Everything I know about grilling I learned from my dad, except for one thing: patience

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

I grew up without a clear division of labor in the kitchen. My mother cooked begrudgingly, though I loved her Great Northern beans and spaghetti sauce. My father and I, however, relished making food. 

"He enjoyed cooking then because work was work," my mother said of my now-retired dad, who was then the VP of merchandising for a large grocery store chain headquartered in Baltimore. "He grilled out, but also at one point, he got into making pasta. He had a drying rack and all kinds of stuff — it was his break from regular work."

On weekends, my dad was often stationed by the grill in our tiny backyard in downtown Annapolis, and I was right beside him picking up some tricks and dispensing some of my own. He enjoyed just being outside and talking, a beer in his hand, he told me over the phone.

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Grilled pork chops.

But my mom remembers our communication as somewhat combative. Perhaps a bit bossy. "Your mom says you and I used to argue while looking over each other's shoulders," he said, my mom in the background, clearly making sure he got his story straight. 

"She said you were always pointing at me telling me to 'Leave it alone. Stop touching it and walk away," he said.

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I fancied myself such a good cook that I marched down the street to a cafe and essentially demanded a job. I was 14. I did not, my mother reminded me, even have a work permit, but I got the job anyway. 

"Now you're probably going to get everyone arrested," she said.

I was tired of high school life, and left behind the lacrosse field for the dish pit and hot plate in the cafe's tiny galley kitchen.

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"I remember very specifically you decided you did not want to spend your days 'chasing a ball up and down the field,'" my mother said.

When the work was over, I'd join my father in the backyard and we'd laugh and bicker. 

Even now, almost 30 years later, we continue to have the same arguments, because I was right about at least one thing. One of the most important rules in cooking is knowing when to stop poking at things. Turning meat too early can cause it to tear and lose its precious juices.

"I am a flipper," my dad admitted. 

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In the "12 Bones Smokehouse Cookbook," which I helped the Asheville barbecue destination's owners write in 2014, I called "Thou shalt be patient" one of the Ten Commandments of Grilling.

"Will that piece of meat you just put on the grill not flip this very second?" I wrote. "Stop touching it. Back away. Have a beer. It will move when it's ready. Seriously, stop."

I must have been an intolerable teenager, but I wasn't wrong — at least some of the time.

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

Bourbon brined smoked pork chops

For the juiciest, most flavorful pork chops, you can’t beat a 2-hour brine and 20-minute smoke.

The key to perfecting this recipe is working up a steady smoke, then adding the chops, closing the lid tightly and leaving it alone. Don’t touch. Don’t peek. The chops cook on indirect heat, so there’s no worry of burning or overcooking. 

At the end of the smoke, grill the chops for a few minutes on each side. 

The brine this recipe calls for shouldn't be skipped. It permeates the flesh, plumps the meat’s cells and adds a whole bunch of flavor.

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 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 and seal the chips 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 to the hot side of the grill and cook until the center registers 145 degrees, 2-3 minutes per side. Transfer to a cutting board and let rest for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com