“Do you wanna get the big trailer?” Scott texted me on the eve of our second barbecue cook off competition. My response was quick and to the point, “yes”, but at the moment I didn’t realize exactly what “the big trailer” really meant other than it must be big. Nonetheless I figured yes was the correct answer.
Learning about competition style barbecue
When Andrew, Scott, and I began this experiment into competition barbecue it was not as a joke. You see, competition ‘cue is really not something you’d want to eat often, if at all. The current trend is buttery and sweet which is a far cry from the salt and pepper (or pepper and salt) rubs that we ourselves would eat. However, the intrigue of competition style barbecue has pulled us into its grips.
I’m genuinely fascinated by the entire scene. What started off as simple cook offs with consumer level pits has morphed into a very narrowly defined product that is produced by teams often pulling barbecue pits in the $5,000 to $10,000 range using the highest end raw meats rubbed with expensive commercially available competition rubs and brines and coated with similar niche market “competition sauces” like Blues Hog.
For the vast majority of the contestants it is an expensive hobby. For some it is a means to advertise their catering business and/or attempt to grow into a retail barbecue business, but for the elite who win at the big events it brings financial opportunities and a bit of fame; Myron Mixon , Johnny Trigg , and Jamie Geer have leapt from the competition circuit to successful businessmen. Even if you don’t follow competition barbecue you may be familiar with Diva Q Danielle Bennett, whose competition endeavors are documented along with barbecue road tripping on her show BBQ Crawl.
We don’t think we are going to master this and win a major competition, nor do we expect to be a regular on the KCBS competition circuit in the future but we want to explore this complex and different world and we want to do it just as any competitor would. We are learning and applying what we’ve learned. We make mistakes but each of those should include an outcome of knowledge to be applied in the future. Some who have seen our first event may think we’re just a few bloggers playing around. We aren’t taking this lightly and it’s not something we are half-assed doing. We’re just now getting our feet wet and exploring some of the flavors, and yes we are competing in small non-sanctioned events at this point, but we are stern in our resolve and we aren’t tossing some select briskets on a pit and hoping for the best while downing bottles of booze. Yes, there is alcohol involved and we are having a good time, but I just want to reinforce the point that this is not all fun and games for us.
What is competition style?
The competition at the highest levels is fierce. Within the specific narrow window of what wins at sanctioned events is a product that is far removed from what is served daily at your local joint. I’ve mentioned it before, but consider that a judge will take a single bite of your sample. They will also take a single bite of dozens of other samples. Throw too much spice onto your rub and you’ll turn off those judges who tire of it quickly, and while a spicy rub might “stand out”, it will generally be for all the wrong reasons at a sanctioned competition. “Sweet beats heat” in this world.
The sample provided to the judges “in the box” for brisket is from the lean side and bedded on greens for what constitutes the current visual status quo. By the way, the box is a Styrofoam take out style container. Points are deducted if sauce drips onto the tray or pools up. Slice the meat a little ragged or have a piece fall apart when placing in the tray and the best tasting brisket can quickly drop out of the top 10; it is that close at the large events.
Competition ribs are an odd beast, too. Commonly cited is the “3-2-1” method which includes coating the ribs liberally with Parkay, honey, and brown sugar before wrapping during the cook. Yes, Parkay margarine in that blue bottle. This is in addition to basting on a very sweet glaze after unwrapping! This ultra-sweet concoction appears to have begun with Johnny Trigg but he likely wasn’t the first person to use those ingredients. For a slight kick I’ve read he adds Tiger sauce into the wrap mixture. We haven’t quite convinced Andrew to come to the dark side on this, which is probably for the better, but he has begun adding more sweetness to his ribs.
Competition chicken is probably the oddest of the competition proteins. Chicken thighs are deconstructed, tweaked, and then rebuilt. The skin is removed and the meat is dusted with rub. The skin is trimmed, scraped thinner, and then reattached with toothpicks during the cook. Each thigh in a winning box should have a uniform shape and what appears to be bringing home the trophies is coated heavily in a sweet glaze. The Holy Grail in chicken thighs is “bite-through skin”; take that single bite and the skin should break cleanly before you teeth cut through the meat, resulting in a nice profile of flavors.
In our non-sanctioned events we haven’t had to turn in chicken thighs yet, so we still have some way to go there if we want to do true competition style thighs but we apply most of the above to our competition chicken.
Our first event went well even if we didn’t place. The majority of the teams that showed up for that event did run on the local BBQ circuits; either the KCBS or the Texas Gulf Coast BBQ Cookers Association and we placed around mid-pack. Brisket was not a category which saved us both time and money. It also alleviated some of the timing strategies that are needed in an overnight cook.
In our limited experience I would say there are five keys to competition barbecue that I’ve discovered so far.
1) Good quality meat (quality meat, trimmed appropriately)
2) Accurate timing (when to put food on the pit)
3) Properly cooked food (when to pull meat off the pit)
4) Tasty food as per judge’s expectations (rubs and sauces)
5) Visually appealing and meeting visual criteria
#2 and #3 include maintaining proper pit temperatures and lots of minutiae such as spritzing and wrapping the meat during cooking, but I think at a high level these are the points we need to focus on.
Entering our second competition
When we heard news of a Scott and Andrew’s subdivision cook off we signed up right away. We figured it would be a laid back and relaxed event. What surprised us a bit though was the requirement of a brisket entry. This turned it into an overnight cook, increased our meat costs, and added some minor logistical complications. Other required entries were chicken, ribs, “other meat”, and dessert. In addition, to compete we had to donate a cooked and chopped brisket. When competing we usually cook at least two of each meat. For example, we were needed to turn in 7 rib bones. If you only cook one rack, then you will likely have uneven ribs or risk possible problems with quality if that single rack doesn’t turn out well. Two racks allows you to pick across both racks as needed for selection of the best. For insurance we went with three racks this time. We bought two whole chickens, and a couple of packs of boneless thighs for the “other” category; Scott’s Boudin stuffed chicken thighs. Dessert would also be Scott’s baby – Pecan Pie bread pudding. We believed the rules required us to prep and cook the dessert onsite so that was planned as part of our Friday night prep time.
After a few lists and last minute supply runs, we were ready to go except one glaring shortfall: we only owned two small offset smokers between the three of us. Our first event didn’t require brisket or a large pit so we hadn’t worried too much in the time after. Andrew has a cheap but trusty Old Country , I have a very small “work-in-progress” homemade offset, and Scott has an Old Smokey grill that works very well but it would be very tricky to try and cook everything we needed with this motley crew. Scott rang up nearby barbecue joint Tin Roof and was able to get a loaner pit for the cook.
Scott had taken off work that Friday to get the pit out to the event and begin set up. That was when I got the text “do you wanna get the big trailer?”
Enter the trailer
I was running behind, which is a long and not relevant story. When I arrived and came upon the scene that would be our headquarters for the night my jaw dropped. When the trailer came into view it was much more than I imagined. It’s hard to describe in words other than Valhalla for someone whose current pit can hold a single brisket. Tin Roof and Brek Webber had lent us their large commercial trailer. This was not a smoker on wheels, it was a fully contained kitchen with two smokers and a grill. I can’t thank Tin Roof and the Webber family enough, as it was a great convenience to have at our disposal.
I’ll start with the back – first up is a nice reverse flow. Directly across is a vault-style Contender from pits by JJ and next to that is a good sized grill. Two propane burners were also available but not in use. A step through the dividing door and into the kitchen welcomes one into ample workspace. An upright glass-door fridge keeps beverages cold while a long and low fridge unit has space for more much more meat than we would be cooking. An upright hot box was available to hold meat, and the entire kitchen area was cooled by air conditioning. Both the pit area and kitchen were well lit with fluorescent lighting fixtures. An awning kept the outside congregation area protected, and high powered external lighting illuminated Scott’s fire pit. Power to the rig was supplied by a Generac generator that ran on propane.
You can even make a full lap through the rig; enter through the side door, walk through the kitchen, exit the kitchen door into the pit area, then exit out the back door. I would do this numerous times through the night playing Walter Mitty and fantasizing about working out of this thing on a regular basis.
When we had planned for the cook off I was imagining a couple of EZ-up canopies covering a $300 or so pit with some folding chairs. This was barbecue cook offs turned up to eleven and an embarrassment of riches for our novice team. While we were looking like an all pro team it wasn’t as if we scared away the competition. I only counted one or two of the fourteen other teams who did not have a trailer mounted pit, and at least two teams boasted competition-tested teams; Texas Platinum Cookers, and Smokey and the Bandits.
It took me a while to settle down. I toured our rig several times over. We cracked open a bottle of Bulleit bourbon and took a celebratory shot. This was going to be fun, regardless of the outcome. Scott had already got the pit up to temperature and the briskets were trimmed and waiting for seasoning. Andrew ground fresh pepper for the brisket rub and I threw together some brine for the whole chickens, while Scott sliced up the croissants for the bread pudding.
The event had been postponed due to inclement weather but through the night a cold front came through, whipping up winds and misting. With our heavy trailer and solidly mounted awning we had a nice windbreak and cover. The Bulleit bourbon was fantastic and helped, um, keep us warm.
Time to cook
The brisket turn in was in the late afternoon but the chopped beef brisket was due at noon so we tossed the sacrificial brisket on at eleven PM. We didn’t have a sleeping rotation plan so the night would drag on as we tried to keep busy and awake. About one AM Scott trimmed the chickens while I mixed up the brine and then we let them soak in icy brine for the rest of the night. We had a few visitors through the night. Brek checked on us a couple of times and some of the other teams wandered by to check out the set up. I recall one guy in particular who was three sheets to the wind; he provided entertainment for a while before he headed off to crash for the night. Andrew called it “Boomhauer drunk.”
It was around three am when night and morning collided. By then we were talked out and with no more prep needed for the cook Scott and Andrew slipped off while I tended the fire to the hum of the generator. The brisket had hit the stall – that point during the cook when the temperature stops rising. It can stall for one hour or for several and the ADHD in me rages at this point in the cook. One must fight the temptation to crank up the heat and just let it ride out the stall. One option that should help is to wrap the brisket, but that’s something we’ll do next time. For this cook we let it go. Just.let.it.go.
The guy’s naps were short and after awaking Scott began to get funny, surmising that we could leave right that instant and just make it to get in the front part of the line at Franklin. I thought I would hold out until sunrise but the sun just would not crack the horizon and I finally retreated to my vehicle for a nap of my own.
With the daylight began what felt like a real cook off pace. Turn in times were staggered which meant we were putting and pulling things off the pits throughout the morning. The briskets finished earlier than we had planned so we wrapped them and put them on rest inside an insulated box with a towel.
Scott’s boudin stuffed thighs took the most labor and he slaved away until they were finally wrapped in bacon and ready to smoke. When I jokingly asked him where he’s been he replied “I’ve been in here stretching the bacon, Bryan. Physically stretching the bacon!”
I could tell the lack of sleep was really getting to Scott, making him a bit delirious. When the rock wall and pony ride vendors started their set up he wondered out loud what a smoked pony would taste like. More than once. That’s something I’ll leave to those few countries that eat horse meat.
After the day broke, the rain came. Torrential rain poured down and even though we had plenty of cover rain drifted onto us and flowed across the asphalt below us, getting the bottoms of bags of charcoal wet. The rain would stop and start for what felt like a few hours. While I don’t think it made much of an impact on our pits which had a roof it did look to affect some of the other teams whose trailers were out in the open, steam billowing off the hot steel.
We weren’t as exact with our timing as our first event and several times we had to rush right up until the literal last minute with our turn ins. Scott’s boudin stuffed thighs weren’t cooking fast enough so he cranked up his Old Smokey with some hot charcoal and worked them over. He also finished prepping his dessert dish.
The rules didn’t require garnish in our turn-ins, which was good for us as that is another skill we have yet to tackle. In watching videos there is a ridiculous amount of attention focused on laying the perfect bed of lettuce and parsley. Items that aren’t eaten but in sanctioned competition can count against you if the judges dislike the appearance. I’ve watched folks use tweezers to adjust individual pieces of parsley. It’s that exact. While this was not something we needed to struggle with, any sauce that oozed onto the container or smeared when placing the meat would count against us so we tried to make it as “pretty” as we could. Scott was our primary slicer and food placer – this is something I need to practice as clean even cuts are critical to competition. I missed a few photos here due to the short time between turn in.
Throughout the day we handed out samples to solid feedback but one is never sure how genuine feedback is for free food. All in all though we were proud of our boxes and waited with trepidation as they began calling out the winners.
We didn’t win overall but we did place well:
- 3rd Ribs
- 3rd Other (Boudin stuffed bacon wrapped chicken thighs)
- 5th Brisket
- 5th Chicken
- 9th Dessert
Before we even packed up everything we started going over what we would do next time. Sauce discussions, rub discussion, wrap discussions, and more ensued. On the drive home I went over these as well, running the highlights of the experience through my head and trying to identify where we could have improved. It was as if I was sleep-driving and it sort-of was since it had now been 36 hours since I’d had more than that one nap.
We will return to more events for 2016, and we’ll have a new pit. I went to Vegas determined to win enough money for a pit, and I did. A few nights of blackjack rewarded me with the finances to buy a nice used pit. I’ll post more about it when I pick it up soon.
We sincerely thank Brek, Tin Roof, and the entire Webber family for their hospitality and use of their rig. We had an amazing time and that trailer made enduring the elements so much easier!