Even for those familiar with it, the land of BBQ Competition yields a labyrinth of mystery, shrouding itself and the army of participants in a cultural haze separating it from the outside world. Yearly rituals, secret spice formulae, jealously guarded methods and monster smokers, personalities both jovial and devilish. All of it, at every event, held up to hidden methods of judgment that may base the final crucial points of victory towards luck and subconscious preference than any set, consistent logic one can follow year in year out.
Suffice it to say it’s a heck of an atmosphere to survive and win in for die-hard professionals, let alone those just getting into the circuit. Long days of smoking multiple proteins, each with recipes that need be almost perfected through years of home trial and error before one feels they stand the chance in the Ring of Meat. When the smallest deviation from expectation could mean insufferable loss, a surprising win, or absolutely nothing, how does one go about actually trying to attain high placement amongst the dozens of fellow experienced competitors?
Well, that’s why we’re here today. We have polled and asked multiple top-ranking BBQ competitors their favorite tips and advice that you can use during your next tournament. Whether it’s your first time or want to try out some new recipes and/or strategies after a few years, we hope that this little collection might be able to help you refine and refocus towards success.
- Slap Yo Daddy BBQ starts us off with something now true bbq-er should ever forget: “BBQ is Ready when it’s Ready so Don’t Hurry.” Low and slow, one has a whole day if not more during these competitions, use it wisely to get your meat prepped and on the heat quick so it can cook and evolve for as long as possible. That way one can take their Bark and Flavor development to the extreme.
- Allowing time follows through with M&R’s own customer Grilling Gaines Catering, who mentions to “always leave yourself grace time for problems that may arise… be prepared for anything and have a game plan.”
- Another loyal M&R customer, Smokin’ Bull Shack says “The one thing I could suggest is having the right equipment… [our] smoker allows us to cook 25-30 pork butts, maintaining a consistent temperature is an ease, and you can control the amount of smoke you want to add to your meat.” It doesn’t need to be a top-of-the-line, fancy, tech-savvy monster, as witness by the many well-placed teams who’ve built theirs out of who knows how many different bases. Oil drums, old trucks, giant monsters made to look like cows and pork, the possibilities are endless; the only important thing is having one that WORKS, is reliable, and knowing it, all its hot and cold spots, kinks, and being able to utilize it its best ability. Taking notes isn’t a bad idea, which reminds me…
- “Take lots of notes when doing test cooks. Like time of cooking, temp, holding time… and so on.” Can help one prepare for this, getting perfection in your product is the only way to have a chance so one needs to get a set recipe and know exactly how to get back on track should issues arise. This latter quote was offered by Butcher BBQ, who also had to say on the idea of preparation:
- “Before your first contest do a complete cook in your drive way to know everything you have to take.” It’s amazing what obvious equipment one will forget to bring with them on any job, so get a list together.
- Both they and South Pork BBQ Team agree that you should “Always use the highest quality product to ensure the best possible results,” “You can’t get Prime Rib out of buying stew meat” and you won’t place in the top 5 of a Brisket showdown with B-grade product; you don’t need to go Wagyu, but keep to the right product. “Have a big budget,” as Leftcoast Q says, not just for the massive amounts of meat one usually has to prepare for but to ensure you’re not compromising on what will lead to YOUR perfect recipe, and to have leftovers in case disaster strikes (much like time).
- Do everything to make sure you reach Turn In Time. “Nothing sucks more than missing turn ins by 10 seconds or showing up 1 hour early… Do a test walk to turn ins and time it beforehand… Use a good clock, we usually set ours 2 minutes fast.” That said in the lengthy reply I got from Unknown BBQ. They make another good point, which is:
- “Never try a new recipe or technique at a contest if what you have been doing is working. I have done it a few times and it usually backfires … If you know you are turning in quality product NEVER change your recipe after getting poor scores at 1 contest… Unfortunately humans are judging our BBQ and they make mistakes… as a rule of thumb we will go three contests of poor scores in any one category before changing it.”
- Leftcoast Q also reminds us that after all that time cooking, “it’s the last few minutes before you close the box that makes all the difference.” It’s going to be all these tiny details decided in this short amount of time that leave the best impression on the judges or just one of standardness, whether the edges of the ribs are cut clean or have tiny frays, or if there’s a fresh, shiny coat of lacquer-like sauce, etc. Though one of the most important reasons is this
- “The last thing you put on your product is the first thing the judge will taste.” As revealed by Warren County Pork Choppers BBQ, whereas your earlier applied spices and sauces mellow and evolve to a low, complex note amongst the meat, any last-minute seasoning and saucing will stand out as an alpha component on the tongue. This can be used to hit those flavors you want to highlight most, or it can overpower everything you worked so hard for, so use this concept wisely or meekly to avoid disaster
- “Think like a judge as if you were judging your own product.” Another quote from Pork Choppers, this fits into the testing phase, and one may want to research to truly see through their eyes.
- At the end of the day though, “Trust Your Butcher” (Butcher BBQ) and “Try to have fun.” (Grilling Gaines) Don’t take any of this too seriously and intense, it’s going to be a long day of rubbing pork and waiting for meat to cook, and BBQ’s always been an activity of relaxation. The best competitors are often those that have a laugh and smile every chance they get, and that attitude sings through the food (and hey, it never hurts during the big competitions where the judge visits the tent for a ‘tour’).
Thanks again to all the BBQ Teams that helped us out with this article, we couldn’t have done it without you and wish you all best of luck in your upcoming competitions. Hopefully the new teams reading this can put your tips to use and start making things a little harder than before. And when that happens, may all your pork be tender, bark crunchy and sauces deep and shiny. Now, if you don’t mind, I have some pig feet in a pot I need to watch…