The Perfect Chop: It’s grilling season. Think you got the skills?Grilling season officially began Memorial Day weekend, but given the mild winter we had, it never really ended. Now that summer is in full swing and triple-digit temps are just a lemonade stand away, it’s time for the Johnny-come-latelies to pull out the grill, scrape off last year’s gunk and get grilling. Burgers may be the most popular food to toss over those toasty coals, followed by steak, hot dogs and perhaps a chicken thigh. But nothing stimulates the primal carnivore instinct deep within our craniums like a thick, bone-in chop – be it lamb, pork or sweet, succulent veal.
But turning out the perfect chop is about more than lighting the fire, tossing on the meat and closing the lid. There are a few prerequisites for success: a smoky, charred crust, spices that complement but don’t outshine the animal’s natural flavor and tender meat whose gorgeous pink flesh oozes with every bite. Before you can crack open a cold one and grab a seat in the sun, there is some basic knowledge you should have under your belt. Here, everything you need to know to make the perfect chops – from the cut of the meat to the level of heat and all the brining, basting and marinating in between.
Tricks of the Trade: A little advice before you light the coals
Brady Hanlen, owner of Hanlen’s Fine Meats & Catering, recommends bringing the meat to room temperature about an hour before grilling. When combined with the resting time, this results in less “plate bleed due to the meat not going through as much shock as it would coming straight out of the refrigerator.” It also cuts down on cooking time.
To brine or not to brine?
Brining adds moisture to the meat, especially larger cuts. According to Hanlen, “all cuts lend themselves well to brining as long as [the brine] is not something that overwhelms the flavor profile [of the meat].” Be sure to use cold liquid in your brine, so it will infuse the meat with flavor – not cook it. Jim Lucas, owner of Baumann’s Fine Meats, makes his simple brine with kosher salt, brown sugar, a tablespoon of garlic powder and a few teaspoons of finely ground black pepper. For chops, a 3- to 4-hour brine is good, but Lucas likes to let bigger cuts marry in their brines overnight so he can get “the pellicle that’s formed on the meat.” What’s a pellicle? The tacky surface smoke sticks to, creating that flavor-filled crust that carries the taste of the grill right to your plate.
If you plan to marinade your chops beforehand, be sure to give them at least 1 to 2 hours to soak up all that great flavor. Cover them or place in a sealed plastic bag with all the air released and turn every half hour. Before tossing them on the grill, drain the chops and reserve the marinade for basting later.
Whenever you’re using a dry rub, brush the chops with olive oil before massaging in the spices. You can even make a paste out of the spices by pulsing them in the food processor and adding in a little oil as they work their magic. Rub the paste on both sides of the chops. And be sure not to go overboard on the spices, as you don’t want to outshine the natural flavors of the meat.
How Hot is Hot?
Even when a grill has a thermometer, experienced grillers use the hand method to gauge the heat of the coals. The longer you can hold your hand over the coals, the lower the fire falls on the temperature gauge. Wanna try it at home? Here’s how.
Hot - 2 seconds or less: 450 to 650 degrees
Medium-hot - 3 to 4 seconds: 400 to 450 degrees
Medium - 4 to 5 seconds: 350 to 400 degrees
Medium-low - 6 to 8 seconds: 300 to 350 degrees
Low - More than 10 seconds: below 300 degrees
We’re not talking about smoking, where the cooking time is measured in hours and the amount of beer consumed. We’re talking grilling: high-heat cooking over bright, glowing coals. While grilling doesn’t take as much labor as smoking – with its smoldering logs, low-and-slow heat, and constant futzing – it’s no cake walk either. Some cuts of meat need indirect heat, some direct and others a little time on each. Some call for the lid to stay open, while others savor the steam bath a closed lid provides. Want to know the best way to grill each type of meat? Check out the “Method” section on each of the following pages.
Charcoal or gas?
Both will do but nothing beats the smoky aroma of a charcoal grill on a warm evening. Charcoal burns hotter than propane gas and imparts that “outdoor” flavor that’s infused in everyone’s favorite sticky-finger summer memories. Hard-core grillers prefer chunks of wood, like hickory, cherry, mesquite and even grapevine trimmings. Lump charcoal made from wood is a great compromise as well; it’s quick to start, easy to use and readily available. It also burns about 300 degrees hotter than charcoal’s 800 degrees. There’s just one rule here: Never use lighter fluid to start your fire. With charcoal chimney starters and grills with gas charcoal starters, there’s no excuse for adding petroleum flavor to your meat.
Lamb’s sweet, robust flavor makes it a natural for the open grill. It’s also springtime tradition.
Butcher: Straub’s carries fresh lamb chops, while almost all butchers carry frozen. Just be sure to call ahead.
The Cut: Loin chops are the most popular cut of lamb and are easily recognized by the T-bone running through their center. They’re leaner and more tender than their sliced-from-the-rack neighbors, easier to work with and better suited for individual servings. Look for well-distributed marbling and ¾- to 1-inch thickness. Be sure to trim off any excess fat.
Prep: If marinating, use an olive oil base, though yogurt and sour cream bases are also popular. Hanlen grills chops Carney Style, named after the late Jack Carney’s favorite method: marinated in a mixture of sour cream, minced garlic and Worcestershire sauce for at least 4 hours. The marinade creates a flavorful crust around the meat as it spends time on the grill. One Armenian friend’s grandmother stacks lamb chops with a layer of oregano and sliced onion in between each chop, places a heavy weight on top of the stack (A foil-covered brick will do.) and marinates them in the fridge overnight.
Spices: Forget the mint jelly. The classic spices to enhance lamb’s sweet flavor are oregano, rosemary, garlic, thyme, savory, fennel, salt and pepper. Experiment with blends like herbes de Provence and discover the wonders of grassy cumin or the sweet heat of paprika.
Method: Grill lamb chops as you would a steak: hot to medium-hot coals over direct heat on an uncovered grill. For medium, give it about 6 minutes per side; 4 minutes for medium-rare.
The thicker, the better
Nobody likes a skinny chop. “Thickness is key when grilling chops,” said Hanlen, who recommended buying chops that are between 1¼ and 2 inches thick. Lucas likes his chops 1½ inches thick. The lesson here: Regardless of which animal is on the plate, thick is best.
When it comes to swine, we’re used to grilling steaks around these parts, but there’s nothing better than a thick, meaty, bone-in pork chop hot off the grill. Pork’s mild flavor makes it a good canvas for a slew of savvy marinades and spice combinations. But pork can be trickier to grill than other meats, as most tend to overcook it until it’s gray and tough.
Butcher: Pork chops are readily available at all major grocers and meat markets.
The Cut: “Either the rib or loin chop is fantastic on the grill,” noted Hanlen. Both are center cut, but the loin chop looks like a T-bone steak because the little fillet is still attached. Look for bone-in chops – and remember, thick is best.
Prep: A 4-hour brine will leave the meat juicy and tender. To infuse your pork with that great garlic kick, cut a few slits in the meat and insert slivers of fresh garlic cloves. These will only get sweeter once those chops hit the heat. Dry rubs are another way to add great flavor, but if you plan to brine, ditch the salt in your dry rub as you’ll have already tended to that taste bud.
Spices: The flavor combinations are endless, ranging from mild and gentle to smack-you-in-the-face spicy. Rosemary, sage, garlic and fennel work well together. Olive oil and balsamic vinegar play nicely with pork, especially when combined with fresh spices and sweet berry fruits. Or take a cue from Baumann’s house rub, which has a brown sugar base and a peppery kick from paprika, chili powder and garlic powder.
Method: Hanlen recommends searing pork chops first over direct heat, then over indirect heat. This involves building a two-zone fire, with a hot side and a cool side. If you’re using a gas grill, heat one side to high and the other to low. Grill chops on the hot side for 2 minutes with the lid closed. Turn the chops over and cook for another 2 minutes. Move over to the cooler side of the grill and cook, with the lid closed, about 4 minutes for medium-rare.
When it’s done, it’s done
The most common mistake home grillers make? Overcooking, especially with pork. Forget that old rule about cooking pork beyond recognition “just to be sure.” You want a golden brown, crisp crust, not an inedible piece of cinder. Pork cooked to a blushing pink is now standard at restaurants. And consider this: Even the USDA revised its recommended cooking temperature last year for all cuts of meat, including pork, veal and lamb, from 160 degrees to 145 degrees (medium-rare), with a minimum 3-minute rest time to kill any pathogens.
Veal is probably the least grilled meat, mostly due to price, availability and, for some, ethics. But its delicate flavor and tender texture is only enhanced with some time over those glowing coals.
Butcher: Some meat markets carry frozen veal chops, including Hanlen’s and Kenrick’s, while Straub’s sells ‘em fresh.
The Cut: Rib chops are the standard, but the loin chop is perfectly acceptable. Look for 1- to 1½-inch thickness.
Prep: If marinating, use an olive oil base mixed with lemon juice, grain mustard or red wine. Gremolada, an aromatic combination of minced parsley, minced garlic, lemon, salt and pepper traditionally used to top osso bucco, is an ideal complement to the smoky sweetness of grilled veal.
Spices: Hanlen lets veal’s luxurious flavor speak for itself with a simple mix of coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper. Greek and Italian spices work well, as do the classics: rosemary, garlic, sage, shallots and thyme.
Method: Sear veal chops over direct heat with the lid closed for 4 to 6 minutes, turning them once. Then, move the chops to the cooler side of the grill and grill over indirect heat with the lid closed for another 4 to 6 minutes, turning once, for medium-rare.
The day of rest
Resting is the most important part of the grilling process, because it also allows the juices to be absorbed back into the meat. “People do not realize that the meat will continue to cook for a few minutes after you remove [it] from the grill,” said Hanlen. Let your meat rest for at least 3 minutes before taking that first bite.
Baumann’s Fine Meats 8829 Manchester
Road, Brentwood, 314.968.3080, baumannsfinemeats.com
Market and Meats
Road, Riverview, 314.868.0400, billsmarketandmeats.com
Fresh pork, frozen lamb
146 W. Lockwood Ave., Webster Groves, 314.918.7900, theblockrestaurant.com
9052 Big Bend Blvd., Webster Groves, 314.968.1914, freddiesmarket.com
Fresh pork, frozen lamb
Meats & Catering
11037 Manchester Road, Kirkwood, 314.966.8606, hanlensfinemeats.tumblr.com
Fresh pork, frozen lamb and veal, fresh lamb on occasion
John’s Butcher Shoppe
2608 Walton Road, Overland, 314.423.8066 and 503 N. Mill St., Festus, 636.931.7776, johnsbutchershoppe.com
Fresh pork, frozen lamb, fresh lamb on occasion
Kenrick’s Meats & Catering
4324 Weber Road, St. Louis, 314.631.2440, kenricks.com
Fresh pork, frozen lamb and veal
4414 Donovan Ave., St. Louis, 314.353.4059, legrandsmarket-catering.com
Fresh pork, frozen lamb
5205 Highway N, Cottleville, 636.441.7755, manninosmarket.com
and Seafood Shop
11642 Concord Village Ave., Sappington, 314.842.4100, matekers.com
Fresh pork, frozen lamb
1020 N. Elizabeth Ave., Ferguson, 314.524.3652, pauls.net
Fresh pork, veal and lamb available by special order
Fresh pork, lamb and veal
6750 Mexico Road, St. Peters, 636.970.2992, valentismarket.com
Fresh pork, frozen lamb and veal on occasion