“Craft must have clothes, but truth loves to go naked.” —Thomas Fuller
If you really want to taste-test a piece of meat, try it naked. (The meat, not you. Don’t dine naked. That’s just weird. I shiver at the thought —my basement office is cold.)
Let me clarify “naked”: No sauces, brines, braising in wine, etc. Your total ingredient list after meat is salt. Add pepper if you want to make your naked fancier. Apply heat. That’s it.
I recently mentioned the “naked test” to Shane Graybeal, the Executive Chef at Sable Kitchen and Bar in Chicago.
“When do you ever see anyone just salt and sear a pork chop?” I asked. He considered the question for a few seconds.
“Man, that only works with top-notch ingredients,” he said. Shane explained that his cooking style has moved in that direction over two decades. Instead of working so hard to find new flavor combinations, he’s making simpler (and better in his implication) dishes but with the best ingredients he can find. High quality ingredients taste great on their own. If you have ever had corn-on-the-cob picked out of the field fifteen minutes before lunch, you know what I mean.
The reason we don’t see a lot of simple pork dishes is that mediocre meat doesn’t fare so well naked. Four-plus decades of CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) pork flooding the market turned pork into “the other white meat” —dry, grainy, flavorless, white meat. An animal’s diet, living conditions, and treatment—up to the moment of slaughter—directly impact the meat’s quality and flavor. Lock a pig in a stall and feed it the same bland corn-and-soy ration and you get grainy, flavorless protein. Since that dry, white meat soaks up any flavor like a sponge, chefs and home cooks found more ways of soaking, smoking, and saucing pork so we can taste something.
I’m guilty of that too. I post certain recipes on the blog because they interested me and we liked the results. A lot of my cooking is bare-bones though: slice a squash and roast it, bake a potato, steam a vegetable, grill the meat. I’ve been cooking like that since college, but now that we are raising much more of our own food, my simple fare fares much better. A couple weeks ago, I pan-seared a naked pork chop for lunch just to test my own product. I enjoyed it so much that I cooked the same lunch again for the next two days.
While looking through cookbooks for this post (see note at bottom), I did find a very simple recipe for “Perfect Pan-Seared Steak” by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt in the Food 52 Genius Recipes by Kristen Miglore. The techniques are similar to something I read in Cooks Illustrated magazine several years ago. What’s below is a simplified adaptation.
Pork Chops at least 3/4 inch thick (It’s hard not to over-cook a thin cut of meat).
A neutral cooking oil or lard.
—Rub chops liberally with salt (and pepper if you must complicate things) and let sit for a few minutes. (The recipe says 40 min and up to 3 days in the refrigerator. The longer it sits with the salt rub, the closer you are getting to brining. I let mine sit for less than 10 minutes because I was hungry for lunch.)
—Heat oil in a heavy skillet (I use cast iron) until it’s almost smoking. (The recipe says “smoking heavily”, which assumes you have an industrial exhaust hood or at least a good one that vents outside. We don’t.)
—Hold the chops with tongs and sear the edges first, which makes the fat crispy and renders some in the pan for the chop to cook in.
—The recipe says to flip the chops with tongs every 15-30 seconds. I haven’t tried that yet (because I saw this recipe after I cooked my chops). This lets each side get a a few rests from the heat and results in a more evens-cooked, tender chop.
—Pull the chops while the meat still yields easily to the touch or a meat thermometer reads 145 degrees F. This is critical. One of the longtime abuses of pork has been overcooking. See Bourbon Brined Pork chops for an explanation.
—Let the meat rest under foil for at least 5 minutes before serving.
Cooked this way (and not over-cooked), great meat, like great whiskey served neat, will reveal its rewarding flavors.
I grabbed a few cookbooks off the shelf to compare the amount of space dedicated to meat recipes:
The 1959 Farm Journal Cookbook is 420 pages. Only 39 of those pages (9%) covered beef, poultry, and pork combined. I’m guessing they assumed that their audience knew how to fry stuff, because it’s barely mentioned. Most of the pork recipes focus on glazed hams and ham leftover recipes.
Cooking with Julia is 512 pages. 132 pages (25.7%) cover recipes for beef, pork, and poultry.
Essential Peppin is 684 pages. 156 pages (22.8%) are dedicated to meat, including offal.
Food 52 Genius Recipes is 251 pages. 44 of those (17.5%) are for meat.
My ten minutes of research doesn’t prove anything, but I wonder what the breakdown of meat recipes is for other older cookbooks? If you have some pre-1960’s cookbooks, let me know what you find.
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
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