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Cooking the Perfect Smothered Pork Chops

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Smothered pork chops, a homey dish of chops braised in deeply flavored onion gravy, are folksy, not fancy; denim, not worsted wool.  The cooking process is straightforward:  You brown the chops, remove them from the pan, brown the onions, return the chops to the pan, cover them with the onions and gravy – hence the term smothered – and braise them until tender.  Unarguably easy, but my initial attempts produced bland, dry pork and near-tasteless gravies with woeful consistencies ranging from pasty to processed to gelatinous to watery.

Poor texture and shallow flavor rob smothered pork chops of their savory-sweet glory.  To get it right, I knew I would have to identify the best chops and the best way to cook them.  And the gravy was no less important.

I researched several recipes and found that most of them specified sirloin chops, which are cut from the rear end of the loin.  My family and friends found this cut a little dry and I found them often unavailable at my local grocery store.  Blade chops, cut from the far front end of the loin were just juicier, but suffered the same spotty availability.  Of the two remaining types of chops, center-cut loin and rib, I found the latter to be the juiciest and most flavorful because it had a bit more fat.

I tried rib chops, as thick as 1-1/2 inches and as thin 12 1/2 inch and was shocked when my family unanimously preferred the 1/2 inch chops.  Thick chops overwhelmed the gravy, which I believe should share equal billing with the meat.  Thin chops also picked up more onion flavor during the cooking.  I also tried boneless chops, but they cooked up dry, so I decided to stick with bone-in for optimum juiciness.

I skipped brining these chops for two reasons:  First, these chops cook in a moist environment provided b the gravy, so why spend time instilling extra moisture?  I would not be using the harsh, dry heat of grilling, searing, or roasting, which makes brining a viable and often necessary option,  Second, no matter how we adjusted the salinity of the brine, the salt-infused meat caused the gravy to become intolerably salty.

Last, I tackled the question of cooking time.  Although I prefer to slightly undercooked pork to ensure tenderness, this is one application where further cooking was necessary since I wanted to infuse the meat with the flavor of the gravy and onions.  After their initial browning, the chops registered a rosy 140oF on an instant-read thermometer.  They were cooked through and tender, but since they had yet to be smothered, they had none of the onion flavor I wanted.  Fifteen minutes of braising in the gravy boosted the flavor but toughened the chops, which not registered almost 200oF.  At that temperature, the meat fibers have contracted and expelled moisture, but the fat and connective tissue between the fibers, called collagen, have not had a chance to melt fully and turn into gelatin.  It is this gelatin that makes braised meats especially rich and tender.  Another 15 minutes of braising time solved the problem.  At this point, the chops registered 210oF; the extra time allowed the fat and collagen to melt completely, so the meat was tender and succulent as well as oniony from the gravy.

It was important that the gravy build on the flavor of the browned pork chop.  The caned condensed soup called for in some of the recipes I researched produced gravies that tasted processed and glue-like.  Water produced a weak, thin gravy, but chicken broth improved the picture, adding much needed flavor.

For liquid to morph into gravy, it must be thickened.  Cornstarch is an easy option, but it resulted in a gelatinous, translucent sauce that looked and felt wrong.  Next I tried adding flour, in three different ways. Flouring the chops before browning them turned their exteriors gummy and left the gravy with a chalky mouth feel.  Flouring the onions left the gravy tasting of raw flour.  Last, I called upon a roux, a mixture of flour and fat (in this case, vegetable oil) cooked together.  This occasioned the need for an extra pan, which I had hoped to avoid having to use, but the results were fantastic.  The roux was simple to make, and it thickened the sauce reliably without adding the taste of raw flour, lending the gravy both a smooth finish and another layer of flavor that was slightly nutty.

The roux was good, but I tried to improve it with two often used refinements.  First, I fried a couple of slices of bacon and substituted the rendered fat for the vegetable oil in the roux.  What a hit!  The sweet/salty/smoky bacon flavor underscored and deepened all of the other flavors in the dish.  Beyond that, I followed in the footsteps of many of the gravy master who has eked out even more flavor from a roux by browning it for five minutes to the shade of peanut butter.  Cooking the flour this way unlocks a rich, toasty flavor that builds as the shade deepens.

The onions plat a title role in the gravy.  I tried them minced, chopped, and sliced both thick and thin.  Thin-sliced onions cooked to a melting texture that was my favorite.  I tried simply softening the onions until they were translucent versus cooking them for a few more minutes until their edges browned, a winning technique that accentuated their natural sweetness.  Perhaps the most important onion test was trying different types, including standard-issue supermarket yellow onions, red onions, and sweet Vidalia onions.  The yellow onions triumphed for their “deep brown hue” and :balanced flavor”.

The onion cook in the same pan used to brown the chops.  I wanted to make sure that the onions released enough moisture to dissolve (or deglaze) the flavorful, sticky browned bits (called fond) left in the pan by the chops, so I salted them lightly.  The heat and salt worked together to jump-start the breakdown of the onions’ cell walls, which set their juices flowing.  I also added two tablespoons of water to the pan for insurance.

My last flavor tweak was an unusual  one – I eliminated the salt I customarily use to season chops.  The salt added to the onions, along with the naturally salty bacon and chicken broth and the garlic, thyme, and bay used to build extra flavor in the gravy, seasoned the dish adequately.

Click HERE for my Smothered Pork Chops recipe.

Here is a video showing you how to prepare a delicious and easy Smothered Pork Chops recipe:

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