Spring is right around the corner and that means that the season for barbecue competitions is heating up.
What do the professional barbecue judges look for when judging competition cook teams? I talked to Mark Busbee, semi-retired pitmaster, Master Barbecue Judge, team sponsor (he sponsors eight Southern teams from Virginia to Florida) and sauce maker (check out www.smokincoalssauce.com) for some tips for finding the best ’cue.
Mark says, first of all, look for the big rigs. The bigger the barbecue rig, the more success the team has had on the circuit. Teams will display their trophies on their tables; look for those and medallions or stickers on the sides of the rig.
You could also get to the event around the time the judging is going on and casually ask a team if there might be any leftover from the turn-in box (the official name of the boxed samples of barbecue meant for the judges’ tables). Or, if you see one, discreetly follow behind a judge as he or she samples the food.
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As for the actual judging, first thing judges notice is the barbecue’s appearance and aroma: Is there a nice bark (the yummy, crunchy, crusty, blackened bits) on the meat? An even smoke ring (the dark pinkish ring formed just under the bark, a chemical reaction between the meat and the burning wood during the cooking process)? Does the barbecue smell good enough to eat?
Next is texture: Pros say that the sign of perfectly cooked barbecue is that the meat will be texture of a two-ply tissue being pulled apart. Just enough pull. Not mushy or dry. You should be able to feel little give when you bite into the meat. A great test for ribs: When taking a bite off a rib, the meat should come off the bone where you bite, not all at once.
Taste … is always subjective … but, the main flavor should be the meat, not an overpowering sauce or rub. In South Carolina, there are four basic types of sauce: mustard, ketchup, vinegar/pepper and Carolina red (tomato-y and peppery) and the competition’s location can be a determining factor in which sauce a team might use (Upstate = ketchup, Midlands = mustard, Lowcountry = vinegar/pepper).
Finally, there’s presentation: While judges are looking at turned-in trays of barbecue, here are some things to keep in mind while wandering around the cook team area. Is the preparation area clean and well-maintained? Messy? Are the portions served evenly? Is everyone having fun?
Keep these guidelines in mind when enjoying your ’cue… It makes for a pleasant experience. Oh, and if you go the the Commissioner’s Cup, look for Mark and his Smokin’ Coals sauces, and chat with him about barbecue.
Do you want to become a BBQ judge?
Southern BBQ Network (SBN) is holding a SBN Judge Certification Class 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday at the State Farmers Market Exhibition Kitchen (arrive by 9:30 a.m.). Lunch is included, and judges certified during this class will be eligible to judge the Commissioners Cup, the South Carolina state barbecue championship, March 20-21. Certification class registration, $60 per person ($25 for SBN members). To register: contact Jim Harmon, (843) 810-5037 or email email@example.com. Details at sbbqn.com.
Upcoming BBQ competitions
Commissioners Cup (SBN), March 20-21 at the State Farmers Market, 3483 Charleston Highway, West Columbia.
Smoke in the ’Boro (SCBA), March 20-21, Coastal Electric Co-op, 2269 N. Jeffries Highway, Walterboro, scbarbecue.com.
Smoke at the Lodge (SBN), March 27-28, Summerville Masonic Lodge, 111 N. Main St., Summerville.