General Principles of Cooking Pork
When choosing a pan, pick one that has a heavy bottom, preferably cast iron, and that will comfortably fit the cut(s) with room to spare. Never crowd a pan when trying to sear meat, as it will prevent browning and potentially steam or stew the meat rather than searing. Non-stick pans are not recommended as browning will be tend to be less successful.
It is best to salt meat at least 6 - 24 hours before cooking, depending on the size of the cut with larger cuts needing more time than smaller ones. Initially, the salt draws moisture from the meat, but after enough time, the process reaches an equilibrium that produces juicy, flavorful meat when cooked.
Meat should sit at room temperature before cooking for best results. Smaller cuts may only need to temper at room temperature for 10 - 15 minutes, while large cuts such as roasts may need to temper for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours before cooking. Tempering helps the meat cook evenly.
Fat Cap and Bone
Most pork cuts will have at least one surface with a “fat cap”. Always start searing the meat with the fat cap down, in order to get the fat crispy and to render some of fat into the pan which helps brown and flavor the remaining surfaces. In addition, make sure to sear surfaces with bones as well as meat. Warming up the bone helps the meat closest to the bone cook evenly.
High heat will tend to make the muscle fibers contract tightly, resulting in a tougher texture (but see resting time). Lower temperatures keep the muscle fibers relaxed. Both high and low heat have their roles to play in cooking meat. High heat can produce a crispy exterior and shorten cooking time, especially where tenderness is of minor concern. For instance, thin pieces of meat such as in a stir fry can be cooked over high temperature because they will be cooked for a very short time and because the size of the pieces will mitigate the effect of the temperature on the toughness of the finished product.
All meat, with or without an oven finish, should rest at room temperature before being cut and served. Resting has multiple purposes such as letting the meat finish cooking internally, letting the muscle fibers relax after being contracted by the heat, and letting the juices absorb into the meat. Without resting, meat is prone to be dry, overcooked externally and undercooked in the interior. Smaller cuts such as chops should rest for 5 - 10 minutes while larger cuts should rest longer. Large roasts should rest for no less than 20 minutes and up to 30 minutes before carving.
Specific Cooking Techniques
Pan searing is an excellent technique used to brown the exterior of meat. Flat cuts, such as chops and steaks, can be cooked start-to-finish using only the pan sear. For larger cuts (such as roasts) or very thick chops and steaks, the cuts can be finished in the oven to cook the meat to an internal temperature of 140F. Pan searing is also often used before braising or stewing meat.
If using an oven finish, preheat the oven to 350F. Heat a cast iron pan (or other heavy bottomed pan) large enough to comfortably fit the cut(s) over medium heat. Starting with the fat cap down, brown all sides of the meat, typically 3 - 5 minutes per side.
For chops (and other flat cuts): Cook the pork chops on edge, fat cap down. You can balance the chops against each other to keep them on edge. To balance a single chop, a fork can be used as a prop. Cook for about 3 - 4 minutes. Still on edge, place the bone side down and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes. Place the chops flat in the pan and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes per side. The chops should be well browned on all sides and warm through, but still juicy and light pink in the center. Remove the chops from the pan and let rest.
For roasts (and thicker cuts): Starting with the fat cap (if there is one), sear all surfaces of the meat, including any surfaces with bones, until browned on all sides. The last side will need only minimal searing as it will continue to sear in the oven. Place the meat in the preheated oven and cook until the internal temperature rises to approximately 140F. Cooking time will vary depending on the size of the cut, from perhaps 10 minutes for a thick chop to 3; hours for a large roast. A probe thermometer can be very helpful to monitor the internal temperature of the meat. Remove the meat from the oven and let rest before cutting and serving.
Looking for a recipe using this technique? Try Pork Chops with Cranberry Glaze.
Cooked with dry heat in the oven, the meat will brown as it cooks even without a pan sear. Make sure to temper the meat before cooking. Place the meat in the preheated oven and cook until the internal temperature rises to approximately 140F. Cooking time will vary depending on the size of the cut, from perhaps 10 minutes for a thick chop to 3 hours for a large roast. A probe thermometer can be very helpful to monitor the internal temperature of the meat. Remove the meat from the oven and let rest before cutting and serving.
Looking for a recipe using this technique? Try Pork Roast with Mushroom Cream Sauce.
Braising meat is a slow, low-temperature, moist heat method that results in tender, flavorful meat. Braising can be done on the stove top or in the oven. Either way, the meat (and other ingredients) are cooked in a heavy covered pot such as a dutch oven with a relatively small amount of liquid. Do not cover the meat in liquid when braising. The meat is cooked primarily by the steam in the pot. Generally, start by pan searing the meat as described above. The meat may be removed from the pot and set aside after searing. Vegetables (such as carrots, onions, garlic, celery) may then be sautéed in the same pot and liquid (such as water, stock, or wine) added to deglaze the bottom of the pot. The meat should then be returned to the pot, covered, and left to braise (either over low heat or in a slow oven) until the meat is tender. There are exceptions to starting a braise with a pan sear. For instance, meatballs will be more tender and absorb more of the flavor of the cooking liquid when they have not been seared, as in our recipe for Sauce Piquant with Cajun Meatballs.
Looking for a recipe using this technique? Try Braised Country-Style Ribs.
Similar to braising, stewing is a slow, low temperature, moist heat method of cooking meat. While braising uses just enough liquid to steam the meat, stewing involves covering the meat entirely in liquid and cooking, covered, until tender. Like braising, typically meat is seared prior to stewing in order to have the flavor and texture of browned meat in the finished stew. Generally smaller pieces of meat are used in stews than in braises. To stew, follow the directions for braising, but add enough liquid to the pot to cover the meat. Typically, stew is cooked on the stove top, but may be cooked in the oven as well.
Other Useful Techniques
Oven Bacon: Lay strips of bacon on a sheet pan, lined with parchment. Put into a cold oven. Turn oven to 450F. Fat should start to render and bacon to begin to crisp in about 10 minutes. Turn the bacon; finish cooking for another 5 - 10 minutes until it is as crisp as you like it.
Browning: Similar to pan searing, this technique is used for creating a brown, flavorful exterior. Browning is useful when cooking things like ground pork, or sausage, sautéing thin pieces of meat, or when finishing carnitas. Key principles include not over crowding the pan, using a small amount of fat, and using medium to medium high heat. Meat will not brown if there is too much moisture in the pan as it will instead cook in the steam or stew as it cooks. Use this technique in our Carnitas recipe or in Cheesy Chorizo Bean Dip.