Down to basics – roasted pork chops with pan sauce

October 25, 2012 § 9 Comments

Two weekends ago Joel was out of town camping.  He went with my good friend Kaitlin’s husband, which meant Kait and I were both home alone.  Not for long!  Quickly it turned into a weekend of yoga workshops, coffee time, and a hot tub with wine.  Talk about awesome.  And continuing the awesomeness, my parents invited us both over for dinner.  My mother had purchased four pork chops, but there were just two of them, so the addition of two more was, in her words, quite perfect.

There were also figs.  Clearly, you don’t say no when there are pork chops and figs involved (which has been rather an obsession for me this fall – I think I’ve made it 3 times myself).

My mother had a plan.  Obviously.  After all, she had bought the pork chops and figs and is well-versed in the art of getting dinner on the table.  But, I am one of those people who, if I am not doing the cooking, hovers obnoxiously in the kitchen observing and asking questions.  And, at a certain point I, truly obnoxiously, butted in because it became apparent that my mom had never made seared pork chops, finished in the oven, and followed by a pan sauce.  And then I learned that Kaitlin never had either.

Which leads me to the question, have you???  It’s so easy, when you are familiar with something, to forget that that doesn’t necessarily make it common knowledge, to forget that other people may not know that particular information.

Of course, even if you are intimately familiar with pan roasted pork chops with pan sauce, well, too late, because I have already fashioned a blog post about it at my mother’s and Kait’s request, and who knows, you may still learn something!  Or you may discover you have some good tips to offer me (I hope)!

Thinking and talking about this also brings me back to one of the original reasons I started this blog.  I care about helping people get more comfortable with cooking by feel.  But, this is not something that is in any way straight forward or easy to teach.  In fact, a lot of it can’t be taught, it can only be learned through practice, which often starts by following recipes and ever so gradually becoming more practiced and flexible.  That’s why most of my posts contain recipes, but they’re recipes that are open for personal interpretation.

But, I also suddenly realized that beyond developing good familiarity with flavors and ingredients, learning to cook by feel is also helped by keeping an eye out for patterns.  This is something I tend to do naturally in life, picking out patterns here there and everywhere (sometimes it’s a problem – I impose a pattern where perhaps, oops, there isn’t actually one).  I think it’s why I spot four-leaf clovers in fields all the time.  It’s not a gift per se, it’s just how I think about things.  It does, however, help me to notice, ‘oh hey, this spice is always used in approximately this quantity,’ or ‘hmm, seems like any braised meat starts with a sear then adds aromatics and savory liquids,’ or ‘wow, stews, ragus, and curries are all practically the same thing! well, except that they use totally different ingredients,’ and so on.

But, I have been told that not everyone thinks this way.  So, in the spirit of the original intent of five and spice and by the popular request of a whole two people (thanks mom and Kait!), I am going to try to include the occasional post about the basics of certain categories of dishes, breaking them down into their component steps and pointing out the patterns.

And what better way to start than roasted pork chops with pan sauce?!  Now, as the saying goes, there’s more than one way to cook a potato (I like to leave poor cats out of these sorts of things), and the same is true of pork chops.  But, this is by far my favorite way because I think it’s the most fool proof, the most open to variation, and it’s quite quick and easy, making it a great weeknight staple.

Now, where to begin?…With a couple raw pork chops!  I like to make one chop per person, and I always use bone-in because cooking with bones (especially making broths and slow cooked braises or stews using meats with bones) adds all manner of extra, extremely healthy, nutrients to your food.  Plus, gnawing on bones is the most fun part of a meal like this.

Salt and pepper the chops well, and preheat your oven to 425F.  You can roast at 400 or 450, but 425 always seems like a happy medium to me, and I do very nearly all my roasting at 425.  The basic steps for cooking the chops go like this: get out a nice heavy frying pan that is oven safe.  Let it heat up for a couple of minutes over medium-high heat, then add enough of a fat with a high smoke point (butter, ghee, coconut oil, leftover bacon grease) to coat the bottom of the pan well.  Let the pan get hot enough that the meat sizzles when you put it into the pan, then put the pork chops in.

Now, what you want to do is let the meat get nicely browned on the outside.  This process (called a Maillard reaction) is a fantastically important reaction in a lot of cooking, because it gives things their unique rich, golden taste, be those things pan-seared steak, toast, or roasted veggies.  Cook the pork chops on the bottom side until they are browned – this should take a couple of minutes, and the meat should release easily from the pan (not stick) when it’s ready to be flipped.  Flip the chops, and let them cook for a couple of minutes on the other side.

At this point, the chops are browned, but they won’t be done through.  You want gentle, even heat to finish their cooking, while also not burning them.  This can be accomplished by cooking them carefully on the stovetop (dry or by simmering in a sauce, though that does soften the crispy browned outsides), but I prefer to take the whole pan and stick it into the oven, which provides the most even cooking. For pork chops that are a bit less than an inch thick, I let them roast for 6 minutes; if they’re an inch or just over, I let them roast for 8 minutes; and if they’re two inches thick, they usually take about 10 minutes in my oven.  Basically, you want the internal temperature to reach 140-145F (for medium – the USDA officially allows us to eat pork medium now, hooray!  This will save us from so very many dry, tough pork chops).

Once the pork chops come out of the oven, you want to transfer them to a plate to rest (with foil tented over them if you’re making a sauce that will take longer than a couple minutes), a process that keeps them juicy.  You want to use the pan you roasted the chops in to make the pan sauce because it has all sorts of delicious caramelized bits stuck to the bottom that will add flavor to the sauce.

Now, the sauce is the really fun part, the part that lets you totally switch up the flavors so that you could eat pork chops several days in a row without feeling like you were eating the same thing (though I still wouldn’t recommend that sort of behavior!).  You can go wild with experimentation, especially because pork is uniquely versatile and can pair with almost any flavor, savory or sweet, but I find that there are definitely some helpful principles that underlie the process of building a pan sauce.

If the pan has gotten too dry, add a little more butter (or other cooking fat) and put it over medium-low heat.  Next, (look, this is like choose your own adventure!) add a minced or sliced member of the allium family.  This could be garlic, onion, leeks, scallions, shallots, or a combination of a couple.  Give them a stir and let them cook until they’ve started to brown and soften.  The time this takes will depend on your allium and how you’ve sliced it, but it’s usually a couple minutes.

If you’re adding spices (spices, not herbs – spices usually go in early, herbs often go in towards the end) stir them in now, and let them toast for a minute.  Next it’s time to deglaze your pan by adding a liquid.  Your liquid could be wine (white, red, fortified – like sherry or port), another alcohol like brandy or whiskey, some broth, cream (or sour cream/creme fraiche – these take much less time to thicken), or a fruit juice.  Let the liquid bubble, stirring the pan to scrape up the good stuff on the bottom, and cook for several minutes until thickened, and you could call your sauce done right there – with perhaps the addition of some chopped fresh herbs for good measure.  OR – how exciting – you could add other sauce elements like chopped fuit (think figs or apples or apricots), vegetables (perhaps spinach, say, or peppers – peppers would go in with the onion- or tiny cubes of pumpkin), or mushrooms.

With any of these additions, you will continue to simmer and stir the sauce until the fruit or vegetable is cooked through, adding a little more liquid now and again if the sauce gets too dry.  Oh, and mushrooms are a slightly special case because you want to add them before you add the liquid and let them cook and soften.  This is because mushrooms have to release some liquid of their own, and you want to give that time to cook off before you add other liquid, otherwise you can wind up with soggy mushrooms.  Mushrooms are like that.  Testy (but delicious) little creatures.

So, what does this look like in practice?  Well, let’s try out a couple of different variations on the theme (what, you didn’t think I was going to let you loose without at least something of a recipe, did you?)

I’ll start with the uber-traditional combination of pork with apples and sage, and then we’ll move onto a few other options.  For two people you’ll need:

  • 2 bone-in porkchops, about 1-inch thick
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 Tbs. butter
  • 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 large, firm cooking apple (I used gala) or 2 very small ones, cored and cut into 1/2-inch thick wedges
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (you could also use apple cider)
  • 2 fresh sage leaves, thinly sliced (or two pinches of dried sage)
  • 1 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
  1. Preheat your oven to 425F.  Salt and pepper the porkchops.  Heat a cast iron skillet over medium-high heat, add the butter and wait until it foams.  Add the pork chops and cook until browned on each side (a couple minutes per side).  Transfer the pan to the oven and allow to roast until the pork reaches an internal temperature of about 140F (about 6-8 minutes).  Remove the pan from the oven and transfer the pork chops to a plate.
  2. Return the pan to the stove over medium-low heat and add the onion.  Cook, stirring, until the onion is browned and softened, 3-5 minutes.  Then, stir in the apples and wine.  Continue to cook until the apples are tender but not at all falling apart, and the wine is reduced.  Stir in the sage, the cider vinegar, and any juices that have accumulated on the plate with the pork chops.  Stir well and add salt and pepper to taste.  Nestle the pork chops into the sauce and serve warm.

See, that was pretty easy, right?  And, now for some variations…

Pork chops with balsamic figs:  Make the basic pork chops, then while they’re resting, add a finely minced large garlic clove to the pan plus a pinch of cardamom.  After a minute, stir in a generous quarter cup of red wine or port and a Tablespoon or two of balsamic vinegar and allow to bubble for a minute.  Next, stir in a half-pint of quartered fresh figs, and cook until the figs are softened and the sauce is thickened, a couple minutes.  Stir in any juices that have accumulated from the chops, add salt and pepper to taste, and serve over the pork chops.  (This also works deliciously with peach slices, halved grapes, or with fresh cranberries, though with the cranberries you’ll want to add a couple Tbs. of maple syrup to offset how sour they are.)

Pork chops with creamy mushroom sauce: Make the basic pork chops, then while they’re resting, add one finely chopped shallot to the pan over medium heat.  Cook until it begins to soften (a couple minutes), then stir in 2 cups of sliced mushrooms and a pinch of salt.  Cook, stirring occasionally until the mushrooms have released their juices and these have evaporated, about 5-7 minutes.  Then, stir in a couple of Tbs. of whiskey (optional), a generous quarter cup of heavy cream or sour cream, and about 1/2 tsp. of chopped fresh thyme, plus any juices that have accumulated on the plate with the pork.  Stir well, season to taste with salt and pepper and serve over the pork chops.  (I also like to make a mustard cream sauce for pork, which entails following this recipe but omitting the mushrooms completely and just adding the whiskey, cream, and thyme plus a good Tbs. Dijon mustard to the shallot to make the sauce.)

Pork chops with orange-ginger sauce:  Make the basic pork chops and while they are resting, add 1/4 cup thinly sliced scallions to the pan along with 1 tsp. of sesame oil.  Cook over medium-low heat until the scallions start to soften, about 2 minutes, then stir in 2 tsp. grated ginger.  Cook for another minute.  Add 1/4 cup of orange juice, stir well, then simmer uncovered until the sauce has thickened, a couple minutes.  Stir in any juices that have accumulated with the pork chops, then taste and add salt and pepper to taste.  Nestle the pork chops into the sauce, turning to coat them, then serve.

Is it snowing where you are as well?  Because it’s snowing here.  Which means it’s a perfect day to make pork chops!

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