Ten years ago this month, I entered my first barbecue competition with a friend. We both made great BBQ so why not, right?
Our first competition was in Carmel, Indiana, and we’d never been to a competition. My wife talked us into just jumping in to learn fast. We entered a contest sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS), the largest barbeque sanctioning body in the world. That meant we had to turn in chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder and beef brisket. We learned a lot,but we learned it the hard way.
After a couple more competitions, though, we took another step forward by becoming certified KCBS judges. We went through a class that taught the rules, how to notice things that aren’t allowed and the expectation of “good” barbecue.
So, with no further ado, here are my top five tips for competition, from both a BBQ judge and a competitor.
Tip #1: Understand what judges are trying to find.
The judges will have one bite, maybe two, of your entry. That’s your chance to “wow” them with a bite full of flavor. This is not the same thing as cooking for friends and family at home. If a judge eats everything put in front of them during a competition, they’ll eat at least two pounds of meat. They’re not going to eat that much, most likely, so you have to get your point across right away. Do it with layers of flavor – with the right amount of smoke, rub and sauce.
Tip #2: Get past your personal preferences in favor.
There’s a pretty small band of flavors that judges tend to score high. It can change a bit, but it’s primarily the same across the board. Think of three basic elements to play with and try to get in the sweet spot of each of them. The three elements are heat, smokiness and sweetness. There are lots of flavors to play with within that, but the basic elements will be the same (paprika, salt, sugar, black pepper, cayenne or some chile, onion, garlic and extras).
For heat, you don’t want to burn out the taste buds of a judge. If you turn in something too hot, judges will likely not be happy that they can’t taste other entries and you’ll be scored down because of it. Not enough heat, though, and it will be too bland. If you want to brag about the amount of spice you have in your BBQ, tone it down for the judges.
Next is smokiness. You’ll hear that a smoke ring doesn’t matter and it technically doesn’t. Judges are instructed not to consider it in their score. But it looks pretty and who knows what’s in a judge’s mind? The amount of smoke, though, is purely flavor. With low and slow cooking, heavy smoke can overpower things depending on the wood you use. Unlike heat, though, having no smoke is worse than having a bit of heavy smoke. Somewhere closer to heavy is best. Test it with friends and family, but any form of a creosote flavor is too much.
The last element to discuss is sweetness. This is one that will really get new cooks because they don’t like BBQ that’s too sweet. Remember the one-bite rule above? Sweet does well in competition. Also, find out how experienced the judges are – the less experienced, the more sweet does well.
Along with the three elements of flavor, doneness has to be spot on (added bonus tip here). Chicken skin should bite through. It isn’t expected to be crisp, but it better not be chewy. Judges are told to ignore chewy skin, but it’s really, really tough to do so. Ribs should bite off the bone, not fall off the bone. If you take away more than the bite, they’re too done. If they don’t bite clean, they’re not done enough. Pork shoulder has to be tender but not mushy. And brisket, the toughest of all, has to be tender but not fall apart. What you want is a slice (a pencil-thickness in width) that resists pulling slightly when you hold it in two hands and then pulls clean. If it’s rubbery or crumbles, texture scores will go down.
Tip #3: Remember that competition is a game!
You’re not going to agree with everything a judge thinks about your food. The competition is blind judging, which means the judges don’t know which team’s food is set before them. They make very subjective calls on flavor, texture and appearance. Awards are given out accordingly.
BBQ competitions are purely games, but the same teams do well over time. That means, to me, that good cooks do well. Or at least cooks who learn how the game works, what flavors to use and how to present that to judges in one bite.
Tip #4: Get past your own prejudices in cooking. If you think sauce is covering up flavor or using foil is for cooks who don’t know how to cook, get past that right away. Judges like sauce… so use sauce! I’ve not heard a judge say, “I wish this didn’t have sauce on it.” I have heard judges say, “This would have been much better with sauce.”
Foil works to cook things faster and hold color. Meats also tenderize a bit by kind of braising in the foil. For ribs, they allow that extra push of sweet to be added during the cook. Cooks aren’t inferior just because they make good use of foil.
Chicken thighs are easier to cook and keep moist than other cuts so the vast majority of chicken entries are thighs.
And tip #5: Have fun.
You might do great right off the bat or you might struggle for a bit. The biggest mistake you can make is to not get to know the other teams and people. BBQ people are the greatest single group of people I know. Not only will they share their methods with you, even recipes, but they’ll pitch in when you need a hand. When you find yourself in need, they’ll come to fill that need. I know of people across the country who have helped deliver smokers, each person driving 100 or so miles to drop off to the next person. I know of cooks who showed up at my church from nine states and Canada to cook for people they didn’t even know. And I know of a group that automatically goes to disaster areas to cook for those in need. Get to know these people; you won’t regret it.
Bonus tip: You have no secrets!
I’ve heard too many new cooks who don’t want to give away their “secret”. Get over it. Someone else has likely already done your secret. Even if someone else knows your secret, they still have to out-cook you. You don’t have to reveal recipes but just don’t act like you have found the next leap forward in barbeque Give the cooks around you more credit. They’ve put in more hours than you have. Show them respect and you’ll get it back.
If you’re thinking about competing, do it. And have fun. If you don’t, stop.