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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

BBQ Pitmasters Episode 1 - After Action Report

SPOILER ALERT - If you haven't yet watched the episode, don't read the "Judging" section at the end.

I love BBQ Pitmasters! I was hooked in the first season and was thrilled when I heard that they were coming back for a third season. This past Sunday, the season premier episode came on the new Destination America channel. What more fitting channel for a BBQ show that features world class BBQ cooks? BBQ is, in the words of Robert F. Moss, an American Institution, after all.

The first episode of the season pitted (no pun intended, ha ha) three BBQ cooks against each other in "round 2." The first round was a sneak peak episode. Melissa Cookston (3 time Memphis in May world champion), Moe Cason, and Donny Bray went head to head in a no holds barred BBQ throwdown in episode one in Memphis, Tennessee. They each had to cook the best barbecued pork butt and baby back ribs of their lives in order to win.

The judges were Tuffy Stone, Myron Mixon, and Aaron Franklin. I've met all three of those guys and have even cooked against Tuffy. And, I can tell you, these guys know barbecue. If you present your barbecue to those three for evaluation, expect to be schooled. The judges judged the competitors' entries on taste, tenderness, and appearance. And, they let their thoughts be known without any hesitation. Tuffy pointed out that pork butts and ribs are the first things that a barbecue cook learns to cook.  Aaron pointed out that baby backs are very lean and are hard to cook without drying them out. Myron said that if he doesn't get his socks blown off by the ribs, somebody is going to be watching the finale from their living room chair.

The competitors had 10 hours to cook the barbecue. Melissa Cookston cooked on a vertical, indirect water cooker and a dry cooker for setting bark and used peach and apple wood for smoke. Moe Cason cooked on a stainless steel water cooker and used pecan for smoke. Donny Bray cooked on an offset stick burner and used only hickory for smoke.

Moe Cason focused on the fat marbling in the meat. He likes to see nice strips of fat flowing through the meat. Melissa Cookston wasn't happy with only pork butts. She would have preferred to have whole shoulders.

All of the competitors injected their pork butts except Melissa Cookston. Donnie Bray used an injection that included pork broth, water and salt. He injected to maintain moisture in the meat. Donnie pointed out that if he could cook the money muscle well, he would win. Tuffy interjected that the difficult part of cooking a pork butt is being able to place it in the smoker so the backside becomes tender without over cooking the money muscle. Myron retorted in jest that he would like to put Tuffy's butt on a pit. Tuffy replied that he would like to put Myron's butt on a pit but he hasn't found a pit big enough for that. Good one, Tuffy! Moe Cason injected his pork butt with a mixture of cola, jerk seasoning, and ham base. He lets the pork butt sit for about an hour after injecting before he puts it in the pit.

Moe Cason talked about how he seasons pork. He said it's all about being able to taste the meat. He uses a two stage rub; first one is more of salt, pepper, and paprika, the second one is more for savory flavors like coriander, garlic powder, etc. He likes to use cola and jerk seasoning in his injection. Donnie Bray used a commercial rub that he adds a few things to it. He likes to stay traditional in the flavor arena and just focuses on "good barbecue."

Melissa Cookston removed the money muscle from the pork butt. She wanted to get bark all around the money muscle. It's interesting that I just posted a similar technique on my blog about a week earlier. Great minds, you know. Melissa trimmed off the fat from the butt and rubbed it with a dry rub, put mustard over it and then put turbinado sugar over all that.

Melissa Cookston put her pork butts on the smoker at 275 degrees F and cooked them for about 6 to 7 hours. Donnie Bray put his pork butts in the smoker at about 290 degrees F for four hours then wrapped them in foil and cooked them until they reached 195 degrees F internal temperature.

Moe Cason removed the membrane from his baby rack ribs. He said the membrane prevents seasonings and smoke from penetrating the meat. Donnie pointed out that cooking baby backs is different than cooking spare ribs because they don't take as long to cook and, therefore, proper timing is an issue for him.

Melissa Cookston's rub has a little heat, a little salt, and a little acidic flavor. It's a full flavored seasoning. Moe Cason always puts Worcestershire sauce on his ribs. His rub has a little lemon powder, paprika, cayenne powder, and jalapeno powder in it. Donnie Bray's rub has a sweet and salty, and heat flavor profile that enhances the natural flavor of pork.

Melissa Cookston cooked her baby back ribs at 275 degrees F for four hours. Donnie Bray cooked his ribs for 2 hours at 190 degrees F and then wrapped them in foil and cooked them for another 30 to 45 minutes. He was looking for a mahogany color on the ribs before foiling. Moe Cason wraps his ribs in foil after about 2 or 3 hours. He puts butter on top and pours a little cola in the bottom of the foil. Donnie Bray Spritzed his ribs with butter and apple juice. When the color was good, about 2 hours, he added some honey and squeeze Parkay and wrapped them in foil and let them cook for about another 45 minutes. Melissa Cookston put some honey, brown sugar, and rub on the ribs before wrapping in foil.

The judges commented on the smokers the competitors were using. They noticed that Melissa was using a pit with a computerized temperature controller. Aaron Franklin commented that there is something "a little creepy about computers and barbecue together. If you know how to work a fire, you don't need one."

The last hour of cooking is "crunch time" according to Melissa Cookston. She glazed her ribs looking for a nice mahogany color. All competitors were busy setting glaze on their ribs at this point. Moe Cason pointed out that you have to "wow" the judges with one bite barbecue but you can't use too much sauce.

Melissa Cookson pointed out how important it is to not depend on thermometers and depend more on how your fingers and how the meat feels to determine tenderness. Donnie Bray pointed out that the first thing the judges will do is touch the meat so he likes to touch it to make sure it feels tender. Most of the competitors included a mixture of pulled, sliced, and chopped pork in the boxes turned in to the judges.

Moe Cason said he was going through the pork butts to find "that feel." His game plan was to give the judges "sliced, pulled, and chopped" pork butt. He likes to use a little of the pork fat that rendered out of the pork when cooking to season it. Melissa Cookston likes to slice the money muscle and mold the pulled pork so that it looks almost like it's in almost one piece. Then, she added her sliced meat with a few pieces of bark just for accent. Donnie Bray put a variety of pulled pork and money muscle in the box. Donnie decided that he would not put sauce on his pork entry.

Donnie Bray glazed his baby back ribs. He was very pleased with them. Moe Cason was also very confident with his baby rack ribs turn in box. Melissa Cookston cut her ribs into splits of two bone ribs. She turned in wet (sauce added) and dry ribs.

Just before turn in, Donnie Bray felt that he should have sauced the pork because his turn in had turned gray. So, he hurriedly applied sauce to his pork in the turn in box.


On the line is the title of "BBQ Pitmaster Memphis" and a shot at the winner take all $50,000.00 finale and the title of BBQ Pitmaster Grand Champion!

Aaron Franklin was looking for a delicious mahogany color on the ribs that was "kinda" sticky looking and really moist. Tuffy said he likes to see the meat come cleanly from the bone where he bites. And he also wants some smoke but he doesn't want the smoke to override the natural flavor of the pork.

Donnie Bray won appearance for ribs. But, Myron said that Moe Cason's ribs were a "home run!" The judges really liked Melissa Cookston's pork and were a bit perplexed over Donnie Bray's because his pork was gray and dry looking. He didn't do a good job of saucing his pork. Myron called it "half a**ed BBQ." Melissa Cookston's pork box was beautiful. All the judges loved how it looked. The judges loved Moe Cason's pork entry too.

Donnie Bray came in 3rd place. Between Moe Cason and Melissa Cookston, Melissa Cookston came in first place! Only 6 tenths of a point separated 1st and 2nd place.

To be honest, I was rooting for Moe Cason of Ponderosa BBQ. But, in the end, Melissa COOKston showed why she is a three time world champion. Congrats, Melissa! I'm looking forward to seeing you in the finale!

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