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Monday, May 28, 2018

Competition Barbecue Secrets Revealed

Photo courtesy of The Free Lance Star.
The number of barbecue competitions across the U.S. has exploded over the past few years. The Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) alone sanctions about 500 competitions. Add to that the Memphis Barbecue Network (MBN) sanctioned events along with local sanctioning board events and non-sanctioned events that are held each year and it’s easy to see that barbecue contests have become a cultural phenomenon in the U.S. The competition barbecue craze is a two-edged sword. With the good comes the bad. Here are some things that you should know about competition barbecue.

The proliferation of barbecue contests has reawakened American’s love for their oldest and most unique cuisine which is southern barbecue. In addition, barbecue contests are also a lot of fun. It’s great to get outside, fire up the barbecue pit, cook some tasty food while spending time with old friends and making new friends in the process. Even though cooking an entire KCBS or MBN contest is a tremendous amount of work, it’s also a lot of fun; especially when you hear your team’s name called at awards time.

 On the flip-side, entering and competing in a KCBS barbecue competition is an expensive and time-consuming venture. Just about any wood or charcoal powered barbecue pit can be used in the contests. However, if you are going to cook multiple contests each year you will face a variety of weather conditions that are not ideal for cooking barbecue. High winds, drenching rains, cold and extreme heat can be expected. To deal with the unpredictable conditions, you should invest in a professional-quality pit. Professional pits are expensive but you get what you pay for. Professional pits are usually insulted which helps to reduce the negative effects of unpredictable weather. Generally, they are also much heavier than your typical backyard-style pit. I’ve seen consumer-grade pits blow away in the wind meat, fire and all. That doesn’t happen to a 350 pound or heavier professional-grade pit.

You also have the cost of the food. Many competition cooks use grades of meat that are far too
expensive for the typical restaurant to serve. Compart Duroc pork runs about $200.00 plus $50.00 shipping for the minimum amount needed for a competition. Wagyu brisket runs about $200.00 to $250.00 per brisket after the cost of the meat and shipping costs. Add to that the cost of wood, charcoal, rubs, sauces, pans, utensils, fire extinguishers (which are required by sanctioning bodies), shelter (tents, trailers, RVs, hotel, etc.), gasoline for vehicles, entry fees for contests, thermometers (Thermapens run $60 to $105), time off from work and the other miscellaneous costs, it can run upwards of $2000.00 to compete in a single event. Then you have the time preparing for the contest while making injections, practicing techniques, etc. That makes competition barbecue an expensive hobby for some and profession for others.

Popup Tents Destroyed by Wind at a BBQ Competition in Virginia
A result of competition barbecue is the notion that competition barbecue is the best tasting and most delicious barbecue that you can serve. That is simply not true. Now, don’t get me wrong. Some competition barbecue is very tasty. However, some of it is average or worse. While judging, I have tasted competition barbecue that was almost perfect. It was tender, juicy, flavorful and everything one would expect from good competition barbecue. But, I have also tasted competition barbecue that is just, plain bad. I have seen ribs that were obviously dropped before being put in the box. The pine needle and leaf fragments on the bottom betrayed that fact. I have seen ribs with blood running out of them; chicken that was still cool in the center, brisket that was so tough it was literally impossible to take a bite and on one or two occasions I’ve judge pork that I had to spit out. Everyone has a bad day at the office every once in a while, and competition barbecue cooks are no exception.

You should also know that competition barbecue ingredients and techniques used to produce it often are far outside the realm of the American tradition of cooking southern barbecue. One of those ingredients is something called “phosphates.” Phosphates increase the moisture holding capacity of meat in a way that allows water to move in between protein molecules and stay there during the cooking process. Phosphates are used by the majority of competition cooks. The ingredient is necessary simply because so many other cooks use them. If a cook doesn’t use them, they are often at a disadvantage to the cooks that do use them. Regardless of any benefits phosphates may provide, there is growing concern over their safety.  Some experts believe that over consumption of phosphates may lead to osteoporosis, damaged blood vessels and impaired kidney function. I’m not an expert on the subject, so do your own research on it.

Phosphates are usually introduced with the use of injections. Injections are not used in traditional
southern barbecue. Neither are computer-controlled barbecue pits. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to see a professional “pitmaster” at a contest plug in his barbecue pit, add some pellets to the hopper, press a few buttons to set the temperature, put meat in the pit and then walk away. So much for the art of tending a fire, I guess. Compare that to the pitmaster at your local barbecue restaurant who gets up well before the sun, starts a fire, tends it all night and much of the day. That is the southern barbecue tradition.

Competition barbecue is often braised as much as it is barbecued. Braising is a cooking method whereby meat is cooked in a covered container while simmering in a small amount of liquid. Most competition barbecue cooks place ribs in the pit for about two hours until the ribs acquire the color they are looking for. After that, they wrap the ribs in foil that contains a little butter or margarine, honey, brown sugar and other ingredients. The butter or margarine and honey make a braising liquid. The ribs are then braised for about another two hours until they are tender.

The same is true of chicken, pork and brisket. Competition chicken is usually braised in butter or margarine. Pork is braised in apple juice or marinade. Brisket is braised in beef broth (often containing phosphates) or a mixture containing things like beer, Worcestershire sauce, beef broth and barbecue sauce. The original way of cooking southern barbecue does not include braising. In fact, braising is a crutch. Ask any chef worth her salt and she will tell you that the easiest way to preserve moisture in a cut of meat while tenderizing it is to braise it. But, braising is not barbecuing.

Another thing about competition barbecue that you may find surprising includes the fact that many competition barbecue cooks don’t cook entire pork butts or briskets to perfection. There are only a few muscles in a pork butt that are truly competition worthy. Most people have heard of the “money muscle” on a pork butt and competition barbecue cooks' love of it. It’s actually part of the pig’s neck muscle. It is delicious and flavorful when well cooked. Then you have what is called “the tubes.” These are two or three muscles just behind the money muscle. They are surrounded by layers of fat that protect them while they cook. They too are tender and juicy. The third most popular part of the pork butt is called the “horn” meat. This is the muscle on the bone end of the butt. Lastly, we have the “butt bacon.” Butt bacon is the thin, long strands of meat on the bottom of the butt. They are surrounded by fat which needs to be gently scrapped way before the meat is served to barbecue judges.

Because most meat on the pork butt will not be turned in to the judges, many competition cooks only cook pork butts until the money muscle is tender. Because the money muscle cooks quicker than the leaner parts of the pork butt, those leaner parts are often still tough by the time the pork butts are removed from the pit. Basically, competition cooks ignore the parts of the butt they won’t be turning in and concentrate only on the few parts they will turn in. That’s certainly not something your local restaurateur can get away with doing. Restaurant owners have to cook the entire pork butt because they have to sell all of it. It is also not uncommon for part of a competition brisket to be perfectly tender while other parts remain tough. All the competition barbecue cook needs to cook to perfection is the portion from which comes six slices for the judges.

Competition barbecue requires copious amounts of sugar. North Carolina’s vinegar sauce loaded with salt and red pepper would fail miserably at a barbecue contest; so would Virginia’s tangy sauces. Competition barbecue judges love sugar on barbecue. Brown sugar, turbinado sugar, agave nectar, honey and corn syrup are generously doused on competition barbecue. In fact, many barbecue judges agree that proper competition barbecue is simply too rich to enjoy for an entire meal. One or two bites is enough.

The next three things you must know about competition barbecue concerns the sauces, rubs and the judges. Few competition barbecue cooks create their own sauces and rubs. Check out the major barbecue supply businesses. They sell a plethora of commercial sauces and rubs. People like Myron Mixon, Chris Lilly, Melissa Cookston, Bill Arnold and Heath Riles have created rubs and sauces that are used by competition barbecue cooks. I’ve seen people turn in commercial sauces that they didn’t make at barbecue sauce competitions and win with them. I’ll let you be judge on whether that is something to brag about or not.

Lastly, you may be surprised to know that competition barbecue isn’t always judged according to the
rules. From personal experience, I have seen KCBS judges deviate from the published rules of judging. KCBS rules call for judging barbecue based upon appearance, taste and tenderness. The scale is 2 to 9. 1 is given only if an entry is disqualified (called a DQ). When a judge gives an entry a 2, it means the entry is inedible. Fortunately, in my experience at least, it is extremely rare for any entry to get a 2. Most judges understand very well what a score of 2 – 6 means which is inedible to bad to poor to below average to average. A score of 7 is above average, a score of 8 is very good and a score of 9 is excellent.

All that being said, KCBS rules require the judge to judge the appearance of the meat that is in the turn-in box in terms of how appetizing the barbecue looks. However, some judges score based upon how the turn-in box itself looks. They look for how symmetric the meat looks, is the garnish neatly placed in the box?, are any of the slices of the meat slightly out of place?, etc. They look at the box like it’s a work of art rather than looking at the barbecue that’s in the box. Honestly, the Sistine Chapel is beautiful to look at but I’ve never wanted to eat it. The same is true of an artistic barbecue turn-in box. The meat can be perfectly arranged and the garnish placed in the box impeccably but if the meat doesn’t look appetizing, I have to score accordingly. Conversely, if the meat isn't arranged well or the garnish is poorly placed but the meat looks delicious, the judge must score based upon the appearance of the meat and ignore the garnish or sloppy arrangement of the box's contents and give a high score for the meat. The only consideration a KCBS judge needs to give the garnish is whether or not it's legal. KCBS judges judge barbecue not boxes or garnish, which is optional in KCBS contests. Therefore, it is a non-factor unless it is illegal to use such as is the case with red-tip lettuce.

Most KCBS judges that I know do a great job. However, every once in a while, there is one discovered that needs some additional training. On rare occasions I have witnessed judges trying to judge meat that isn’t in the box. For example, if a brisket entry doesn’t include burnt ends a judge might take a point away because of their absence. Or, a judge might take a point away because there is no white meat with the chicken entry. I think such notions might have come from the TV show “BBQ Pitmasters.” Often the famous, celebrity judges on that show will make a comment like, “I want to see white and dark meat in that box!” Or, “If the pitmaster doesn’t put burnt ends in the box, he must not know what he is doing.” And, even cooks on that show have said things like, “I’m gonna put chopped, sliced and pulled meat in my box to show the judges what I can do!” All of that may be well and good for a TV show, but that kind of criteria for judging is not in keeping with KCBS rules. To the KCBS’s credit, I have also witnessed cases where the KCBS representative has removed a judge from judging because of inappropriate comments about how they judge barbecue. The KCBS continue to take steps to prevent that poor and improper judging practices among certified KCBS judges and that's proof that they take the art and craft of competition barbecue very seriously, as they should.

Lastly, the most important rule of competition barbecue is to have fun. That's a rule that's easy for everyone to observe.

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