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!