I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I signed up to attend the Southern BBQ Network’s Judges Certification Seminar last Saturday.
The Southern BBQ Network is an organization of Southern barbecue cooks, judges and enthusiasts on a mission to promote the slow-cooked method of barbecuing through competitive events, classes and judge certification. The group is heavily involved in charitable events throughout North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.
The class, the first one at the Farmers Market, had about 50 attendees, me included. It was a varied group, men and women, young(ish) and older and quite a few retired military.
Meg Gregory moved to Columbia about six years ago with her husband. Now in her early 70s and already a judge for chili competitions, she signed up so that she could explore more of the small towns in the state. “If I commit to being somewhere, then I have to get out and go,” she said, showing off her list of chili competitions she had judged in the past year.
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Warderick “Griff” Griffin and Willie Sharp, both retired military, cook during tailgate season and wanted a bit of insight as to what judges might be looking for during competition.
Kip Martin of Eutawville is taking a class at USC sponsored by Southern Foodways and Jamie Lutes of Irmo is a recreational cook who thought the class would be interesting.
Our instructor, Seth Watari was ready with handouts and a slide presentation of what makes good barbecue and what specifically barbecue judges are looking for during competition.
Judges score on:
• Appearance, or how appealing a sample looks;
• Taste/aroma, or what you experience in your first bite (balance between smoke, sauce, rub and meat); and
• Texture/tenderness, the tactile properties of the meat (tender, mushy, tough, chewy, etc.). Watari said that while the product’s appearance is important, the judges score more heavily on the other two categories.
As for appearance, we learned that this is the cook’s marketing tool. How attractive does the sample (up to eight pieces in a presentation box) look? And about smoke rings (the chemical reaction just under the bark that causes the meat to appear slightly red) and bark (the darker outside crust...the good stuff).
We learned about smoke and getting different flavors infused in the meat by using different woods in combination (like starting out with hickory or oak, then adding pecan, apple or fruit woods to sweeten or mellow it out before finishing with cherry wood for color and a hint of bitterness).
Watari told us how heat affects the texture of the meat. Pork is usually smoked at a range between 185 and 205 degrees. At 185 degrees, the meat is resilient, moist and easily sliced. Between 190 and 195 degrees, pork reaches the state where it can be easily pulled or shredded. At 205 degrees, forget it. The meat becomes dry, chewy and hard to swallow.
To understand the perfect texture in pulled pork, Watari suggests taking a sheet of plain two-ply paper towel and tearing off a piece along the edge that measures about the width of your finger. Now slowly pull the two plys apart. That feel of the paper separating is the same feel you should experience when pulling pork ... just a gentle tugging action. That’s what judges look for.
We learned about whole hog versus ribs and butts, how to recognize and tell the difference between cuts of spareribs and baby back ribs and why sauce applied to the top of a rib gives a different flavor profile versus sauce applied on the bottom of a rib (think of where your taste buds are in your mouth) and how to judge a rib in one bite.
Then we learned a bit about chicken (skin off or skin on, the “bite through” factor of chicken skin) and how to tell if chicken is cooked properly by using another paper towel method (basically, tear off a small portion of a clean paper towel and lightly dab an area under the meat near the bone. If the towel comes back pink, the chicken is undercooked and will get disqualified).
Whew! That was a lot.
There was a lot of note-taking and questions asked by the group. We did get to sample some pulled pork, ribs and chicken for lunch.
I’m looking forward to this weekend when I can see the pros – cooks and judges – in action.
Friday night will be anything but pork butts and ribs on the grill. Offerings should include fish, chicken, sausages, etc. Saturday is the serious pork lovers day with close to 40 teams from throughout the Southeast cooking butts and ribs.
As Watari puts it, you’ll know when you’ve come across superior barbecue like this: average BBQ is something you tell a coworker about; excellent BBQ, you tell your significant other; superior BBQ you keep to yourself.
Mark Busbee, Events Coordinator for SBBQN and Pit Master for Q “Fore” U Competition Cook Team & Catering, offers these two recipes for beginning smokers. He also produces his own sauce and rubs (Smokin’ Cole’s and Buzz’s Butt Dust).
Boston Butts Beginner Recipe
7-9 pound Boston Butt
Rub liberally (4-5oz) with your favorite spices or rub, wrap and let sit refrigerated overnight or for at least a few hours.
How you cook this cut is the most important part to getting nice moist pulled pork. This cut of pork is loaded with internal fat. It is this fat that we want to “render” away. Scientifically speaking, the connective tissues and collagen will start to break down at temps of around 150-165º (the cooking temp can stall at approx. 165 for 1-3 hours). This is exactly what we want to happen. So, how do you achieve this? By cooking the meat at a low temp. We cook all of our Boston butts at a temp of 225º-240 and plan on taking 1-1.5 hours per pound (guesstimate). In the end, we want the meat temp to reach and exceed 185-195º (you can push to 200-205 but the meat can get mushy). This can be measured with a regular meat thermometer or you can use a Maverick remote thermometer.
Cook the butt UNCOVERED over a combo of hickory and apple chips. The goal is to make that outside bark, nice and almost crispy (without burning). The only way to do that is to expose the butt to the heat of the grill/smoker not in a crock pot. You can wrap the butts after 170-185 to ensure you do not burn, but you do want to maintain the bark.
Let the butt cook for about 3-5 hours while checking temps. At this point, you can open the smoker and “mop” the meat if you like. Mopping is applying a liquid to the surface of the meat … this will help to keep it moist and add flavor. I use a very simple mop of 3 parts apple juice to 1 part apple cider vinegar. This can be applied with a brush, a mop, or a spray bottle.
If it finishes early, remove from smoker. Wrap as tightly as possible in heavy duty foil, then wrap that in a towel and place in a dry cooler. You can typically hold the butts like this for 2+ hours.
Once the butt is finished you can now “pull” the meat. Let it cool to the point where you can handle it. Then use your hands to pull strands of the meat. There may still be pockets of fat. If so, remove the fat, gristle and bone as you start pulling. Place this pulled meat into whatever serving vessel you plan on using. Be sure to mix in the nice darkened bark of the outside meat with the inside meat. You may sprinkle more of your rub (a small amount, grind in a spice grinder to a powder) on top of the shredded meat and add a light amount of sauce (we use Smokin’ Coles).
Competition Style Ribs, Baby Back or St Louis Style
One rack of ribs
Remove membrane from bottom side of the ribs
Cover both sides of ribs with dry rub (if using Smokin’ Coles, use a light coating; Buzz’s Butt Dust use a heavy dusting).
Return to refrigerator for an hour minimum, overnight if possible.
Over indirect heat (260 degrees) on a grill or smoker, smoke ribs for 2 hours (I use Pecan wood chips or Apple wood chips)
After 2 hours of cook time, make simple syrup out of 1/2 cup of brown sugar and 1/2 cup water.
Spread out heavy aluminum foil pour half the mixture on the foil, then place ribs in the sugar mixture
Pour remaining mix over the ribs, seal up the foil into envelope and return to the grill for 1-11/2 hours
Remove rib packs from grill and open (BE CAREFUL WHEN OPENING) let the ribs rest for 15 minutes
Sauce ribs (I use Smokin’ Cole’s Sauce and return to grill for 30 to 45 minutes (internal temp should be 180)