If you love to grill, chances are you’ve been enjoying beef steaks, chicken, hot dogs and hamburgers all summer long.
You may even have enjoyed some fish on your grill.
When it comes to pork, however, it’s quite possible that, depending on how you cook your spare ribs, you’ve never really grilled pork. This is because the type of spare ribs that most people enjoy (the slow-cooked, fall-off-the-bone kind) are actually being barbecued and not grilled (by definition).
What’s the difference?
The term “grilling” refers to foods that are cooked quickly and directly over high heat. This extreme heat sears the surface of the meat, sealing in the natural juices and creating a flavorful crust. A crust is a key difference. In general, the foods best suited to grilling are those that are tender and cook relatively quickly since the heat required for grilling is so intense. In general, temperatures above 300°F are typically used for grilling, though grilling temperatures can often reach 500°F or more.
“Barbecuing” refers to a slow-cooking process using indirect, low heat generated by smoldering logs or wood chips that, in turn, smoke-cook the food. Because foods tenderize when cooked slowly over low temperatures (particularly when basted), some of the meats best suited for barbecuing are in fact the less-expensive, less-tender meats like ribs and briskets. The final barbecued products are tender, soft, and generally lack a crisp, charred crust. The best temperatures for barbecuing are between 200°F and 300°F. If the temperature rises above 300°F, it is then considered grilling.
But let’s talk about how to grill pork because there are some important differences between how you grill pork and how you grill beef.
The most important difference is that pork is not marbled with fat throughout the flesh like most beef steaks are. As a result, pork can become dry and tough if not properly grilled.
The very same thing can happen to fish.
Now, although you can grill any cut of pork, you want to choose the tenderest ones. And they would be Pork Tenderloin and Loin Chops. Leaving the bone in your chops is not a bad idea, either. Bones can help protect the meat around it from becoming dry and tough.
You’ll also want to choose the right thickness of your meat.
Tenderloins are already the perfect thickness and full of moisture. You’re all set there. However, we would suggest that you carefully slice off the silvery skin located at the thick end of the tenderloin. It is too tough to chew and is not fat, so it will not melt away.
Chops, on the other hand, need to be thick enough to retain their moisture while exposed to the high temperatures of the grill as they are cooked to your preferred doneness. Too thin and they can become dry and tough. Too thick and the outside part of the meat can also become overcooked and dry before the center of the meat is cooked the way you like it.
Ideally, for chops cooked on the grill, an average thickness of 1 inch is about right. If you like your chops more on the medium-doneness side, you can go as thick as 1 ½”, or for more well-done chops, as little as ¾”.
You may have heard that brining (the slightly sweet and salty water solution) is a good way to pre-prepare pork to be grilled and/or roasted. And that is generally true. Brining hydrates the pork with moisture and flavor and gives your meat all the chances of retaining much of that while it cooks. Having said that, unless your chops are on the thicker side (1 ¼” or more), you may introduce more flavor to the meat than you care for. A little trial and error with a brine you like and the length of time you immerse it in that brine may achieve the results you want. Just be cautious of trying it for the very first time with a large crowd waiting to eat.
A rub is another way to add flavor and seal in moisture.
Rubs are applied (topically) before grilling, and although they don’t hydrate the meat, they help retain what is already there. Every rub differs in the amounts to be applied, so read the directions carefully.
For more information about Marinates, Brines and Rubs, click HERE.
So you’ve selected your cut of pork and brined it, rubbed it or left it unseasoned (which is fine). The next important thing to do is select the correct temperature for your grill, and that would be 325 F to 350 F. The reason that is a good temperature is it will allow the meat to brown nicely in the same length of time it will take to cook to a medium-well doneness. You can add 25 F to 50 F more heat if you like your pork more on the medium side.
If you’re a little apprehensive about cooking your pork anything less than well done, you may be interested to know that the USDA recently changed its recommendation for the safe cooking of pork. It’s something you may want to read before that first chop hits the grill. It’s good news!
An important reminder: Before the meat hits the metal, clean your grill well. You may also want to give both your grill surface and meat a light spray of nonstick vegetable oil to prevent the meat from sticking to the grill. A word of caution, however: spraying oil on a hot grill can create momentary flare-ups. Be careful.
The moment of truth has arrived. As you grill, keep these important points in mind:
Be sure you have all your utensils, platters and condiments in place before you begin grilling, so you can give the grill your FULL attention.
Avoid skewering the meats with a fork as you grill. Puncturing the meat lets precious juices escape and makes the meat dry and tough.
Avoid pressing the meats down onto the grill grates as you grill. That will also squeeze the moisture out of the meats and make them dry and tough.
Best grilling practice is to turn the meats over only once. Excessive turning and handling creates the same issues as #2 and #3.
If you are unsure of the doneness of your pork, use an insta-read thermometer (which quickly gauges the temperature) and do so nearest the time you believe it may be done to avoid excessive juice loss. Insert it into the thickest part of the meat and away from any bone to obtain the most-accurate reading. The temperature readings for pork doneness are as follows:
160 and ↑ Well Done
Lastly, once your pork is grilled, allow it to rest on a warm platter for a few minutes before serving. This resting time will allow the meat to redistribute the juices evenly throughout each portion and give you a moister and more enjoyable experience.