Pork chops are a quick, delicious and versatile weeknight meal that’s budget-friendly as well. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be succulent and tender every time, whether you bake them in the oven or fry them on the stove top.
Even though they are simple to make, they can be hard to get just right. No one wants tough, dry pork chops. And because they’re so popular, there are hundreds of recipes out there, so how do you choose the right one? To help make sense of it all, I’ve gone through twenty recipes for pork chops. I’ve figured out the most popular approaches, plus the most important tips, to cooking perfect pork chops every time.
Before we get into it though, you might be wondering where pork chops come from.
What are pork chops?
Pork chops are transverse cuts of the loin of the pig. The loin extends along the spine from the hips to the shoulders.
Chops will be different depending on where they come from along the loin. Those from each end (the hip or the shoulder) have more fat and connective tissue, whereas those from the middle loin and the ribs have less fat and a larger eye of meat. For this reason most people prefer the rib or loin chops (sometimes referred to as centre-cut chops). The Kitchn has a detailed description of each pork chop type if you’re interested in learning more.
You can buy pork chops bone-in or boneless, but I’ll touch on this a little further down.
What matters most?
There are a number of different sauces and seasonings amongst these recipes. There are also three different cooking methods used. And while I will touch on all of these things, I’m not going to focus there. I’m going to focus on the single biggest issue most people have with pork chops – making sure they’re not dry and tough.
Juicy, tender pork chops
Regardless of how you cook them, and what you flavour them with, there are several things you can do to keep your pork chops tender and moist. And amongst these tips, there’s one that’s so much more important than the others.
- Choose a bone-in cut.
- Don’t overcook them.
- Brine them.
- Don’t overcook them.
- Bring them to room temperature.
- Don’t overcook them!
- Rest after cooking.
Bone-in or boneless?
As with most other meat cuts, pork chops with the bone still in tend to be juicer and more flavoursome. The bone alters how the meat heats and the fat in the connective tissues around it contribute to the juiciness. They take a little longer to cook, but you’ve got a better chance of moist, tender pork chops if you go for the bone-in variety.
Of course, depending on where you shop you may not have any choice. Don’t despair though, because you can still cook delicious boneless pork chops, as eight of these authors do. In case you haven’t guessed, the use of a bone-in cut is not the most important tip.
Jennifer from Seasons and Suppers brines her pork chops in a strong salt solution. Brining is popular with very lean meats (like turkey), especially boneless cuts, which don’t have the benefit of fat to make the meat juicy. The process forces additional moisture into the meat so that when it’s cooked it has some to spare and doesn’t lose it all.
Brining is best done for several hours (Jennifer recommends eight to ten), but even half an hour can make a small difference if you’re looking to give it a try.
Start at room temperature
Take your pork out of the fridge for twenty minutes to half an hour before cooking. It doesn’t matter if you’re oven-baking them or frying them, they’ll cook more quickly and evenly this way, reducing the risk of them drying out.
Cooking pork chops perfectly
Pork, like chicken breast, is a lean meat, with minimal or no marbling. This means pork chops quickly go from tender and juicy to dry and tough.
But if you’re anything like me, you grew up with the belief that pork must be treated like chicken and therefore FULLY cooked to make it safe. No colour in the middle, white all the way through. And the result? Dry, leathery rubber. Yuck. No wonder I never used to like pork.
The good news is this is no longer necessary. In the past there was greater risk of a parasite called trichinella in pork. The meat had to be cooked more to kill the parasite. In most countries practical or regulatory changes to how pigs are farmed, and importantly fed, have greatly reduced the risk of trichinella in pork. Of course this is not the case if you’re eating wild pork.
In addition, there are differences in the density of different animals’ meat, and how they are processed at the abattoir. As a result, beef, lamb and pork meat is less likely to be internally contaminated with bacteria than chicken. This is not true of minced meat though.
What does all of this mean? You can cook your pork a little less than you think. And in fact, while some pink in a chicken breast is bad news, you absolutely want some pink in a pork chop. That pink colour means there’s still some moisture moving around in the meat, and this is the key to tender juicy pork chops. And so long as it’s cooked properly, it’s perfectly safe.
Your secret weapon
So how can you tell when they’re cooked just right? Unless you’re cooking them all the time, visual and touch cues can be hit and miss. The best thing you can do to make sure your pork is ready but not overcooked is measure its internal temperature with a meat thermometer.
Katerina from Diethood says it perfectly – “Please use an Instant Read Thermometer to check for doneness. Overcooked, dry pork is a curse.”
If you haven’t used one before, a meat thermometer is equipped with a probe you insert into the meat to measure the temperature at it’s thickest part. They are inexpensive, and indispensable. A meat thermometer allows you to cook your chops to the minimum safe temperature, and not a moment more.
For a dish like this you want an instant-read thermometer, which will very quickly measure the temperature of the meat once the probe is inserted. I use this digital fast-reading meat thermometer, and it works brilliantly, giving me the exact internal temperature in about five seconds.
Most of the authors agree with the US Department of Agriculture that the right temperature is 145°F/63°C. Every degree you go past that is unnecessarily extracting more moisture from your meat.
Resting the meat
Like almost any cooked meat, your chops will benefit from a brief rest when they come out of the pan or the oven. Resting for a few minutes before serving gives the moisture in the meat time to redistribute, which helps ensure that every mouthful is juicy. Unrested meat tends to be dry on the outside and moist only in the middle.
Now that we know we have to closely watch our chops, we can look at how they can be cooked.
The authors of these recipes use three different approaches:
Almost all of these recipes attract high praise from readers, so you can choose the approach that suits you and still get great results.
Pan-fried pork chops
Eight authors cook their pork chops completely on the stove top. Amongst these eight there are two different approaches based on whether or not the recipe includes a sauce.
The recipes without sauce simply pan-fry their chops until done. The most common suggestion for cooking time is four to five minutes per side, but you should only use this as a guide. Pork, pans and stove tops all vary enormously, along with a host of other factors, so it’s important to check the internal temperature to know exactly how far along your pork is.
The recipes with sauce typically pan-fry their chops for a little less time. They’re then removed while the sauce is made in the same pan, then the chops go back in with the sauce to finish cooking. Amongst these recipes the most common recommendation is three to four minutes per side followed by another three to five minutes in the pan with the sauce. Again, this should only be used as a guide. If your chops are thinner, or leaner, or your stovetop is hotter than the author’s, you’ll overcook your pork if you use time alone as your measure.
Combination stove-top and oven
Eight authors start their pork chops on the stove and finish them in the oven. This is a common approach with many different cuts of meat.
Why fry them? Searing the chops first adds the delicious flavours and aromas imparted by the Maillard reaction, which is the chemical magic that happens to proteins in meat at high temperatures. Then you finish cooking them through in the more even heat of the oven.
There’s some variation in oven-temperature, but the most common by far is 400-425°F (200-220°C).
Some of these recipes include sauces and some don’t. And many of them can be done with a single pan if you have an oven-proof skillet.
Oven-baked pork chops
Only four authors cook their chops completely in the oven. Two authors do so at 425°F/220°C and the other two at 350°F/175°C. The temperatures aren’t directly related to cooking times, so check the recipe you decide on. And don’t forget – you should rely on your meat thermometer rather than the author’s timings.
Sauces and seasonings
Whilst this is not the focus on my review, it’s worth mentioning that there are a wide array of flavours to choose from, including:
- French onion
- Dijon mustard
There are also a few breaded/bread-crumbed recipes, and some simple spice rubs to choose from. There are no stand-out favourites in terms of numbers, but you can see the complete list in the links at the bottom of the page.
And if you like a spicy kick with your chops, why not make some Tunisian harissa paste? It’s easy and delicious.
The essence of moist, tender pork chops
If you want to cook a batch of pork chops that are juicy and tender, there are a few key things to do:
- Choose bone-in chops if you can.
- Let them come to room temperature before cooking.
- Pan-fry them, or brown them in the pan before baking them in the oven.
- Most importantly of all, don’t overcook them. Use a meat thermometer to check the internal temperature doesn’t go past 145°F/63°C. And remember that a tinge of pink is not just okay, it’s actually better.
So there you have it, the essence of perfect pork chops. They’re not difficult to cook, and with a little care they can be beautifully moist and tender. Hopefully this has helped you to choose an approach or a recipe that suits you best, and armed you to cook them perfectly.