At barbecue competitions you are judged on 3 things…appearance, taste and tenderness. In my opinion, taste has the most subjective and complex criteria for judging BBQ. You have to ask yourself, do the judges like sweet, salty, tangy, savory or, spicy…in all instances, yes! Balance is key, not letting one layer of flavor dominate the meat. However, keep in mind that there is no right or wrong way to develop flavor profiles, the common denominator is….does it taste good enough to win?
What’s the secret? What is a winning flavor profile? If I knew the answer to that, I’d win the American Royal, Memphis in May and every prestigious barbecue competition out there. On the other hand, I do know enough to compete with the big boys and in order to obtain a winning flavor profile you have to either 1) persuade someone to divulge their prize winning secrets or 2) reveal my own prize winning secrets. While neither of these options will be viewed in this post, my competition recipes and a few other brave souls contributed their winning recipes featured in my cookbook, America’s Best Barbecue: Recipes and Techniques for Prize winning Ribs, Wings, Brisket & More.
Nonetheless, I will share some ideas that have worked for me on the competition circuit that should allow you to formulate an award winning recipe of your own. This post will be part of a series that will be featured in future posts. And just to be clear, I will only discuss the 4 main proteins…chicken thighs, ribs, pork butt and whole brisket (point & flat).
The Basics: Smoke, Rubs and Sauce
First, let’s get these main flavor profiles out of the way…these layers of flavors are the base of competition barbecue. If you leave leave one of them out, you will lose.
Use premium wood; logs, chunks, pellets or bricks. Find them in specialty stores that sell competition smokers, sauces and rubs such as Fireside Hearth and Home in Arnold, MO. Don’t bother with that stuff from the big box home improvement stores, the wood looks too old and of poor quality. For me, fruit wood compliments barbecue meat the best and I win with it…cherry, apple and peach are my go to for flavorful smoke. However, I have also won with hickory and oak, but I save this for when I cook in the backyard.
Some folks go as far as removing the bark from the logs or chunks, I don’t do that because it doesn’t hurt my scores. Nor do I soak wood in water, apple juice, beer, etc., because I want smoke, not steam during this part of the process. I understand that others find soaking wood helps with moisture, to each their own. A movement towards ‘green’ wood, or wood that has been freshly cut is on the rise. Some stay away because sap is believed to affect the smoke essence. I don’t know if that is true, but I heard that the self proclaimed winningest man in barbecue, Myron Mixon is rumored to use green wood. After all, if a cherry tree fell down, I’d be the first one to start a fire to smoke some meat on the spot!
There are so many rubs, great rubs at that, it will make your head spin. I took a gradual approach to arrive at the combination that works best for me. First I tried making my own rubs, I googled for recipes and I bought How-To barbecue cookbooks. After a some time, I realized I wasn’t good at making my own rubs. Second, the grocery store had lots of rubs in the spice aisle…those GrillMates rubs looked pretty good. While I liked them, I figured out that I needed a better product. Third, the BBQ forums told me the best rubs were available online for BBQ competition purists. So I loaded up on Plowboys Yardbird, Dizzy Pig, Smokin Guns and John Henry rubs. With that epiphany, my BBQ started to turn out much better and I had success immediately.
After a couple of years, experimenting with dozens of rubs has resulted in the base for my award winning competition meat. I rub my meat (who doesn’t) with Code 3 Spices, local guys from St. Louis that started making BBQ rubs to help out first responders and military vets. Not a big name on the competition circuit, but I win more with their rubs than any other rubs I’ve used before. In addition, I blend in other rubs for color, sweetness and heat depending on the meat.
What about homemade rubs? I have some buddies in competition BBQ who are excellent at making everything from scratch, rubs are no exception because it results in calls. Code 3 Spices are prime example of this because before their product was mass produced, I tried their homemade rub at a local BBQ contest…instantly, I told they guys it should be bottled up. Next thing you know, they won 1st place. This is why I prefer commercial rubs, I do a little research and pick the ones that are proven to win.
Finally, you can’t go wrong with rubs. Nearly everybody on the BBQ competition scene has a BBQ rub product on the market, support them and maybe they’ll hook you up with some complementary products. There is a lot of hype that rubs contain that little ingredient which makes all the difference, it’s a clever marketing tool but my sorry homemade rub would do just as good because the meat will taste better than with no rub at all.
The zenith of all competition sauce starts and ends with Blues Hog Original. No other competition sauce has been used and imitated as much as the legendary Bill Arnold’s creation has. Many sweet Kansas City style sauces taste like Blues Hog, but if you find a knock-off you like…feel free to use it because it may be unique enough to win against everyone else using Blues Hog.
Similar sweet sauces are Meat Mitch Naked Sauce, The Slabs Amazing Glaze, Plowboys 180 Sauce and Killer Hogs. When I say sweet sauce, that means the first and highest concentrated ingredient is brown sugar. Similarly, tomato based (ketchup, tomato paste, etc.) sauces are just as prevalent in competition BBQ. In fact I like to use a blend of the 2 types of sauces. Some of the the most well known tomato competition sauces are: Head Country, Butcher BBQ Sweet Sauce, Lambert’s Sweet Sauce O’Mine, Cowtown’s Bar-B-Q Sauce, etc.
Quick story, when I took my KCBS judging class we sampled ribs with mustard sauce, my initial reaction was not good, too pungent I thought. When I was called on to explain why I gave a score of 6 for flavor, I told our instructor, Bunny Tuttle, I didn’t like the mustard sauce. She explained to the class even though we may not like mustard (or vinegar) sauce, judges need to keep an open mind. I think she was trying to say that it could have been the best mustard sauce ever, but I won’t give it a chance. That is a resounding, absolute yes!…don’t give me mustard sauce!
The real test is to find the right combination to make the meat stand out. Don’t forget, it’s a BBQ contest, not a sauce contest. So slathering sauce over ribs won’t win, much less get you a call.
Tip: I have tried a few BBQ joints around my area and found they make some good Q sauce. See if they sell their sauce and give it a try at a competition.
This concludes the basic formulation of flavor profiles in competition barbecue. This is also good for backyard weekend warriors if you really want to impress your family, neighbors and friends. Over the summer, I’ll be posting more about building an award winning flavor profile in more detail; next up…chicken. Stay tuned.