A BBQ competition?! If it isn’t something that’s come up on your radar, you’d be forgiven for assuming that it must be a bit of a laugh, a Sunday football type of Masterchef.
Although in the average build up to a comp, there is certainly a health dose of beer, revelry and silliness, don’t be fooled. No matter how chilled you are and how much of a great community you may be competing within (which it really, really is), if you are waking up in the non-existent twilight hours to check the temperature of your smoker and your meat, meat that you are cooking low and slow for up to 20hours, you’ve gotta bet that there’s a serious competition to be won.
So what’s involved in a Bbq competition?
Many bbq contests now also include extra elements such as seafood or the particularly popular ‘chefs choice’ but for now, we’ll focus on the core 4.
Competition bbq is pretty much what it says on the tin, in that within the categories, generally the only rule is that you must turn in that meat. Chicken is a funny one in that, at least in the comps I have been to or judged, despite a very open remit, the cut and style is usually exactly the same.
Teams will tend to turn in a chicken thigh cooked at low temps to give a super moist tender texture. Don’t be expecting crispy skin here though, teams aim for a bite through skin so that the ‘one bite’ taken when judging is as easy and texture perfect as possible. A long stretch from the rustic style jerk chicken your mother probably didn’t make (bit definitely should’ve).
Teams will be given a cut of pork known as the butt. Confusingly, this is actually from the shoulder of a pig.
After applying a concoction of secret rubs, this will be smoked over a low heat for 18 hours plus – often being spritzed with liquid during the process (apple juices/cider/cider vinegars are usually popular choices), until incredibly tender (or that’s the hope anyway…). The pork can be turned in in chunks, slices or of course as pulled pork, or a combination of any of these.
Pulled pork may be sauced or not – some believe that adding sauce is almost a travesty as it may overpower the taste of the meat whilst others would argue that it compliments it. Either way, it can definitely be used to add a little life & moisture to an overcooked turn-in.
Many teams now will also turn in slices from the ‘money muscle’ within the pork butt. This exceptionally tender part of the cut earned it’s name after teams who started slicing and including in their turn-in boxes began winning all of the competitions – and so the prize money.
In the ribs category, teams can turn in either baby back or spare ribs, but only of the pork variety – don’t be expecting to see any of the ‘dinosaur’ beef ribs here!
From experience, most will opt for the latter of these, as spare ribs have more meat on them and, being straighter, are a little easier to present neatly in the turn-in box. These will often be trimmed before cooking to give the best appearance possible.
As with the pork, these will be coated in a variety of secret rubs before being smoked for around the 6 hour mark. Most teams will opt to then glaze with a BBQ sauce in order to build up additional flavour profile as well as improving appearance.
Competition ribs shouldn’t have the ‘fall of the bone’ quality that some would aim for at home, instead teams will aim for the perfect tenderness with some bite still left – often leaving a clear ‘bite mark’ after judges have taken their taste.
Brisket has now become somewhat legendary in and out of the BBQ community. Known as the meat that separates the true Pitmasters, Brisket is notoriously difficult to cook well.
Teams will trim and rub a brisket before smoking low’n’slow overnight for up to 20 hours.
The long cook time is down to the striations of fat and collagen marbled through the brisket – once rendered down, these give the meat incredible moistness and tenderness, but if undercooked or overcooked it will result in a tough bite.
Teams can turn in slices of brisket as well as burnt ends. If teams opt to include burnt ends, they will separate the fattier ‘point’ of the brisket before cubing and adding additional rub or sauce and smoking further.
The ‘point’ and ‘flat’ of a brisket are shown very well by Aaron Franklin in the video below… Keep an eye out for the ‘wobble’ just after the 7 minute mark, a telltale sign of a perfectly cooked brisket.
I’d definitely recommend watching the whole video, and really all of Aaron’s stuff. He’s super knowledgeable and comes over really well on camera – as well as of course running probably the most famous well known BBQ joint in the world. He also once sent Kanye West to the back of the line at his diner when he tried to skip it…just in case you needed any more convincing that he’s a great guy!
So, we’ve got all this meat right, and teams need a way in which to present it to the judges.
As the BBQ competition is judged blind, to prevent any bias in appearance by a team using a fancier plate etc, as well as to preserve some of the temperature, teams are all given identical boxes in which to turn-in their entries.
Although not required, teams will generally present the meat on a garnish of either green lettuce or parsley. The garnish should not be factored in when judging the appearance, but teams that were using curly green parsley were tending to score higher, so most teams now tend to go for this. Many go to great lengths to present as neatly as possible – including placing pieces of parsley in boxes individually with tweezers to give a perfectly even bed. If they do choose to include a garnish, this may only be of green lettuce or parsley. This is a strictly enforced rule, as any other garnish could be deemed as a ‘marker’ and would result in disqualification. A ‘marker’ is anything which could be deemed as identifying a team’s entry, such as a pooling of sauce within the box, any kind of ‘branding’ on the meat or box, use of other garnishes etc. ‘Markers’ could be spotted by a ‘mole’ within the judges who favours a particular team, which would be biased and affect the blind nature of the judging.