Supporting a great cause!

Being a championship BBQ pitmaster, caterer and just all-around barbecue fanatic, it seemed only natural that I would get involved in organizing and putting on a barbecue competition on my home town of Pleasant Hill, Missouri. So when the opportunity arose six years ago, I embarked upon a new adventure, partnered with my then barbecue teammate Stan Hays and created “Smokin’ on Big Creek”. What started as a small event with 48 teams has grown into one of the largest and most popular barbecue competitions in the Kansas City area. The last two years, we have hosted over 70 teams in this professionally sanctioned barbecue competition. Over the years, we have raised money for the Brain Injury Association, March of Dimes, Meals on Wheels and most recently for Operation BBQ Relief. This is a 501c3 not-for-profit disaster relief organization that I co-founded after the deadly and historically destructive Joplin, Missouri tornado in May, 2011.

Many times when the public attends a barbecue competition, they come away disappointed because they could not sample food cooked by the professional competitors. And while health department regulations prohibit our teams from handing out food to the public, there are ways our visitors can enjoy themselves through what’s known as a “people’s choice” competition or simple vending on site. During years past, we have held this people’s Choice competition where teams, while following all food safety requirements as outlined by the health department, turn in their best pork, sausage and chicken wing entries to our volunteers. The public is able to pay an entry to sample these and vote for their favorites. This year, we’re going a slightly different route, vending complete slow-smoked barbecue meals for $5 each! All the money raised from this event goes to help fund disaster relief efforts of Operation BBQ Relief. Additionally, the public can walk around the grounds and visit with the teams and maybe grab a few barbecue pointers. The 2013 edition of “Smokin’ on Big Creek” takes place on Friday/Saturday, April 5-6 at the Cass County Fairgrounds in Pleasant Hill, Missouri. If you’re in the area, come on out, enjoy some tasty food and support a great cause!

If you don’t happen to be in the Kansas City area (and I know most readers probably are not), find out if there’s a barbecue competition in your area and go visit. Some competitions don’t have the sampling we have and there may be a good reason for that. Please understand that not all competitions are able to do this or even have a need to do so. We hear so often of people going out to visit a competition, only to come away disappointed and angry that they couldn’t sample. Please understand that it’s not always within the contest organizer’s control whether it is possible. And the teams are usually instructed not to hand out samples to keep the organizers out of hot water. It avoids some hard feelings if you find out ahead of your visit what the contest offers. But by all means, if you have an interest in barbecue, either from a cooking or eating standpoint, go walk around, talk to the professionals and get some useful tips and hear some great stories! We barbecue pitmasters love to tell a good story! Whether they’re true or not, well, that depends on who you talk to!

Traditional Easter Ham

The calendar says March so, of course, spring can’t be far away. That means Easter will be here before we know it. It’s early this year, falling on March 31, only two weeks after St. Patrick’s Day. When I think of Easter eats, things like hard boiled eggs and ham come to mind. Ham became an Easter tradition for a very simple reason – early American settlers placed their hams in smokehouses generally in October and November and therefore they were finished by Easter. Families celebrated with their cured, smoked hams that were just ready to eat. Today, most of us purchase our hams already cured and sometimes even smoked from the local grocery store but the tradition has continued.

Even smoked hams will taste much better if you smoke them yourself. The smoke process in a commercial processing setting is not what you can do at home and smoking even a “smoked” ham will improve the flavor dramatically. When looking for the perfect ham to smoke, you’ll want to find one at least 10 to 12 pounds and bone in. I like the half shank ham and look for spiral cut as they will absorb more smoke and glaze than a regular non-cut ham that you’ll have to score yourself. Any ham that says “ham/water product” is NOT acceptable. Sure you can smoke it but it is a processed ham and not at all what you’ll enjoy on Easter or any time. Keep in mind that you can accomplish great smoked flavor cooking your ham offset from the coals and wood chips or propane flame in something as simple as a backyard grill. And since we’re basically re-heating an already cooked ham, with a tasty recipe, you can make something almost as good in the oven. In a smoker, grill or the oven, you’ll want to cook heat/smoke your ham for approximately three hours at 225 degrees F. In a smoker, add some chunks of hickory, pecan or oak. On a grill, use the same wood except soak the wood chips and sprinkle on the coals before you put your ham on. You can also use wood pellets wrapped in foil pouches with holes poked in them. This method can also be used on a gas grill. If cooking in the oven, unless you want to deal with your smoke detectors, don’t put any wood in! While I don’t care for liquid smoke, you can add a little bit to the glaze if you want. Personally, I’d rather skip any smoke if that’s all that’s available.

You’ll want your ham up to 145 degrees F or, if cured but not cooked, at least 160 degrees F. This should take about three hours. For the first two hours, just let it rise in temperature with constant smoke (if using the grill or smoker). Then, the last hour, baste every ten to 15 minutes with the following recipe:

1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup (dark grade B has more flavor than grade A)
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1-2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons instant coffee granules
1 tablespoon dry ground mustard
2 tablespoons orange juice concentrate

Place all of these ingredients together in a sauce pan and whisk together until it forms a thick sauce.

This will seep into the spiral cut slices and your ham will taste fantastic, one of the best you’ve ever had! Happy Easter, everyone!

Backyard Barbecue: Comparing to Competition Barbecue

Most people who cook barbecue can do it well. Competing is another story. We often see people get into competition barbecue because their family, friends and neighbors all tell them how great their ribs, chicken, pork or brisket is and that they should enter a competition. This is a great reason to jump into competition barbecue but don’t expect to win right from the start. Why not? Honestly, cooking delicious barbecue is the easy part. A successful pitmaster must also learn how to compete. There are many small things you must learn in order to do well in a competition. Most of these things are little tricks that you learn over a period of time, some related to your recipes and some towards your presentation and even some that apply to how and when you turn in your entry to judges. But what REALLY makes competition barbecue different from backyard barbecue?

The biggest difference is the flavor profile. While most backyard barbecue relies on simple seasonings, some hickory smoke and sauce, competition pitmasters must take things to new heights. The reason behind this is simple – barbecue judges eat a lot of meat in a brief time period and because of this, most will take only one bite of each entry. Sometimes if we’re lucky, they’ll take two. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that pitmasters are able to “wow” judges in one bite. Often, these competitors will layer on two or three kinds of rubs and seasonings to get the flavor profile they are looking for. Even after cooking the meat, successful pitmasters are still working it, trying for that “wow factor” that will set them apart from the competition. More seasonings, a little sauce and then sometimes even that special little “kick” right before placing in the entry box for turn in take competition barbecue to levels of flavor that backyard cooks rarely achieve – or would even want to achieve.

Most pitmasters don’t stop there. Many times, even before the dry seasonings, meats are injected with solutions that add more flavor AND help preserve the juiciness of the finished product. It has truly become a cooking science with some of these injections. You know it’s serious when barbecue cooks start talking water molecules bonding to the proteins in meat to retain moisture! Add to that the various types of woods used to smoke in competitions and it can boggle the mind of even the most serious of backyard barbecue experts, most of whom don’t even own an injection needle!

Beyond flavor profiles, competition barbecue differs from backyard because of cuts chosen by the pitmaster. While most backyard barbecue turns out great brisket with a simple choice grade cut, competitors often look specifically for prime grade, Certified Angus Beef (CAB) or even wagyu beef, an American version of the expensive Kobe Japanese beef. Rather than the popular white meat chicken, most competitors look for thighs because dark meat retains moisture more easily than white. While both backyard cooks and competitors use Boston butts for pulled and sliced pork, competitors look for butts with the specific muscles they plan to use being the largest possible. Pork ribs are all over the board, with some using spares and some babybacks. Either way, the pitmaster is looking for the meatiest slabs with the straightest bones possible. Backyard cooks don’t really care how the rib bones are aligned – there’s no reason they should.

If you’re looking for some tasty barbecue, a good backyard cook will provide a much more enjoyable experience than what you would eat at a barbecue competition. While initially, you will be amazed at the flavor of competition meat, after a few bites, you’ll realize that you can’t eat much of what’s turned in to judges because of the seasonings and so forth. It’s really good but really over the top on flavor. Most competition cooks who also cater and cook for friends will tell you they don’t go to near the work at home that they do for the barbecue judges at competitions. It’s just not necessary. As for me, I don’t recall ever actually injecting any meat for home use or our catering. What you’ll usually find is that any competition cook who is used to over-the-top flavor profiles can easily tone it down and make some spectacular food for home or catering. These are the folks you’ll want to contact if you need an event catered. You’ll usually pay a little more but the quality you’ll get is well worth the expense!