"I like a cook who smiles out loud when he tastes his own work. Let God worry about your modesty; I want to see your enthusiasm."Robert Farrar Capon
Do you make the best smoked ribs in your neighborhood? Thinking of entering your ribs in a barbecue competition?
The raw truth is that the smoked ribs your family and neighbors love at home may not necessarily work in competition. When I started competing with team Smoke In Da Eye in 2003, I was certain that my backyard rib recipe was good enough to hold its own among the barbecue circuit's seasoned veterans. Suffice to say, it did not. In fact, my ribs came within spitting distance of dead a$$ last (DAL), as did the other three categories I entered.
I walked away vowing never again to compete. But the competition bug hit me hard, and I was back at it a month later. During that brief break, I turned to online BBQ forums and fellow competitors for advice on improving my rib score. Slowly but surely, my ribs began to move up the rankings, and a few contests later I got a top ten call.
In the spirit of camaderie and to honor those who helped me up my game, here are my best tips for competition barbecue and my personal ribs recipe. Think of the recipe as a template, and free free to customize it with different rubs, sauces, and seasonings.
12 TIPS FOR AWARD WINNING SMOKED BBQ RIBS
1) Stockpile charcoal. Many retailers have amazing deals on charcoal during Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day weekends. Take advantage and stockpile.
2) Mind your wood. Among the many options, I prefer cherry wood for the sweet, mild smoke flavor it lends to pork. Three to four woods chunks add just enough smoke without overpowering the meat, seasonings, or sauce.
3) Spareribs usually win. At home, I love baby back ribs, but in competition I stick with spare ribs. More often than not, spareribs land me in the top 10 in any given contest sanctioned by Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS). Before you enter a contest, though, check with the organizer and/or a seasoned competitor to see what tends to do best. It can vary, depending on the region of the country and the sanctioning body.
4) Trim ribs ahead of time. The first few contests are stressful enough. Why add to the pressure by trimming your meats on site? Instead, I like to get a jump on things at home. I peel off the membranes, remove excess fat or stray flaps of meat, and trim the ends of the racks to create uniform rectangles so that each rib will be roughly the same size when it goes in the turn in box. Keep in mind that your meat will be inspected when you arrive at the contest. Do not season or inject your ribs until after you get the "all clear." (Yes, plenty of folks inject their ribs with butter and other flavor enhancers).
5) Consolidate your gear. It's easy to overpack. For rib competitions, I use the following list to make sure I have all the little things without too many big things:
- Pop up canopy - essential for marking your space and keeping out the sun and rain. To anchor the canopy, I fill four (5 gallon) buckets from the hardware store with water and attach one to each leg with a ratchet strap.
- Smoker or grill - I prefer the Weber Smokey Mountain. It's consistent and compact.
- Fuel - charcoal briquets and smoking wood.
- Charcoal chimney - and a lighter for lighting the charcoal.
- Fire extinguisher - required.
- Six foot table - I'm 6 foot 3, so I bring a height adjustable six foot table to minimize stooping. I also bring a smaller table for my wash and rinse station, which is a Board of Health requirement.
- Tongs - bring two pairs in case one is missing or dirty.
- Chef's knife - or slicing knife for slicing the ribs.
- Cutting boards - bring two to avoid cross contamination. If you're traveling extra light, disposable cutting boards work.
- Food safe gloves - required by the Board of Health and available at any restaurant supply store. In a pinch, ask a friend in the professional, competition, or farmer's market cooking game if they have some spare gloves.
- Bus tubs - used to bus tables at restaurants, these gray or black plastic tubs (with optional lids) have many uses. I bring four and use three for the required wash-bleach-wash station and one for seasoning the ribs. I also use the lids to move ribs to and from the smoker.
- Sauce brush - if you use a natural bristle brush, be very aware of stay bristles ending up in your sauce and on your ribs, which can result in a one point deduction (out of a total of nine points) for appearance, as the bristles are foreign objects. The same goes for small pieces of foil and toothpicks.
- Scissors - for trimming the green leaf lettuce or parsley garnish in your turn in box (more on that below).
- Long wooden skewer - for pushing stray lettuce into the turn in clamshell once it is closed.
- Clock - use your phone, watch, or a portable clock with a fully charged battery. Either way, sync up your timing device with the judges' official turn in clock.
- Bleach - for the rinse tub at your sanitizing station. I also pack bleach wipes, sponges, and/or sanitizing spray to quickly clean tables and equipment.
- Coolers - one for raw meat and one for non-meat essentials like beverages and garnishes (if required in the competition). You may also want a third cooler to create a faux Cambro for holding meat once it is done.
- Heat resistant gloves - check out our review of gloves made from synthetic, leather, and other fabric materials.
- Heavy duty foil - for wrapping ribs.
6) Bring only essential food. As with equipment, you don't need more than what you will use at the contest. Here's what I bring for rib competitions:
- Ribs - I always cook 4 slabs so that I have options when it comes time to select the best 8 or so ribs for the turn-in box.
- Mayo - a binding agent helps the rub stick to the ribs. Some folks use mustard but I prefer the neutral taste of mayonnaise. It's basically fat, and fat is good!
- Dry rub - try Meathead's Memphis Dust.
- Kosher salt - if you're confused about kosher salt vs. table salt vs. sea salt, The Science Of Salt.
- Butter - I use unsalted butter (you could also use a butter substitute in stick form or a squeeze bottle) for wrapping the ribs.
- Sweetener - I go with two, a liquid one like honey or agave syrup and a dry one like brown sugar, both for wrapping the ribs.
- Fruit juice - more liquid for softening the ribs when wrapped.
- Barbecue sauce - I like KC Masterpiece original as a base sauce, and I modify it by adding natural cherry juice, chipotle powder and one or two other seasonings.
- Lettuce or parsley - some pitmasters have excellent tips on garnishing with parsley, but I have done exactly one parsley box in my life and I intend to keep it that way. Instead, I am fully committed to the dying art form of lettuce boxes.
- Beverages - bring two extra cans of adult or non-adult beverages to help shape your turn in box. Two cans create the perfect indention in the center of your garnish in which the meat can rest comfortably. Simply prepare your garnish then set the cans side-by-side in the center to create the indention.
7) Review the KCBS guide to your first contest. This comprehensive document is full of great information and additional tips.
8) Arrive early. Allow some extra time to meet other teams and ask questions. Most competitors are more than willing to help out new teams and answer a few questions. Take heed of their knowledge and guidance.
9) Attend the cook's meeting. You want to make sure you have all the turn in times and rules down pat. This is also when you will receive your 10x10 Styrofoam box. Double check that your team number matches the one on the box. Otherwise, you'll be cooking some amazing ribs for some other team. Also, keep the box turned right side up. It's very easy to build a turn in box upside down only to have to rebuild it at the turn in table.
10) Wrap your ribs. Unlike the ribs I prepare at home, I always wrap competition ribs (a.k.a. The Texas Crutch: Wrap in Foil to Tenderize and Speed Cooking). This step speeds up the cooking and softens the meat to create the perfect flavorful bite for the judges. They usually only take one or two tastes, so the ribs must be perfect and on time.
11) Avoid overcooked ribs. It's a common misconception that ribs should be "fall-off-the-bone" tender. If the meat falls off the bone, the ribs are overdone. Judges are actually looking for ribs with a clean bite and a satisfying chew.
12) Turn in on time. Don't risk getting disqualified! KCBS has a 10 minute turn-in window, which is five minutes before the 12:30pm turn-in time until five minutes after. Be ready.
Competition Ribs Recipe
Makes. 2 to 4 servings
Takes. 10 minutes of prep. 5 hours to smoke.
Special Tools. Heavy duty foil. Four to five chunks of your favorite smoking wood.
Serve with. Belgian white beer or bourbon cocktail.
2 slabs St. Louis cut ribs (a.k.a. center cut ribs)
1/4 teaspoon Morton Coarse Kosher Salt per pound of meat
Meathead's Memphis Dust dry rub
1/4 cup mayonnaise**
1/2 cup (1 stick) margarine such as I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, cut into 1/2 tablespoon pieces
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup apple juice
1/2 cup of your favorite BBQ sauce
* About the salt: Remember, kosher salt is half the concentration of table salt so if you use table salt, use half as much. Click here to read more about salt and how it works.
** About the mayonnaise: The use of mayonnaise is completely optional but is something that I have done for years. As with the more popular yellow mustard, the mayonnaise serves as a binding agent for the dry rub without altering the flavor of the finished meat. Unlike mustard, mayonnaise is high in fat, something that can only benefit the ribs).
1) Prep. Remove the membrane from the slabs of ribs (read more on removing the membrane here).
2) Season the ribs with Kosher salt. If you can, give the salt 1 to 2 hours to be absorbed. The process of salting in advance is called dry brining. The rule of thumb is 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat, but ribs consist of only about 50% meat, so use about 1/4 teaspoon per pound. You can simply eyeball it by sprinkling on the same amount of salt you would sprinkle on the ribs if they were served to you unseasoned.
3) Fire up. Prepare a smoker for indirect cooking. Alternatively, you can set up a charcoal grill for 2-zone cooking by placing a chimney full of lit charcoal briquets on one side of the grill's charcoal grate in order to create direct and indirect cooking zones. Adjust the smoker or grill vents to bring the temperature to about 225°F and add two to three chunks of your favorite smoking wood to the charcoal for flavor. On a gas grill, adjust the temperature knobs so that one half of the grill is off and the other half is heated enough to maintain a temperature of approximately 225°F on the indirect side.
4) Once the smoker or grill is ready, brush both sides of ribs with mayonnaise and season with Meathead's Memphis Dust dry rub.
5) Cook. Place the slabs of ribs meat side up on the main cooking grate as far away from the heat source as possible. Cover the smoker or grill. Allow the ribs to smoke until the meat just begins to shrink back from the ends of the bones, about 3 1/2 hours.
6) Lay out two double layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil approximately eight inches longer than the ribs. Top each double layer of foil with two tablespoons of butter, one tablespoon of honey drizzled over the butter, and two tablespoons brown sugar sprinkled over the top. Lay the ribs meat side down on the butter, honey and brown sugar mixture. Place another two tablespoons butter, a tablespoon of honey, and two tablespoons brown sugar evenly on top of the bone side of each slab of ribs. Fold up the sides of the foil to create a boat, pour in the apple juice, and loosely seal the foil.
7) Place the foiled ribs sealed side up on the smoker or grill and cook until the ribs shrink back from the ends of the bones by 1/4 to 1/2 inch, about 1 hour.
8) Remove the ribs from the smoker or grill and cautiously open the foil packet to allow the steam to escape. Remove the ribs from the foil and set them back on the smoker or grill meat side up. Cover the smoker or grill and allow the ribs to cook until tender but not falling off the bone, about 20 minutes. We prefer to use the "bend test." Use tongs to pick up one end of the slab of ribs, then bend them slightly. If they are ready, the slab with bow until the meat starts to crack on the surface.
9) When they are ready, brush sauce on both sides of the ribs and turn them meat side up on the smoker or grill. Cover the smoker or grill and cook until the sauce sets and becomes tacky, 3 to 4 minutes.
10) Serve. Remove the ribs from the smoker or grill, and slice. For competition, set 4 to 5 ribs side-by side in the turn in box and top with another 4 to 5 ribs.