Let’s Talk BBQ. Part 3: Inside a BBQ contest

This past weekend we cooked our first official contest of the 2016 calendar: the Fourth Annual Atoka BBQ Fest in Atoka, TN.

It is a sanctioned Memphis Barbecue Network contest meaning it counts towards points for Team of the Year for the MBN.  (Think a NASCAR like points system but much tastier)  It is also our first contest under a new format and a new set of rules.  For the sake of not making this too “Inside Baseball” I won’t go into the differences in this post.  I really just thought it might be nice to get a bit of an insiders view into what it takes to cook in a profession BBQ contest.

Our team has twelve members with all the equipment needed to cook the three categories for the MBN, ribs, shoulders and whole hog.  That equipment includes a large cooking rig with hog and shoulder cookers and a large supply trailer to hold all the stuff that goes into a busy contest.  This weekend just two of us were available to cook so we went what we call “guerrilla style”.  Taking the minimum to what it takes for a contest and the categories we chose to do that weekend.  Most times that means just a couple of people cooking ribs and all you need is a couple of truck beds or a small flat bed trailer to bring what you need. So no big rig, no supply trailer.  It requires a bit more planning than usual and the kindness of others when you inevitably forget something, but it’s something I’ve done for several years as most of the team are, like me, in our mid 40s and have other life commitments.  This weekend Blake Marcum and I went and cooked ribs and pulled pork.

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After unloading the trucks and checking in with the contest there is a Cook’s Meeting where the MBN reps and contest organizers go over the rules of the contest.  This over course includes a review of MBN contest rules but also the specific rules of that particular contest.  This will be things like when you need to remove vehicles from the contest area, rules about alcohol (some contests request you drink out of cups and not bottles or cans), quiet times, etc.  Every contest is a little different about things like this depending on local ordinances and such.  These meetings tend to only be about 15-20 minutes.

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Meat has to be inspected to make sure its kept at safe temperatures in transport and that it hasn’t been flavored/marinated before the contest.  Once inspected you can get on with preparation. For ribs it’s relatively simple.  First I trim them down to uniform length.  Make sure that all of the membrane has been removes and remove any excess meat or fat.

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Then I vigorously apply our dry rub to the ribs (both sides) and put them in bags and back on ice until we put them on in the morning.

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Next Blake began prepping the butts for the pulled pork category.  He trimmed half rather aggressively of fat and left the fat cap on the other half.  The ones more aggressively will be primarily used for their bark and the ones with more fat will be used more for their internal meat.

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Next Blake injected the butts with our team brine.  This insures that there is flavor in every bite.

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Next, Blake coated the butts with yellow mustard which serves as a “glue” for the dry rub.  It actually after cooking doesn’t really lend any flavor it’s just useful as a way to keep the rub on the product.  He then put each butt in a 2.5 gallon ziplock and put them back in the cooler until he was ready to put them on for the smoker.

About 11:30 Friday night he fired up our Backwoods Smoker G-2 model and put on the eight butts he prepared for competition.  He wanted the cooker around 225 degrees cooking with natural hardwood charcoal (briquettes and lump) and during the first 3-4 hours using a combination of hardwood (hickory) and fruit wood (apple) for flavor.

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After he felt the butts had enough smoke he wrapped them in heavy gauge foil. Yes, there is absolutely nothing wrong with using foil for BBQ.  It’s not only acceptable but vital to cooking good competitive BBQ.  For most of our products we tend to wrap about 1/3 of the way through the cooking process. (sorry for the rotated photo)

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About an hour and a half before we have to turn in pulled pork they are unwrapped and glazed with our team made tomato based sauce and left in the smoker for the glaze to set.

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Then finally we pull the meat and prepare the blind box to be turned in for judging. There are larger pieces of pulled pork under that outer bed of bark.  This gives the judges an inside look to how pretty the butts look as well as giving them plenty of delicious sweet and smoky bark and wonderful, moist pulled pork.  So that’s pretty much start to finish for pulled pork. It was turned in between 10:45 and 11:00 am on Saturday.  Meanwhile……..

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The ribs were put on the Backwoods Smoker Party model at 5:30 am Saturday morning.  This will be a six and half hours of cooking.  I cook the ribs at 225 degrees with natural hardwood lump charcoal. I use a combination of hardwood and fruit wood (just like Blake did with the butts).  I only use wood for the first hour or so of cooking, they will get plenty of smoke flavor in that short of time.

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Somewhere around the 1/2 way point the ribs are wrapped loosely in heavy duty foil.  I will point out that this is less about cooking the product as it is about maintaining the color.  Then about 45 minutes before turn in the ribs were unwrapped and sauced with our team made tomato based sauce.  Like the pulled pork a blind box was made and turned in from 11:45-12:00 Saturday morning./noon.  Apologies for no picture of the rib box.  Obviously with only two people and me building the box, it was in the judges hands before I even realized I hadn’t taken one.  So you’ll have to believe me; it was gorgeous.

Preliminary Round 

So after the boxes are turned in (as you may have noticed it is staggered Hog first, Shoulder next, ribs last one hour apart) six judges will judge them blind.  There is no garnish or markings allowed in your boxed; its a completely blind process.  You may also turn in one or two sauces with your products.  We turn in our tomato based sauce along with a hot version of the sauce as an option for judges that may be inclined to something a little spicier.  Those are both hand made by me in small batches on Tuesday of a contest. Criteria for judging are appearance of entry, flavor, tenderness which are whole number scores to ten.  Then there is an overall impression category where it can be broken down into decimals to help separate the entries even more.  Essentially more than one entry can get a 10 in tenderness but the judges have to separate the best from the next in overall impression by decimals.  So the best entry will get a 10 and the next might get a 9.9 (if they are close or lower depending on the judges impression of the products)

Once the products have been judged the scores are tabulated.  A representative will go around and tell the teams that were the top three best scores in each category. Since they are staggered you will hear about hog while working on your pulled pork entry and so on.  Making the top three in each category is called “Making Finals” because once you know you are in the top three in a category you move onto the Final Round.

Final Round

For finals things change quite a bit.  There will be 9 entries in finals (three in each category) Now this doesn’t necessarily mean 9 different teams as some teams can multiple final.  I will say one of the proudest moments is triple finaling.

So for the finals all scores are reset to zero. If you were first coming out of prelims, it means nothing at this point.  And instead of you competing against the other two teams in that category its a nine product fight for who is considered Grand Champion or the single best product of the day. In finals there are four judges and they go around to each of the finals teams and are “presented” the product.  There the team explains the cooking process, cookers, fuels used, flavors, philosophy all while serving them the product. So if you’re paying attention that means that these four people have to eat and sample nine different products!  It is important the finals judges pace themselves. From here they judge all the same categories as prelims as well as presentation and area and personal appearance. They are expected to use decimals in all categories for finals to really separate the teams to help determine the best of the best.  The top three in each category is then determined by where you fall in the nine products for finals.  The Grand Champion is the entry with the highest score in finals.

Needless to say the wait for finding out if you made finals can be excruciating.  It’s a special kind of torture.  For Atoka we did not make finals in Pulled Pork.  It’s a bummer but it was also more of an experimental situation as the new rules allow us to cook either shoulders or butts.  We have traditionally cooked shoulders, but since the new rules Blake wanted to give butts a try.  And all credit to him they were very tasty, we were just at the mercy of the blind judges.

BUT…………

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We did make Rib Finals!  And let me tell you the wait was prolonged and painful.  We were told at about 2:04 (two hours after turn in!) And had a little over an hour until the judges would be at our booth at 3:06.  So in that time we had to put the ribs back in the cooker and clean up our entire area, set the table for judges, reglaze and check the product so it was just perfect.  Out of the eight racks I cooked for the contest, I used four for our blind box (not all four of course just the best parts in 9-two bone sections) That left me four racks for finals. Now common sense may say “Hey that’s one per judge” but reality is ribs are always the last category and we were going to be the 8th team the judges would be visiting and sometimes you’re lucky if they finish one single rib (remember they have to pace themselves or explode).  For finals I like to present 3 racks on a platter. I usually break up two racks in front of them to show tenderness.I will then serve the judges from the center and then from the ends to show consistency in the product.  Rarely do I even break into the third rack as its usually just there to look pretty, but every now and then you’ll get really hungry (or curious) finals judges that may want one more bite so it’s there if I need it.  You have 15 minutes to present your product to them and its a very strict and merciless clock, go over and the judges will get the hook right in front of you.  Again due to the short handed nature of the “guerilla style” cook for this weekend I didn’t have a chance to take a shot of the table for presentation (I’ll make sure to do it in future posts) but here is a look at one of the judges plates afterword.

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Now I realize this isn’t the most attractive sight, but to a cook after finals it’s a fatnastic image.  Four clean bones, being the eighth team out is a beautiful thing.  It’s a good indication that they really enjoyed your product.  They don’t have to eat that much, but this judge did.  It’s a good thing.  And the only thing left in the cooker….one rack…..

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Now that finals are over you start tearing down your booth and get ready for awards (usually and hour and a half to two hours after finals are over)  Then you sit through all of the ancillary awards (other non point earning categories cooked on Friday nights that are completely optional) which can be things like sauce, beans, beef, poultry, seafood, etc.  We tend to not do ancillaries and focus on the Main Categories.  They are nice, but not the “reason” we are cooking.  So after sitting through a lot of awards it comes down to pulled pork where we found out we didn’t make the top 10 (we got 15th).  Then last came ribs where……………

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Yep, we got a choo choo train! 1st place ribs!  Needless to say I was very proud and happy with our performance.  But the awards weren’t over.  Once they finish with all three major categories they usually take care of some business before announcing who won Grand Champion.  Before they announced it they pointed out that there was only a 0.2 point difference between Grand and runner up.  This weekend Grand Champion went to the Rib-Ka-Teers Whole Hog…..and yep, it turned out that our little “guerrilla style” rib was the runner up by those measly 0.2 of a point. Very, very proud.

Buuuut, we’re still not done.  Because after a win there is always one more thing left to do…..you know the glory of championship BBQ:

Clean up…….

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Because win or lose you’re always left hauling off a big ole bucket of grease. Glamorous, huh?

[Side Note: My guerrilla partner in crime was teammate Blake Marcum @Blakeandbrew on twitter.  He blogs about beer and the beer culture in Memphis if you’re interested.]

[Also: Sweet Swine O’ Mine proudly cooks Compart Duroc pork products from Compart Family Farms, truly the best pork on the planet.]

-Lackie

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