Don't Try to Cook the Way They Cook on TV and in BBQ Competitions!
"Barbecue is a journey, one meal at a time." Sterling Ball, pitmaster of the BigPoppaSmokers.com team
Those of us who worship barbecue are thrilled that the food we love is getting so much air time, especially on the popular BBQ Pitmasters series on the cable station, Destination America. But if you are a backyard cook and just beginning to build your repertoire and skill set, you have probably watched barbecue competitions on TV or in real life. You have probably been thinking about emulating these techniques.
But you should not, absolutely not, try to cook for your friends and family the way they do on TV. If you want superb food, follow my recipes precisely the first time. Then, once you have the techniques mastered, if you want to try to add something you saw on TV, try one trick at a time, but I'm here to tell you, cooking for competition usually produces poor quality dining, and starting with my recipe and modifying it with something you saw on TV will probably leave you disappointed.
Here's why: Competition cooks have really good equipment, huge expensive high tech machines like the wood burner shown here, a $15,000 trailer mounted Jambo J-5 used by Scottie Johnson of CancerSucksChicago.com. Behind him is a $4,000 Cookshack Fast Eddy FEC100 pellet cooker (disclaimer, AmazingRibs.com is one of his sponsors). Chances are that not all the techniques he uses will not work on your backyard smoker.
Competition cooks also know that their entries will be one of several samples served to the judges, usually six samples at a time, and in order to win, theirs must really stand out. They must be flashy, different, loud, and boisterous. Delicacy, simplicity, subtlety, and complexity, all characteristics of great food, get you eliminated in a competition. So competition pitmasters go for big bold sweet flavors knowing that most of the time, the judge will take only one bite of their sample.
This is especially important in non-TV events when the judges aren't as experienced and skilled as Tuffy Stone, Myron Mixon, or Melissa Cookston, shown above. Alas, at most of the more than 500 events around the nation, many of the judges are newbies or have judged only a few events. They are easily seduced by the shiny, big, bold, and sweet.
To get there, the cooks employ every trick in the book. For example, they inject everything with moisturizers, tenderizers, and flavor enhancers. Butcher BBQ's popular pork injection is made with hydrolyzed vegetable protein (hydrolyzed soy and corn protein and salt, with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil [cottonseed, soybean] added), monosodium glutamate, sodium phosphate, pork flavor (yeast extract, natural flavors maltodextrin) and xanthan gum. Not something you can get at the local grocery store.
Then they use a mustard slather to hold down their rub, they wrap their ribs, pork butt, and brisket in foil partially through the cook, they lather on liquid margarine and agave, and sprinkle a different rub on the bottom of their ribs than on top so the tongue and roof of the mouth get different flavors.
In competition, most pitmasters cook only thighs for the chicken category. A typical prep involves removing the bone, peeling the skin back, scraping the subcutaneous fat off, trimming each thigh until it is identical in shape, coating it with a sweet dry rub, injecting with liquid margarine, folding it so you see only skin, and placing it on top of butter or margarine in cupcake tins, and painting it with shiny sweet red barbecue sauce! Click here to read more about how competition chicken is prepared for an example of how far off the barbecue path they have gone.
The food is so bizarre that eating more than one or two bites becomes a chore. They are just toooo over the top. I have heard more than one pitmaster confide that he would never cook like this for friends and family. Competition food is designed for one bite, not a meal.
Another factor to remember when watching "reality" TV is that directors are focused on telling a story, creating drama, developing heroes and villains, winners and losers. They don't have time or the inclination to teach technique and show recipes. You just get only a quick glimpse of what is really going on. A lot is left out.
For example, competition cooks rely heavily on thermometers. They know that meat temperature and pit temperature are crucial. But you rarely see them poking their meat with a Thermapen, which they all own. It's just not good TV. The directors would rather you live under the illusion that these are artisans who work by touch and smell.
If you have a chance to visit a barbecue competition, by all means, go. You may be lucky enough to find a pitmaster who is (a) a good cook, (b) willing to talk to you, (c) willing to tell you what he really does. But most of the time the gal in charge doesn't have time to talk, the guy you are talking to is a flunky, and the head cook isn't going to tell you her tricks. But even if she does, you shouldn't try them until you are experienced. You wouldn't go into the kitchen of a French restaurant and go home and try to replicate the meal would you? You need a written recipe, proper equipment, and years of experience. You need to understand the concepts.
John Dawson runs the excellent BBQ blog PatioDaddioBBQ.com and cooks in competitions. Here's what he told me "The bottom line is that the majority (and I would argue the vast majority) of 'professional' competitive barbecue cooks do not cook and serve competition-style barbecue at home. In fact, not only do they not serve it to friends and family, many don't enjoy eating their competition products, and I'd be one. Further, many rarely even taste the meat that they turn in. I usually take one bite of each meat category after it's turned in.
"Cooking competition barbecue at home is akin to an Iron Chef cooking what they turn in at home. It's overly-complicated, overly-seasoned, overly-sweet, and crazy techniques are used to a point where one could argue that it's not even 'real' barbecue. We're cooking to hit every part of the barbecue taste palette (smoke, spice, savory, and sweet) like a two-by-four to the senses, all in one bite.
"Another complaint that I have with competition barbecue is that the techniques and flavor profiles have become so homogenized that creativity is punished, rather than encouraged. Judges have become 'trained' to expect certain meats to look and taste a certain way. As a cook I want to show my creativity, but coloring outside the lines in competitive barbecue will get you sent home licking your creative wounds."
I could not agree more, especially the comments on creativity. What if a cook turned in killer Asian style ribs? Or with a chocolate chile sauce? Or even a South Carolina mustard sauce? She'd get zeros.
Harry Soo of SlapYoDaddyBBQ.com is one of the winningest cooks on the circuit, a winning contestant on the first BBQ Pitmasters, and a cooking instructor. He says "Comp recipes are great but they are lot of work. Whenever I cook ribs for myself, I like them simple with a nice Tex-Mex influenced garlicky rub and with some spicy Pico De Gallo. No, I've never turned in this recipe for a contest and don't think it would do well, but that's how I like my ribs when I make them for myself."
Mike Wozniak is the pitmaster of Quau, 2010 Kansas City Barbeque Society Team of the Year. He says "The biggest diff between comp meats and backyard is in the amount of prep time. It is impractical to spend that kind of time on backyard meats. At home, I put them in the Ole Hickory and turn the gas on!"
Sterling Ball, pitmaster of the BigPoppaSmokers.com team, was on one of the BBQ Pitmasters competitions and he has won the prestigious American Royal in Kansas City. "We spent nine hours taping for a one hour show. Subtract about 15 minutes of commercials, yet there was only about three minutes of actual cooking shown. There's not much useful info there. If you're going to barbecue, get a good recipe and follow it. Master the skills. Then if you see something on TV that sparks your interest, try it only after you have the basics down. You need to learn the rules before you can break them. Barbecue is a journey, one meal at a time."
Start with my recipes. They are proven. The only ones who complain are the ones who veered from them: "I saw Myron Mixon cook brisket on TV and he said 350°F is the ideal temperature. So I tried it on your recipe, but the meat was too tough." Well, you didn't cook my recipe. Maybe on his custom made water smoker with Wagyu beef 350°F is ideal, but chances are, on your cooker with the slab of meat you got at Costco, that is much too hot.
You will notice that my recipe for ribs doesn't call for wrapping them in foil for part of the cook, a common practice known as the Texas Crutch. It's a good technique, but it is not necessary, and it is a step that can create an opportunity for failure. I have left it out to keep you on the path to success. Follow the recipe as written the first time. Then, once you have it down pat, try adding the Crutch.
Remember, KISS, Keep It Simple, Students.