The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

A Tale of Two Chops

March 14th, 2011 · 4 Comments · Posted in Recipes

Pork chops after brining

Would-be briner’s take heed: Using salt and herbs to infuse flavor into meats is an art, not a science. Much depends on guaging how long your meats need to sit in the brine to develop the flavor you’re looking for.

As part of this month’s Charcutepalooza project I’ve been brining pork chops and I have to say I was not terribly impressed with the results of my first attempt following the recipe in Michael Ruhlman’s Charcuterie. The chops just didn’t have much extra flavor that we could detect. The problem, I think, wasn’t so much with the flavorings in the brine as in the length of time the chops were left in the brine. Meaning, we did not brine our chops long enough.

The brine in question contains the usual salt and brown sugar, plus sage leaves, juniper berries, garlic and black pepper. After mixing the brine and chilling it, Ruhlman calls for placing the chops in the brine for 2 hours, but adds, parenthetically, “If brining a large piece of pork, increase the brine time to 6 hours for thick chops and 12 hours for an entire bone-in loin….” Well, we do like our chops on the thick side, at least an inch or more. So I increased the brining time to three hours. Now I’m thinking I should have gone for the full six.

On the second attempt, I consulted Bruce Aidells’s Complete Book of Pork. Aidells, in his recipe for “Grilled, Brined, Fresh Herb-Coated Chops,” is more specific about the chops to be used: 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches thick, or about three pounds worth for four chops. His brine is much simpler–just brown sugar and molasses for flavoring. But following the brining, the chops are coated with a semi-wet rub consisting of crushed fennel seeds, garlic, sage, rosemary, black pepper and olive oil. In other words, Aidells’ rub is very similar to the ingredients in Ruhlman’s brine.

As instructed, we left these chops in the brine for a full six hours, applied the rub, then, instead of grilling them, seared them in our iron skillet before finishing them in a 375-degree oven. They were much more flavorful than the Ruhlman chops. I mean, you could taste the brown sugar and molasses, although I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing. I think I would have been happier with the chops Ruhlman had in mind–tasting of sage, rosemary, juniper berries–without the rub. Maybe the next step is to try Ruhlman’s recipe again, but leave the chops in the brine longer.

Who knew you had to start a journal to keep track of your pork chop recipes?

For readers who’d like to try one or both of these recipes, here they are:

For Ruhlman’s chops, pour 2 quarts water into a heavy pot and add 1/2 cup (125 grams) kosher salt; 3/4 packed cup (135 grams) dark brown sugar; 4 packed tablespoons (24 grams) fresh sage leaves; 1 tablespoon (8 grams) juniper berries, crushed with the side of a knife; 1 tablespoon (10 grams) freshly ground black pepper. Bring the pot to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar. Remove from the heat and let cool completely, then refrigerate until cold.

When the brine is cold, add four pork chops and refrigerate for 2 hours (up to 6 hours for thick chops). Then remove the chops, rinse with cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Refrigerate the chops uncovered for at least an hour or up to 1 day.

Cook the chops as you like.

For Aidells’ brined and herb-coated chops, pour 3 1/2 cups water into a large bowl or non-reactive container and add 1/4 cup kosher salt; 1/4 cup dark brown sugar; and 1 tabelspoon dark unsulphured molasses. Stir until the salt and sugar dissolve. Add 1 cup ice cubes to cool the liquid, then add 4 pork chops 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches thick. Cover and refrigerate 4 to 6 hours.

Remove the pork chops and pat dry with paper towels. Smear the chops with the following rub: In a small food processor or with a mortar and pestle grind together 1 tablespoon crushed fennel seeds, 1 tablespoon freshly chopped garlic, 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage, 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary, 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper, 1 tablespoon olive oil.

Either grill the chops to your liking, or cook in a skillet.

The osmotic action of salted water infuses the chops with flavor at the cellular level. The trick, of course, is figuring out how long to brine the meat to get the desired level of flavor and saltiness. A brining recipe can’t be exact because of other variable, such as the thickness of the meat. But if you are looking to add flavor to your pork chops, these two methods offer a place to start. The first step always is to buy quality meat, preferably pasture-raised.

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  • Kim

    Forgive a potentially stupid question from a novice home cook … but what it the difference between brining and marinating? Both methods, it seems, tenderizes and flavors meat.

  • Ed Bruske

    Kim, I am by no means an expert in this area. I’ve never put much stock in marinades. I just don’t think they add much. Brining, on the other hand, uses a very specific solution of salt to penetrate the meat on a cellular level through osmosis, so whatever flavors you place in the solution are delivered throughout the meat, not just on the surface area.

  • Kim

    That certainly makes sense. I love how the kitchen also = a very tasty science lab. Thanks 🙂

  • Julie Brennan

    Good idea!
    The Tale of Two Chops is also going on in our home….Now the kids have all moved out! I was disappointed with my 1 inch chops and how they tasted… I am going to try the Ruhmans brine w/o the rub for the same reason you cited. Thanks for keeping the pork journal! I keep a kombucha journal! ha ha.