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.

 

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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.

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.

Recent Grilling Session

Image

At the time, I had some Grill Mates Zesty Herb Marinade and 2 lbs of skirt steak, so why not combine them. End result is a Herb Marinated Grilled Skirt Steak Sandwich. The sandwich is slathered with cilantro-jalapeno aioli.

Jalapeno-Cilantro Aioli:

  • 1/2 cup Mayo
  • 1 Jalapeno (most seeds removed)
  • 1tbsp Chopped cilantro
  • 1/2tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1tbsp Lime juice
  • Sea salt & coarse ground pepper
  1. Put all ingredients into a food processor and blend until smooth.
  2. Refrigerate until ready to use.