection at GLOW of Rockport.

More small-scale farmers are adopting heritage farming techniques, because they realize the competitive advantage this difference in taste gives them over grocery stores.  Look for pastured pork at a farmers’ market in your area, or through the directories at Eat Wild and Local Harvest.

Tres Hermanas Means Three Sisters Gardening

Tres Hermanas means ‘the three sisters’. The sisters are corn, beans, and squash.

Three Sisters gardening is a method of companion planting developed by Native American Indians more than 1,000 years ago. The seeds of corn, beans, and squash are planted together in mounds or rows. As they grow, the bean vines climb the corn stalks as a trellis while the squash covers the soil with living green mulch. The gardens are dense, prolific, and beautiful.

Tres Hermanas gardens once grew abundantly across North America. However, the secret of the sisters has been lost to modern gardeners.

Rediscovering Tres Hermanas

There is a resurgence of interest in Tres Hermanas. Companion planting is a highly productive and sustainable way to grow vegetables. Garden space is maximized by multiplying the effect of organic inputs, extending and increasing the harvest, and revitalizing the soil. And Tres Hermanas thrives without the use of chemicals.

Tres Hermanas is part of a dynamic and holistic program on our farm. I do not rely exclusively on companion planting; it is a component of my operation. However, Tres Hermanas serves an important function in my plan due to the efficiency of the garden and the profit generated on that space.

Benefits of Tres Hermanas Companion Planting

1. Higher yields on same square-footage (maximizes space)

2. Greater production, diversity, and density in garden (maximizes inputs)

3. Fast plant growth and quick vegetable production (rapid returns)

4. Longer growing season as each phase matures (maximizes time on space)

5. Easy to maintain (less work)

6. NO chemicals required (better health)

7. Revitalizes the soil (highly sustainable)

8. Beautiful (dual use plants)

The strength of this system is the amazing synergy of these plants with each other and their environment. The plants work together to mulch and feed the soil, and to regulate soil temperature and moisture. Beans are a nitrogen fixer; they fertilize the corn and squash as they grow. Their compatibility allows, almost demands, an organic approach.

In a good garden, the plants cooperate with their environment. Birds, wasps, ladybugs, and frogs hunt in their lush sanctuary of foliage to cleanse the crop of harmful pests. Bees hang continually about the garden as they pollinate. A Tres Hermanas garden is alive and colorful and dynamic and changing.

And the gardens are beautiful. Tiny white bean flowers climb the deep green stalks and burst into long string beans. The vibrant yellow-orange squash blossoms are an edible delicacy that can be harvested without harming the prolific summer and winter squash. Purple corn silk flares from the tight-fisted cobs and fades to brown when the kernels are ready. For a long summer, the corn stalks rustle gently in the wind.

Tres Hermanas in Small Farms and Backyard Gardens

A friend of mine planted Tres Hermanas in an old flower bed next to her house. She wanted to grow vegetables and was inspired to fill that space with the three sisters. Her flower bed became a beautiful little garden, a living history lesson for the kids, and a plentiful source of healthy delicious vegetables.

Many of my friends struggle with backyard gardens that seldom yield a generous harvest, and sometimes fail to produce anything. I recommend to them Tres Hermanas grown in a natural program. This method was perfectly adapted to our own native soil during a thousand-year partnership with the land. Tres Hermanas will happily make itself at home in your backyard garden.

I recently visited a small-scale working farm where a gentleman grew corn in one part of the garden, squash in another, and beans against a trellis fence. He could have planted the same crops in the Tres Hermanas method and more than tripled his production—with less expense and a lot less work.

Any good vegetable garden, anywhere in America, can benefit from this method.

No Thank You to Chemicals

Gardeners who use chemicals benefit chemical companies more than their own gardens.  And, truthfully, who wants to eat vegetables from a garden full of chemicals?

Indians grew Tres Hermanas for centuries without any chemicals whatsoever. Indians and pioneer farmers used methods that worked. If their gardens failed, they starved.

Here is the remarkable truth: A natural garden is less expensive and less work than a chemical garden. Natural gardens are more productive and more resistant to pests and disease, especially in the long run. And the vegetables grown in a natural program are more flavorful and more delicious than what comes out of a garden full of chemicals.

Whether or not you implement Tres Hermanas, please let the message resonate that you can grow a superior garden without the use of chemicals.

The Secret of Tres Hermanas

Before trying something new in the garden, I try to collect and study as much information as possible. It is important to anticipate the challenges of a new approach, predict for the profitability of the harvest, and learn from the success and mistakes of others. Farming is my living–like the Indians, I cannot afford to miss.

However, I could find almost no useful information about Tres Hermanas on the internet, in gardening books, or from gardening experts. The absence of good information about Tres Hermanas is a gap I hope to close with these articles.  Some secrets should be told.

Index of Articles

The following guide offers an overview to Tres Hermanas companion planting from seed to harvest to table. To access the articles, click the category “Tres Hermanas Guide” on the right-hand side of this page. As each article is posted, I will link them below. Good luck and happy gardening!

History of Tres Hermanas

Preparing the Soil

Planting the Seeds

Mulching the Garden

Watering the Garden

Fertilizing Naturally

Fighting Pests

Harvesting the Garden

Recipes for Tres Hermanas

The Three Sisters

Tres Hermanas means “the three sisters”.  The sisters are corn, beans, and squash.

Three sisters gardening is a method of companion planting developed by Native American Indians more than 1,000 years ago.  The method was once, and is now again, a secret.  But the secret should be told, because the sisters are a beautiful gift.

Three Sisters in the Garden:

Three Sisters, early growth

Long ago, Indians learned to clear a patch of ground and mound the dirt into rows.  They planted seeds of corn, beans, and squash in the center of each mound.

As they grew, the beans climbed up the corn stalk while the squash covered the soil as living green mulch.   The beauty of the garden is the simplicity, the density, the ease of maintenance.  Primitive farmers must have such a garden.

Three Sisters as an Organic Method:

Tres Hermanas is an ingenious method of planting.  Beans are a nitrogen fixer; they convert CO2 to nitrogen in the soil.  Simply by growing, the beans fertilize the corn and squash.  The corn provides a trellis for the beans and the squash prevents weeds and regulates soil temperature and moisture.

The root structures do not compete and the plants do not crowd one other.  They strengthen and support each other.

Their compatibility maximizes the impact of organic farming methods.  Native Americans grew a tremendous amount of food on these small patches of ground without any synthetic pesticides or fertilizers for more than 1,000 years.  The Indians survived on these gardens.

Three Sisters in the Body:

Corn is rich in carbohydrates; beans are packed with protein; squash contains large doses of vitamin A and other nutrients.  The three together provide a balanced and nutritious meal.

What’s more, corn, beans, and squash are intended by nature to be eaten together.  Certain vitamin, mineral, and amino compounds in these vegetables are unlocked or enhanced only when eaten together.  The sisters continue to give their gifts, even in the body.

Three Sisters in American History:

Native Americans invented, or innovated, this method of companion planting while Europeans were still in the Dark Age.  Much Indian lore and mythology rose around the sisters.  But I am not so interested in lore.  I care about growing delicious food.

The European settlers in early America cared a great deal about growing food.  The autumn harvest could offer another season of life; or a slow painful death of starvation in the wilds.

Each Thanksgiving, we celebrate the story of Indians providing food to the Pilgrims to nourish them through the winter.  The food the Indians gave was corn, beans, and squash.

However, the real gift, the profound life-saving gift, that Indians shared with the settlers was the secret of the three sisters.  Companion planting enabled pioneer settlements, from Jamestown to Plymouth Rock, to vastly increase their food production.  Tres Hermanas is the untold story of Thanksgiving.

Three Sisters Lost in America:

Four String Wasp, killing caterpillar

Pioneers brought companion planting west (where it had actually existed for a millennium) as they settled the land.  Tres Hermanas was cultivated in America well into the 1900’s.  However, we lost the three sisters when agriculture became ‘agribusiness’.

Why did we lose it?  Machine harvesting is impossible with companion planting.  No combine was ever invented that can separate the sisters.  Also, the sisters ripen over a long period.  While this deliberate ripening process was essential to the survival of Indians and pioneers, it is a cardinal sin in modern agriculture.  In agribusiness, a crop must be efficiently reaped in hours, or minutes.

Further, the sisters must be planted among trees.  Grasshoppers and caterpillars can quickly devastate the harvest.  The birds and wasps that naturally control these pests must have a sanctuary of trees from which to hunt.  Try to find a tree on a conventional farm.

Your Four String farmer has more than 30 popular books on organic farming stacked on the bookshelf.  However, not one book provides any of the details around Tres Hermanas companion planting that you have just read.  The secret of the sisters has been lost.

Three Sisters in Rockport:

Four String Farm, pick of the day

The three sisters still exist, however, here in town, on a patch of ground cleared among the trees.  The sisters provide nourishment to my family every day.

Tres Hermanas can nourish your family as well.  The gifts of the sisters are meant to be shared.

We deliver farm fresh food to your door in Rockport (minimum $20 order).  Or, look for us at the Rockport Farmer’s Market.  Or come out to the farm and feel the sun and stand in the soil where the sisters offer their gift.

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