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.