Cider-Brined Pork Chops on the Grill

I’m a 40 (something) year-old virgin: a brining virgin, that is. A neophyte. A gumby. A noob.  Well, I was until yesterday. Yesterday, in celebration of the truly summer-like weather, I popped my brining cherry on some ridiculously thick pork chops that were destined for the grill.

Despite all the hype, I’ve (obviously) never gotten on the brining bandwagon. I have always felt that if you are taking the trouble to buy the best meat you can find, heritage-breed, pastured, humanely-raised & organically fed, that brining is sort of beside the point: the meat is already tender, juicy, flavorful. All you need to do is not screw it up. But, yesterday, well: I really wanted to grill.  It was gorgeous outside – sunny, 80 degrees, just humid enough to say “summer” but not so humid to be oppressive.  I had these insanely thick (2 inches +) pork chops that had been thawing in the fridge for two days; they really needed to be cooked.  I knew that it would be difficult to grill such a thick chop without drying out the edges before the middle was cooked through and that I should probably slow cook them, in a braise or a stew, like Chile Verde.  But – there was that gorgeous weather. I decided to grill and to give the chops every advantage for moist, tender deliciousness with a brine. I Googled up a brine recipe for the proportions of salt & sugar (I can’t find the one I used again – sorry Cider Brine recipe!), added some frozen, chopped habanero (because that’s how I roll) and was off to the races. Or the fridge, as it were.

And the verdict?  Well, I’m not singing Ah, sweet mystery of life. These chops were good, don’t get me wrong – quite tasty, in fact. But not exceptionally tasty, or juicy, or tender; not particularly flavored with apple cider or habanero pepper. I haven’t bought these particular chops before: they were marketed as Flying Pig chops, from the Cafe in Mount Kisco (not to be confused with Flying Pigs Farm, in Shushan), so presumably came from Cabbage Hill Farm (the owners of Flying Pig Cafe); I picked them up at Near & Natural in Bedford Village.  I should have left one of them un-brined in order to compare & contrast: I’m just not sure what, if any, effect the brining had. At any rate, I would try it again; like I said, the chops were tasty. There was a faint cider flavor, and a mere hint of heat from the habanero, to the pork: maybe I just need to tweak the brine recipe.  But next time, I’ll leave one chop out of the brine and do a comparison – and then, we’ll know.

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Cider-Brined Grilled Pork Chops

INGREDIENTS

  • 4 thick-cut pork chops

       Brine

  • 2 cups filtered water (or 2 cups ice water)
  • 1 and 3/4 cups apple cider (fresh or frozen)
  • 1/4 cup coarse sea salt (or coarse Kosher salt)
  • 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 small chopped habanero pepper, seeds & veins removed (or add back seeds to your taste for more heat)

METHODS

  1. If using frozen cider: combine water, sugar, salt and habanero in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over high heat. Stir until salt & sugar are fully dissolved.  Remove from heat.  Pour brine over frozen cider in a medium, heat-safe bowl.  Stir until cider melts and mixture is combined.  If using fresh cider:  combine cider with other ingredients and heat to dissolve sugar & salt. Pour into a heat-safe bowl and add 2 cups ice water.  Stir until ice cubes melt and brine is well mixed.  Brine should be at about room temperature (below 80 degrees F) before adding pork.
  2. Brine. Rinse pork chops in cold, running water.  Add to brine, or lay out in a 9″ x 13″ baking dish and cover with brine (for my fat pork chops this dish was the perfect size and the amount of brine was just right).  Refrigerate and brine chops anywhere from 30 minutes to 24 hours (I brined for about 6-7 hours).
  3. Light grill. Since my pork chops were very thick, I piled a charcoal/wood fire high in the center of the grill, for a nice, long-lasting bed of coals, but left the outside edges clear, for a low-heat option to slow cook the thick chops.  If your chops are thinner (less than 1 inch) you should be fine cooking them directly over flame.  If you use a propane grill, for thick chops set the flame to low, or sear initially over a high flame then turn down to low.
  4. Grill chops.  Place chops over high heat/flame for a minute or two per side in order to sear the outside (no need to towel off the brine; if you decide to cook in a pan, dry the chops first). Move thicker chops to the outside, cooler edge of the grill (or reduce a propane grill flame to low) and cook, covered, and turning occasionally, until the internal temperature near the bone is 145 degrees F (the USDA recommends 160 degrees F as the safe temp to cook pork; I find it overdone at this temp).  Check temperature frequently so as not to overcook! Remove chops to a plate, cover with foil, and allow to rest for 5 minutes before serving.  Serve with Herby Grilled Potatoes and grilled seasonal vegetables.

Serves 4 (or 8 if you get our monster chops!).

OPTIONS

  1. I thought the spice would come through more in the brine; there was a very subtle, faint amount of heat. I did remove about half of the habanero from the brine because it smelled overpowering; next time I would leave it in, and add the seeds. Maybe a tsp of black peppercorns as well.  The cider flavor was also quite subtle; I wonder how it would be with all cider (no water) or with adding a tablespoon or two of cider vinegar. 
  2. These were very thick chops; when the middle was sufficiently cooked through (145 degrees F) the edges were a bit overdone (160 degrees F).  Not horribly overdone (160 degrees F is the USDA recommended temperature for cooking pork), but still a little drier than I would have liked. I think this method would work well for any chop that is 1 and 1/2 inches or less (the 1-inch chop came out beautifully).
  3. If you still don’t have an instant thermometer (have I taught you nothing?) it will be difficult to tell when a thick chop is safely cooked without overcooking.  Pork, unlike chicken, can remain pink while safely cooked; by the time you eliminate all traces of pink, it will be overcooked.  My chops were still lightly pink in the center at 145 degrees, while no pink was visible at the edges (160 degrees).

STORE

Refrigerated, for up to 5 days.

SEASON

Grilling season is classically summer, but we often grill all year round.  Fresh cider is available at farmer’s markets starting in the Fall and through the winter into early Spring.  I often freeze a gallon of cider in the Fall, in 1- or 2-cup containers, for use through the year.

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