A while ago Maria Ribas said, "Cookbooks exist to help us cook," and that statement really got me thinking. Of course there are the recipes, but there's so much more to take away from our cookbook collections. The best tidbits to be found in cookbooks (both new and old) that truly make us better home cooks are the tips and sometimes-unexpected cooking methods that take us out of our comfort zone and usual habits in the kitchen.
Armed with a fresh package of pork chops, I turned to some cookbook classics. Here are the smartest tips I learned.
1. Brine your pork chops in white wine.
Brining pork chops is always a good idea. Not only does the meat take on more flavor, but the additional moisture also ensures this lean cut won't dry out. Well, in the New York Times Cookbook, Craig Claiborne takes it a brilliant step further with the suggestion to brine loin chops in dry white wine (1/2 cup, plus some salt will do the trick) for about an hour before searing the meat and finishing in the oven.
While a standard salt and water brine seasons the meat from the inside out and adds moisture, it doesn't do much in the way of flavor. The wine adds a smooth, gentle tang and hint of sweetness. Plus, you can hang on to it, then cook it into a simple pan sauce to spoon over the chops.
2. Use a combination of cooking oil and butter to sear pork chops.
Most recipes for pork chops that begin in a screaming-hot skillet on the stovetop call for heating a glug of cooking oil in the skillet, including our own recipe. But The Joy of Cooking delivers once again, reminding us that fat equals flavor (especially important since pork chops are so lean), and calls for both olive oil and butter when searing pork chops.
This brings a touch of indulgent flavor to otherwise mild-mannered pork chops — especially when you baste the chops just like you would steak.
3. High-heat stovetop cooking is ideal for chops thinner than 3/4 inch.
A recipe for sautéed pork chops in The Joy of Cooking reminded me that it's a good idea to choose a cooking method based on the thickness of the pork chops you buy. While thick one-inch or larger chops are ideal for searing, then cooking in the oven, thin chops don't fare as well. They have a higher likelihood of overcooking and finishing with a tough, chewy bite.
Instead, the book suggests cooking pork chops thinner than 3/4 inch over high heat on the stovetop. Because the meat is lean and not that thick, just a few minutes on each side will do the trick. It's similar to the method we use for our salsa pork chops.
It's smart tips like this one that make us better home cooks because it helps us not just with a specific recipe, but any time we pick up a pack of pork chops for dinner.
4. Yes, you should braise pork chops, but stick with sirloin chops.
We typically reserve braising for thick, tough, and fatty cuts of meat like pork shoulder and pork butt, but in her tome of classic Italian recipes, Marcella Hazan includes several recipes for braised pork chops, which I found quite intriguing. But there is a twist.
Hazan's recipes in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking all call for chops from the bottom loin, which are more commonly labeled and known as sirloin chops. While leaner rib and center cut loin chops don't fare well when braised, sirloin chops (cut from the hip area and a bit tougher) are ideal candidates for this low, slow cooking method, and finish with a tender bite and rich taste that's packed with flavor.