How to pick the right pork for grilling

By JeanMarie Brownson
Chicago Tribune
Pork chops with salted lemon-garlic relish come off the grill juicy and beautiful. Keep a jar of the relish made of salted lemons, garlic, olive oil and fresh thyme for everything off the grill.

It’s no coincidence that nearly everyone I know enjoys food from the grill. The smoky flavor, the golden browned bits, and the ease of cleanup make grilling the summertime impetus for gathering friends to table.

We put steaks, seafood, vegetables, pizza and even watermelon and heads of lettuce on the grill. Sometimes, barbecue sauce gets involved. Occasionally, the heavy smoke from applewood or maple penetrates a whole turkey or beef brisket. We love it all.

A gathering around a grill in Michigan found us discussing which cut of pork to cook that evening. Rib lovers tend to be the most vocal cheerleaders, while dieters embrace lean pork tenderloin. Myself, I love a moist, grilled pork chop for its versatility, relative quick-cooking and moderate price tag.

When grilling for company, I prefer the visual appeal of a bone-in pork chop. My favorite is the center-cut pork chop. This chop sports the beauty of a T-bone steak with the bone dividing the white loin meat and the darker tenderloin nugget on the other side.

Likewise, rib-cut pork chops, with their curved bone running along one side and the lean loin muscle meat attached to it, offer great flavor and visual appeal. These tend to have less meat per chop than their center-cut cousins, but are often easier to find. I ask the butcher to cut them a generous 1-inch to 1 1/4-inches thick; this proves ideal for portion size and ease of grilling. If you purchase pre-packaged chops in the meat case, take the time to find the thickest chops.

Boneless pork chops are simply the rib-cut pork chop without the bone. They are super lean and more tricky to cook than bone-in chops — especially if they are thin. I always prefer to cook meat on the bone for extra insurance against dryness, but if you prefer boneless, be sure to select chops at least 3/4-inch thick. Avoid overcooking them by setting a timer and moderating the grill’s (or broiler’s) heat.

When grilling pork for a casual family meal, I often turn to country-style pork ribs. Cut from the sirloin or rib end of the pork loin, these “ribs” are not as attractive as a bone-in chop, but quite tasty. Their moisture from generous fat marbling makes them nearly foolproof to grill. Slathered in barbecue sauce or topped with a salsa, this cut of pork makes a mighty fine, affordable entree.

Pork back ribs win hearts because they are delicious, moist and tender. You’ll need more time on the grill than for pork chops or country-style ribs. I allow about 1 1/4 hours for a rack of ribs set on the cool side of a medium-hot grill for slow, indirect cooking. Never add barbecue sauce before the meat is golden and tender or burning will ensue.

For summertime eating, I steer away from pork shoulder chops, also known as blade chops or blade steaks. This section of pork needs moist heat to cook well and is better suited for the slow cooker or Dutch oven.

Whichever cut of pork you choose, be sure to factor in time to allow them to sit with seasoning before cooking. The simplest way to jumpstart flavor is to salt and pepper the chops at least 30 minutes (or up to one day) before cooking. After purchasing, I wipe the pork dry and put it in a single layer in a glass baking dish, then sprinkle all sides generously with salt and fresh pepper. Put a loose cover on the dish and refrigerate for several hours.

When I’m ready to light the grill, I remove the meat from the refrigerator to take off some of the chill. The pork can sit on the counter in a cool kitchen for 30 minutes.

While the pork warms, soak wood chips in water to add to the grill for a slightly smoky addition. I particularly like the flavor imparted by fruit woods and pecan wood chips — especially with simple finishing sauces. Use hickory and mesquite chips when you have a taste for pork with a tomato- or red-chile-based barbecue sauce.

Seasoned chops can be grilled and served as is, perhaps topped with a pat of herbed butter or a drizzle of good olive oil. Or, slather them with your favorite barbecue sauce during the last 2 or 3 minutes of cooking.

This summer pork menu includes a topping of salted lemons, garlic, olive oil and fresh thyme. Lighter and less salty than Moroccan-style preserved lemons, a jar of this relish stays handy in the refrigerator for a quick boost to nearly everything off the grill, plus steamed vegetables, cooked grains and hearty salads. Accompany the chops with buttered pasta and sliced ripe tomatoes.


Prep: 15 minutes

Marinate: 30 minutes or more

Cook: 15 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

If cooking boneless pork chops, be sure they are about 1 inch thick and decrease cooking time by 3 to 4 minutes. If cooking pork country-style ribs, increase cooking time by 10 to 15 minutes and move to a cooler section of the grill if browning too quickly.

6 rib-cut or center-cut bone-in pork chops, each cut about 1 1/4 inches thick and weighing 12 ounces (total 4 1/2 pounds)

1 cup applewood, cherry or pecan wood chips for grilling

Salt, freshly ground black pepper

4 to 6 cups small broccoli florets or 2 bunches broccolini, ends trimmed

Salted lemon-garlic relish, see recipe

Fresh herb sprigs, for garnish

1. Pat chops dry and place in a baking dish. Season generously on all sides with salt and pepper. Cover loosely and refrigerate at least 30 minutes or up to 24 hours.

2. Soak wood chips in cool water to cover for 20 minutes or more.

3. Prepare a charcoal grill and let coals burn until they are at medium-high heat and covered in gray ash (an oven thermometer will register 375 degrees to 400 degrees). Or preheat a gas grill to medium-high. Drain wood chips and sprinkle over the hot coals. Or, set wood chips on a double thickness of foil set on the grate over the gas burner. Cover the grill to preheat the grill grates thoroughly.

4. Use tongs to arrange pork chops in a single uncrowded layer on the preheated grill grates. Cover grill and cook without turning for 8 minutes. Gently loosen chops and flip. Move pieces around as necessary to adjust for hot spots and so pork cooks evenly without excess browning. Cover the grill and continue cooking until the meat is nearly firm when pressed, about 4 to 6 minutes more. (An instant-read thermometer will register 145 degrees.)

5. While the pork cooks, heat a large pot of salted water to the boil. Add the broccoli and cook, uncovered, stirring once or twice, until bright green and crisp-tender, 3 to 4 minutes. Drain well. Set aside uncovered.

6. Remove the chops from the grill to a large serving platter. Scatter the broccoli over all. Spoon the salted lemon-garlic relish over everything. Garnish with herb sprigs. Serve.

Nutrition information per serving: 433 calories, 26 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 133 mg cholesterol, 4 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 44 g protein, 523 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

A lemon relish offers a flavor books to grilled pork chops and more.


Prep: 10 minutes

Chill: Several hours or more

Makes: about 1 cup

This pretty relish tastes great served over grilled pork, chicken and salmon. Try it chopped and stirred into pearl couscous or as a condiment on a grilled Italian sausage sandwich. Or, finely chop the relish and stir it into mayonnaise for a lemony tartar sauce for grilled fish or cool seafood salads.

2 small lemons, scrubbed, ends trimmed off

4 to 6 small cloves garlic, peeled, crushed or finely minced

1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried

1 teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt

1/2 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary or 1/4 teaspoon dried

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, optional

1/4 teaspoon each: freshly ground black pepper, crushed red pepper flakes

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1. Slice lemons as thinly as possible and pluck out the seeds. Put lemon slices, garlic, thyme, salt and rosemary into a small bowl. Use a wooden spoon or clean hands to massage the seasonings into the lemon slices and release the juices. Stir in optional Dijon, peppers and olive oil. Pack mixture, including all the juices, into a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid.

2. Refrigerate mixture for a few hours or up to 1 week. Use at room temperature.

Variation: Add 1 cup sliced pitted olives (such as Kalamata or Castelvetrano) or roasted red and yellow peppers into the condiment before serving.

Nutrition information per serving: 89 calories, 9 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 0 g protein, 381 mg sodium, 1 g fiber