Decatur BBQ legend Chris Lilly shares the two key things you should be looking for when you buy pork.
So here’s the thing about buying pork in the U.S.: It’s not quality-ranked like beef is. Whereas American beef sports clear rankings of USDA Prime, Choice, or Select—Prime being the best, comprising just 1.5% of all U.S. certified beef—American pork doesn’t.
“You don’t go to the grocery store and have Prime Pork, Choice Pork, or Select Pork,” Chris Lilly says. To anyone familiar with the barbecue world, his name needs little introduction, but we’ll tell you about it anyway. He’s the partner and pitmaster at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, a Decatur, Alabama institution that his wife’s great-grandfather founded in 1925. It’s one of the most revered barbecue restaurants in this country, and over the past 21 years, Lilly has made that designation official at America’s most prestigious barbecue competition: The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
He only enters one item every single time: the pork shoulder. He’s won eleven times in his category, snagging the $10,000 first place prize, and five times, he’s won the entire competition over all categories, taking home the whopping average $26,000 prize.
Suffice it to say that he knows a thing or two about pork. But back to the grading system, which he’s helping us understand.
When you see a package of “Smithfield Prime” pork, Smithfield is the brand, and “Prime” refers to the marketed name of the product—it is not a grading classification.
So how do you know what to buy? You have to know what to look for.
There are two things to remember when choosing pork: marbling and color.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to work with the National Pork Board for years,” Lilly says. “There’s a color and marbling scale that they helped develop, so what I’m telling you is absolutely spot on, it’s scientific, it’s not just me telling you, ‘Hey, I’ve had better luck with [this] than [that]. It’s not a secret by any means, but it’s not out there. People don’t know about it.”
When it comes to marbling, the more the better.
Just like when choosing beef, the more fat marbling, the better. This is one of the main reasons that Japanese wagyu, for example, is so prized—its marbling is so high it’s off the charts, literally. (The USDA’s marbling grading system doesn’t even reach high enough to rate Japanese and American wagyu.)
Same with pork.
“The more marbling it has, the more flavor, the more juices it’s gonna have as well.”
When it comes to color, the redder the better.
“When I pick out pork, whether it’s in the grocery store, whether it be in the back of the restaurant, or when I’m picking up for a competition, I’m looking at the color. I want a reddish pink as opposed to a pinkish red,” he says.
What’s the difference? Well, just keep in mind that redder is better.
“With reddish pink, you get more moisture retention from the cook or after the cook,” Lilly says. “Pink is gonna have a smaller [time] window, it’s going to dry out a lot quicker. You don’t want a pale pink pork.”
What breeds and brands should you choose?
While you’ll see Comparte Duroc mentioned on stage a lot at Memphis in May—Comparte is the brand, Duroc is the name of the heritage breed pigs—Lilly swears by Smithfield’s Duroc pigs. (Although he concedes that “Comparte Duroc is a very good product,” and he can’t say anything bad about it.) To be clear, both companies are raising the same heritage breed of pig, of which there are several in the United States.
To compare them all and rank “the best” is a bit like comparing apples and oranges, perhaps, but if we’re talking the best pork for barbecue—and pork shoulder specifically—well, Smithfield Duroc is what has gotten Lilly onstage at Memphis in May the past two years. Specifically: Last year he won the Grand Championship, meaning that that out of about 250 total entries spanning whole hog and ribs categories, his pork shoulder was voted the single best specimen of barbecue of them all. It earned him the $26,000 overall purse last year; this year, his first place pork shoulder finish earned him a cool 10 grand.
If you want the exact product that Lilly used, look for “Smithfield Prime,” which is the company’s retail line of Duroc products. (We can’t mention Smithfield, however, without also mentioning the ongoing allegations of environmental neglect in largely African-American communities in North Carolina, where the company is headquartered. Listen to an excellent audio report by the Southern Foodways Alliance here, and decide for yourself.)
If you decide not to go with Smithfield, there are the aforementioned Comparte Duroc pigs, whose fans include Reggie and Amy Manning. They clinched an impressive third place this year at Memphis in May’s pork shoulder competition. While Lilly likes Duroc pigs for pork shoulder, he also prefers other breeds for other cuts: Specifically, Berkshire pigs for their loins, Tamworth pigs for the belly, Red Wattle for the ham, and Mangalitsa pork for the jowl cut.
There’s so much more to barbecue than your choice protein, however. According to barbecue legend and Kansas City Barbecue Society co-founder Carolyn Wells, barbecue comes down to about five things: Your cooking tool, heat source, protein, seasonings (rub, brine, and sauce), and, “most elusively of all,” the skills of the chef. We’ve only touched on one of those components here, but we hope it’ll inform your summer grilling adventures. For more pork inspiration and recipes, go here.