Competition BBQ Flavor Profiles – The Basics

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BBQ Competition Flavor Profiles

BBQ Competition Flavor Profiles

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.

America's Best Barbecue

America’s Best Barbecue

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.

Smoke

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.

Smoke

Smoke

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!

Competition Rubs

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.

Competition Sauce

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.

Sauce

Sauce

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.

 

Winter Competition Practice

Comp thigh comparison

Comp thigh comparison

Competition season is well underway and I’m just days away from my first event this year. It’s really exciting to get out there again and see all my BBQ friends and meet new folks. I’m also excited to try my new recipes I have developed over the winter. Practice was something I wanted to emphasize after the American Royal. Kansas City was a taste of what kind of dedication I needed to improve my scores and win some trophies.

After some time off for the holidays, I hit the ground running in January. Every weekend, I practiced and tweaked my flavor profiles and techniques for chicken, pork and brisket. My ribs did well for me last year, a wrinkle was added, but it remained the same recipe. Did I mentioned how much I practiced?

Months later, I have a plan for all 4 categories. Here are few shots on what got me to this point.

Competition chicken prep

Competition chicken prep

Chicken thighs topped with butter

Chicken thighs topped with butter

Thighs done

Thighs done

These chicken thighs were not what I had in mind. They looked good, my trimming skills are improved, but the flavors were not there and the chicken was over cooked. Back to the drawing board.

Practice pork butt

Practice pork butt

Pork practice box

Pork practice box

I was happy with the way my pork turned out. A little refinement was all that it needed. Of course, I will need to cook additional pork butts because I cut off the money muscle during the cook which is illegal in KCBS competition. Nonetheless, the following pork practice was such a success that I purposely didn’t take pictures because I probably would have posted them here. However, if the judges love the pork in competition, I will most definately post it.

2nd Chicken practice

2nd Chicken practice

Sauced competition thigh

Sauced competition thigh

Tenderness and moistness improved greatly on my second chicken attempt when I cut the cooking time down, but the presentation was not what I liked. The rub washed right off when I brushed the sauce on, it was a mess. A new sauce was just what my chicken needed to boost flavor, I’m digging this chicken.

Practice brisket

Practice brisket

My brisket compeititon recipe was completely over hauled. Last year, I just couldn’t impress the judges. This year, I’m not using any sauce…it’s all in the Au Jus!  I love the flavor but I’m skittish on whether this would work. There is only one way to find out, I hope it ends with a call.

Final chicken practice

Final chicken practice

I’m not sure if the judges will like my chicken, but DAMN!!!…it was good!. Appearance, taste and tenderness were absoluetly there in this batch of thighs. I fixed all the problems I had before and it all came together perfectly. Can’t wait to see what the judges think of all my barbecue.

Saber Grill Review

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Saber Grill LLC

Disclaimer: Saber Grills, LLC contacted me regarding an offer for a complementary grill. By accepting a Saber Grill, I was under no obligation to write a favorable review nor was I paid to do so. My analysis of products on this blog will not be influenced by any type of compensation. In addition, I am not liable for any recommendation or instruction of the product that appears in this review.

Spring has arrived and many of you are considering a high end grill this season, look no further…the Saber Grill Cast 500 (Model R50CC0312) is the answer. Saber grills (Retails for $999.00) are the grandiose adaptation of Char-Broil’s line of infrared grills. This souped up cooker is tough and built to last, but the most impressive feature is the ability to produce picturesque, juicy food. Not to mention the overall quality of this propane grill has a good dose of bling bling.

Out of the Box

For starters, if you’re a stickler for the care of your package like I am, prepare to have your mind blown. My Saber Grill was packed tighter than antique artwork. Every nook and cranny had packing foam, plastic or cardboard protecting every piece of hardware…literally! Even the screws, washers and nuts were meticulously packaged so you know you won’t be missing these essential parts. This leads me to believe that something special is in this box.

Saber Grill in package

Saber Grill in package

In addition, the stainless steel sections were sturdy and heavy…an indication of a well built cooker. So much so, that I needed a buddy, Tony, to help me lift some parts. No problem, we grabbed a beer and unfolded the assembly instructions which was as large as a world map. This was because the graphics were enormous, perfect for the farsighted griller. Clear instructions were much appreciated along with detail boxes to show close ups. Total time of assembly: a 6-pack, equivalent to about an hour.

One nugget of advice for assembly, the edges are sharp and we sustained a couple of cuts as one would handling stainless steel edges. None were remotely serious, but still, gloves would protect your hands. Nonetheless, we fought through our pain and suffering to complete the assembly.

Saber Grill Assembled

Saber Grill Assembled

Sable Grill Profile shots

Saber Grill Profile shots

Afterwards, Tony and I gazed upon the Saber Grill in complete awe, then we looked at each other as if we telepathically said…GRILL MEAT! Okay, that didn’t happen, but we were impressed with the grill space. Easily you can stretch out a couple racks of ribs or place a whole turkey on this bad boy. Additionally, if you’re a patio partyer, there is plenty of room for burgers and brats for your large gathering of friends, family or neighbors.

As I eluded to at the beginning, the Saber Grill brand is manufactured under the same parent company that produces Char-Broil grills. Thus the infrared grill technology, which became a sensation for Char-Broil, is the focal point to this outdoor cooker and rightfully so. What you get is a more flavorful and juicier product on the grates.

Saber Grill surface assembly

Saber Grill infrared technology

Saber Grilling in Action

Instead of further boring you with specs and such (which you can find here), why don’t we get to the good stuff…grilling!

What can’t you do on this grill? I put the Saber grill through a rigorous course of techniques and skill that few gas grill are able to achieve. This stainless steel brute has the ability to roast peppers, cook delicate foods, sear and smoke meats to tender, juicy perfection.

It’s easy to write about how simple it was to grill on this amazing cooker, so here are the results in all its delicious glory!

Roasted peppers on Saber Grill

Roasted peppers on Saber Grill

Brats on the Saber Grill

Brats on the Saber Grill

Roasted Peppers and Brats plated

Roasted Peppers and Brats plated

Indirect Cooking on the Saber Grill

Here’s a tip for high heat meat grilling…Most grill masters make the mistake of searing the outside of meat, but not cooking the inside. The best method is to cook indirectly (see the 2-zone method) after searing. In other words, turn one end burner on high while the other burners are turned off. I illustrate this below…this is my favorite setup to perfectly cook anything on the grill.

Indirect on the Saber

Indirect on the Saber

Notice which burners are turned off and on. Above, the far left is on and reads 500+ degrees on the temp gauge. The other burners are off, but look what they read on the temp gauge…between 250-300 degrees. Use the hot side for searing, use the cool side to finish at the desired internal temperature of the meat. This is a great rule of thumb to have succulent, tender meat.

More grilling on the Saber Cast 500

I was impressed how intense the heat was on my grill, it reached in excess of 600 degrees in minutes! As a result, I achieved some wicked grill marks. Grill marks not only make your food look appetizing, they add flavor to your palate. Furthermore, I was able to cook pizza dough on my Saber grill to perfection without burning or sticking the grates…amazing!

Grilled chicken on the Saber

Grilled chicken on the Saber

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As you can see, the Saber Grill can cook a variety of cuisines. But how does it perform on the most important test for a grill…cooking a steak!?!? On this final task, I select two delectable cuts of steak; teres major and a prime strip.

Prime strip steak on the Saber Grill

Prime strip steak on the Saber Grill

Prime Strip Steak with fried shallots

Prime Strip Steak with fried shallots

Look at those grill marks! My strip steak was juicy and full of flavor. Notice that the steak is not burnt, an indication of even heat distribution. Even more, the fat drippings did not cause flare ups. Instead, it dissipated and enhanced the savory meat….gotta love that infrared technology!

Lastly was a teres major steak, a delicacy in my region (St. Louis, MO). However, I intended to add smoke this time. I placed a handful of dry pecan wood chips directly on the grate. Pecan wood has a mild scent, the smoke will infuse the meat during the cook to add a layer of smoky flavor. Typically, wood chips flame up when placed directly on gas grills.

Smoking on Saber Grill

Smoking on Saber Grill

Teres Major steak on Saber Grill

Teres Major steak on Saber Grill

Not on the Saber Grill! The wood chips lightly smoldered on the grates for a long period of time. They didn’t flame up despite the fact that the surface was more than 600 degrees! Because of this, I was able to enjoy my smoke infused steak. I would be enticed to try smoking ribs on the Saber! Here is the final product cooked to my liking…look at all that juice!

Teres Major steak, sliced

Teres Major steak, sliced

My Saber Grill was able to do so much, it did everything I wanted except fetch me a cold pale ale. I highly recommend this cooker for those who are ambitious with their cooking and can appreciate a well built grill.

BBQ Throwdown @ STL Home Fires

Al Bowman (left). Bill Grenko (right)

Al Bowman (left). Bill Grenko (right)

Some of the biggest rivalries stand the tests of time…

Ali vs Frazier
Coke vs Pepsi
Microsoft vs Apple
Letterman vs Leno

…then again, most rivalries don’t mean jack squat like this one:

Bill Grenko vs Al Bowman

These gladiators of the grates went mano y mano to see who could produce the best 3 BBQ courses. The throwdown venue was held at the St. Louis Home Fires store in Ballwin, MO. Their mission was to cook a championship football themed menu which included an appetizer, sandwich and party wings. Who had the best BBQ? Neither of them did, but between the two, one had to win!

Meat the competitiors

Bill Grenko is the pitmaster for Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels BBQ Competition Team. He cooked on his custom made drum barrel smoker from Gateway BBQ Store. BG’s secret to cooking great BBQ is making his own rubs and sauces.  His favorite ingredient is bacon and he is widely considered a notorious shigging expert.

BG’s Menu:

  • Appetizer – Pork Shots
  • Sandwich – Pork Tenderloin
  • Party Wings – Smoked with Code 3 Spices Back Draft Rub
Bill's entries

Bill’s entries

Bill's drum smoker

Bill’s drum smoker

Big Al Bowman is the founder of Canadian Bakin’ BBQ Competition Team. His cooker for the evening was the mighty Black Olive smoker, a pellet-kamado style grill (sold at St. Louis Home Fires). Al has a tendency to eat anything with “ghost peppers” in it and there is controversy whether his competition meat has performance enhancing flavors.

Big Al’s Menu:

  • Appetizer – Jalapeno Poppers
  • Sandwich – Pulled Pork
  • Party Wings – Super Wings with Super Sauce
Al's entries

Al’s entries

The Black Olive

The Black Olive

Before they started to fire up their grills, both participants were instructed to incorporate 1 of 3 BBQ rubs by Code 3 Spices in each entry. Code 3 Spices donate proceeds from purchases to aid military and first responder charities. Not only is this a first class cause, it’s a first class ingredient for all types of meat, seafood and vegetables. Read my review here.

As the duel went underway, less than desirable conditions were concerns for the battle at the BBQ boutique. Gusty winds and torrential rain became a challenge for the pitmasters as they try to hold consistent grill temperatures. Despite this, they accomplished their task and the entries were immediately served to the judges.

Judges at St. Louis Home Fires

Judges at St. Louis Home Fires

Frank Schmer talking to his guests

Frank Schmer talking to his guests

I had the distinct honor to help serve these tasty treats to the guests in attendance that evening. Afterwards, I had my own sample plate and I was glad I didn’t have to vote because all the food was amazing. I was even able to pluck extra jalapeno poppers and chicken wings while the opponents talked to the guests inside.

In a unanimous vote, albeit each category was close, Bill Grenko swept the throwdown challenge to take bragging rights. Al was gracious in defeat, congratulating Bill while at the same time, asking for a rematch due to the close results. The two backyard warriors decided to settle it on the competition circuit once and for all. I doubt it will be settled, but I anticipate some trash talking in this ongoing rivalry.

Great job guys! Both BG and Big Al were nice enough to share their appetizer recipes from this throwdown.

Bill Grenko’s Pig Shots

Ingredients

  • Johnsonville Smoked Pork Sausage
  • Thick Cut Bacon
  • Code3 5-0 Rub
  • 8 oz. Cream Cheese
  • 1 cup Mexican 4-cheese Blend
  • 3 oz Diced Green Chiles
  • Brown Sugar
  • Toothpicks or Skewers

Instructions

  1. Cut sausage into ½ inch disks
  2. Wrap ½ piece of bacon around the sausage to form a “shot “
  3. Fix bacon in place with a toothpick or skew several shots together
  4. Mix softened cream cheese, cheese blend and chiles in a bowl
  5. Spoon cheese mixture into each shot
  6. Top the cheese with brown sugar
  7. Lightly sprinkle shot with 5-0 rub
  8. Cook indirect at 300 degrees until bacon is crisp (approx. 75 – 90 mins)

Note: Smoke is optional

Big Al’s Jalapeno Poppers

Ingredients

  • 30 jalapenos, halved lengthwise, seeds and membrane removed.
  • 2 packages apple or hickory smoked bacon, thin cut if available

For the filling….

  • 2 packages cream cheese
  • 1 tbs brown sugar
  • ½ cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • ¼ cup your favorite bbq sauce such as Nellie’s Hot BBQ Sauce
  • 1 tbs your favorite hot bbq rub such as Code 3 Backdraft Rub

Instructions

  1. Fill each pepper half with filling, taking care not to over-fill.
  2. Slice strips of bacon in half crosswise.  Wrap each filled pepper with a piece of bacon.
  3. Sprinkle each assembled pepper lightly with more bbq rub.
  4. Smoke peppers at 300 degrees with Mojobricks cherry until bacon crisps…about one hour
  5. During the last 10 minutes, baste peppers with more bbq sauce.

Pumpkin Spiced Pork Loin

A Fall treat for me is anything that taste like pumpkin…pie, bread, beer, etc. But have you ever tried pumpkin ribs? It’s amazing…Scott Thomas, author of the Grillin’ Fools blog, created this wonderful rub that reflects the essence of the holiday season.

While Scott has perfected the pumpkin ribs, I’ve had other uses for it such as the Blueberry Muffin Stuffed Fatty. This time, I used the rub on a 2lb pork loin that turned out amazing. Look for yourself…

Pumpkin Spice Rub

1 tbsp pumpkin pie spice
1 tbsp brown sugar
1 tbsp granulated garlic
1 tsp paprika
black and white pepper

Instructions

  1. Set up the grill for smoking or the 2-zone method @ 250 degrees
  2. Mix all the spice rub ingredients together.
  3. Coat the pork with the rub.
  4. Place pork loin on the cool side of the grill and cook until the internal temp reaches 135 degrees (about 2  hours).
  5. Apply BBQ sauce the last 15 minutes of cooking.
  6. Remove the meat from the grill and onto a  platter to rest for 10 minutes.
  7. Slice and serve immediately.

Brine

An extra step to make the pork loin juicy is to soak it in a brine. It makes a huge difference for lean cuts of meat like a pork loin. Here is a simple brine mix I used, it’s excellent with pork or poultry…

  • 6 cups of water
  • 1/3 cup Kosher salt
  • 1/3 cup White sugar
  • 1/2 White onion, quartered
  • 4 Garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 Lime, quartered

Brine instructions

  1. In a sauce pan, bring the water, salt and sugar up to a boil until ingredients are dissolved.
  2. Pour brine into a large container with a lid to seal. Add the rest of the brine ingredients and place in the refrigerator overnight.
  3. Add the meat to the brine and soak for a few hours or 1 day in the refrigerator.
  4. Dry off the meat with paper towels when ready to grill.

Pork loin in a brine makes it juicy.