Make the juiciest, tastiest pork chops with bourbon brine and hickory smoke

Lisa Lotts
Make the juiciest, tastiest pork chops with a bourbon brine and hickory smoke.

Here’s the secret to the juiciest pork chops. (Hint: It involves bourbon.)

I was raised on dry, mealy pork, especially when that pork came in chop form. It was during the time when undercooked pork was associated with trichinosis and the Food Police put the fear of God into every home cook who deigned to serve pork chops at supper.

I think it’s why the classic pairing of pork chops and applesauce became such a thing. Dipping a rib into applesauce moistened the chops enough to be palatable and, ultimately, easier to “get down.” Those were the dark days of pork.

Since then, there’s been a renaissance in pork cookery. Some farmers’ adherence to improved feeding practices and safety standards has practically eliminated the risk of disease, especially when combined with the FDA’s recommendation of cooking all pork to 145 degrees. And it’s changed the way America eats. We’ve gone from standard pan-frying and Shake and Bake to roasting, grilling and curing — hello homemade bacon!

For the juiciest, most flavorful and tender pork chops, you can’t beat a 2-hour brine and a 20-minute smoke. It’s easier than you may think.

The recipe for this brine is half apple juice and half water, plus kosher salt, brown sugar, whole spices and a shot of Kentucky bourbon for good measure. The brine permeates the flesh, plumps the meat’s cells and adds a whole bunch of flavor. But it’s the kiss of hickory smoke that truly takes these chops to the next level.

The key to properly cooking the pork is achieving a steady smoke, then adding the chops, closing the lid tightly and leaving the whole setup alone. Don’t touch. Don’t peek. I know you want to. Just. Don’t. The chops cook on indirect heat, so there’s no worry of burning or overcooking. Don’t believe me? Try it and see.

At the end of the smoke, grill the pork chops for a few minutes on each side and serve ... with or without applesauce.

Serves 4 to 6

Hands-on time: 30 minutes

Total time: 3 hours and 35 minutes

Ingredients

2 cups apple juice

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

1/4 cup kosher salt

2 tablespoons bourbon

12 whole peppercorns

4 whole allspice berries

2 whole cloves

1 bay leaf

2 cups cold water

4 to 6 rib-cut pork chops, 1 inch thick

2 cups hickory wood chips

Instructions

In a medium saucepan, combine the apple juice, sugar, salt, bourbon, peppercorns, allspice, cloves and bay leaf. Place over medium-high heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar and salt dissolve. Remove from the heat and add the cold water. Let the brine cool to room temperature.

Place the pork chops in a glass baking dish with high sides or a leakproof zipper-lock bag. Pour the brine over the pork chops and refrigerate for 2 hours. Remove from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Cover and refrigerate.

One hour before you’re ready to smoke the pork chops, place the wood chips in a bowl and cover with water. Soak for 1 hour and then drain.

Cut a large sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil in half and divide the wood chips between the two pieces. Fold the aluminum foil over on itself and seal the chips up into pouches. Use a sharp knife to poke holes all over the aluminum foil.

Thirty minutes before cooking, remove the pork chops from the refrigerator and let them come to room temperature.

Set up the grill for indirect cooking: Turn on the burners on one side of the grill and leave the burners on the other side off. If you have a three-element grill, heat two sides and leave one off. Let the grill heat to 450 degrees.

Place the wood chip pouches directly on the flavor bars of a gas grill or directly on the embers if using a charcoal grill. Close the lid and heat until a steady white smoke emanates from the grill.

Reduce the heat to 350 degrees.

When the grill is emitting a steady white smoke, place the pork chops on the cool side of the grill and close the lid. Smoke the pork chops for 15-18 minutes. Do not lift the lid while smoking.

Transfer the pork on the hot side of the grill and cook until the center registers 145 degrees, 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer to a cutting board, tent with foil and let rest for 3 -5 minutes before serving.