First time competing in a championship BBQ competition and I think I can call myself an expert in something. Well at least an expert in how to become a successful beginner.
A couple of months ago I received an invitation from some exceptional fellow bloggers to join their BBQ team. BBQ Junkie, Survival Gourmet and Professor Salt were the other members of our rainbow coalition. Why me, because they needed a fourth, I live in L.A. where I have blogged about doing BBQ and smoking meat previously. No other credentials. Actually, I was probably the least experienced compared to the others in the competition thing. My past experiences included just cooking for family and friends backyard style on a gas grill with G getting credit for all things smoked.
So now I needed to really try and smoke something on a real smoker. I volunteered to do the pork entry as this was probably the easiest to do and the most forgiving if you made any mistakes. My teammates did not try to dissuade me. I then entered into a nearly two month practice session where I must have cooked at least 8 pork butts over time in order to arrive at my ready for championship stage and to decide what seasoning/rub recipe and process I would finally use. Practice makes nearly perfect.
My very first practice using G's smoker: G, my husband has a couple of smokers which I classify as old, not very efficient and probably only worth smoking fish or other meats which don’t require a long slow cook.
They include a Brinkman, an old New Braunfels cooker and an electric powered Brinkman.
G in the past was responsible for smoking all the meats at our house. My idea of smoking was to use the gas grill, plug up the side rotisserie openings with wads of foil, add an aluminum foil envelope filled with wood chips, poke a couple of holes in the top of it and place it over the lit burners while cooking the meat indirectly on the side without direct heat. It works though it is very hard to maintain the temps and get a good wood smoke flavor compared to the smokers. Though I was successful at doing some meats including brisket using this method, I knew this wouldn't go over very well for a real competition.
Anyway, back to my job with G doing the cooking where I previously only purchased, prepped and seasoned the meats (BBQJ remind you of Rosario?). That I could handle. You can just imagine my first day trying to figure out how to put that smoker together. It’s not rocket science, heck any old drunk hillbilly could do it, but for me it took some studying. I started with the Brinkman. I couldn’t tell the water pan from the charcoal pan and with all the grates G had in the garage, it’s a wonder I was able to find those that went in the Brinkman. I could have asked him but then this would only solidify his belief that he didn't think I knew what I was doing without him to assist me.
One pan had a small what looked like a manufacturer' drilled hole in the bottom. Duh, that must be the charcoal pan. Now, I did know how to use a charcoal chimney but how many coals to put in the charcoal pan was a true test of try and see what happens. I had the same challenge when trying to determine how much wood (chips or chunks) to place on the coals. I chose a combination of chips and chunks because that’s what G had in the garage. He also happened to have apple wood and hickory. Heck there’s all sorts of woods I could pick from including alder, pecan, cherry, hickory, apple and oak. Which one to use? I did look up some information on the internet. However, my cooking sense just suggested that if apples and applesauce go so well with pork, then apple wood had to be my choice.
Well I tell you, this smoking thing was work. Prepping the meat in the past was just a little of this and a lot of that plus some of this and that. In competition BBQ, you have to be consistent just in case you happened upon the perfect blend of spices/seasonings and needed to reproduce it to win again. This meant I had to know how much of each seasoning and spice I used when preparing my rub. This was going to take a few practice runs (8 to be near exact). I hope my family and friends don’t get tired of pork was my thought. Poor neighbors would have to endure the sensual aroma of smoking meats over the 14- 16 hours it took. I could think of worse things neighbors could endure.
Regressing a little bit, let me tell you about meat selection. Choosing between a pork butt and pork shoulder was another decision which I spent some time trying to decide while in my neighborhood S and F's meat section. Both would be suitable for pulled pork. I went with the least expensive which was the butt. My reasoning was that it would have the most fat and it was also the size and weight I wanted. They come in a cryovac container where one butt is cut into two pieces each an average of 6 to 7 pounds each. I also had to decide if I wanted to smoke them with the fat cap on or removed and then whether it would be fat side up or down. So many decisions. Some professionals believe the fat cap needs to be removed so you can get absorption of a more even smoky flavor all over the butt. In addition, the thought is that there is enough fat in the butt to provide plenty of moist meat so the fat cap adds nothing. Then there are some renowned BBQ chefs who believe the cap should remain to assure a moist tender meat. Over time I tried cap on and off, fat up and down and rotated during the cooking process. To be truthful, I didn't find that there was any clear taste advantage to either process though I tended to toward fat cap removal as this did give a nice pink smoke ring all around the meat.
Whether to brine/marinate, spray during the cooking, foil the meat after 165 degrees and whether to use a water pan with water or some other combination of liquids which could include the water from the wood chip soaking water or apple juice or some other creative liquid like Coke or Pepsi. Another decision I had to make. Because during the competition there was no time to marinate the meat after inspection to when I needed to get the meat on the smoker to be ready by judging time, I chose not to marinate or brine. I found that using apple juice, Pepsi/Coke or root beer in the water pan added to a sticky surface inside the smoker over time with no real addition to flavor. I did first choose apple juice for the water pan which was first used to soak the wood chunks and then recycled in the water pan. As noted, it didn't add any more flavor then just spraying the meat during the latter hours of the smoking process. This is where I went against G's recommendation on spraying with apple juice or any other liquid while using a smoker which to jump ahead I finally acquired during the final trials (more on that later). He says that the spraying would increase the potential of causing the internal smoker enamel surface to crack due to some scientific thermodynamic something to do with cool liquid hitting the hot internal hot surface. Oh well, it would be a learning experience to see what actually would happen (so far nothing).
I started out during the initial trials using the new and improved Kingsford briquettes filling the pan about half full. I added about 3 big chunks of apple wood and a handful of hickory chips to start. That old smoker burned through that charcoal and wood like they were going out of business. I wound up adding more wood and charcoal about every hour. The Brinkman was failing. The open bottom was not efficient for smoking pork and limited your ability to control the temperatures. However, that's what I had and my only other alternative was the New Braunfel's which was larger and also had an open bottom. With all this, I still couldn’t maintain a good temperature and to add to that I didn’t have the correct type of thermometer so I’m not sure what temps I had though they did appear to be above 200 degrees. Yes, I admit it now, I used an oven thermometer. It works but after a couple of hours you can’t read it because of the smoke build up around the dial hides the readings. I did use a probe and cable in the meat so that temp was pretty accurate.
I put my first butt on around 8 pm that night. The next morning the internal temp only read 165 degrees, my charcoals were nearly out and from what I could tell from my oven thermometer, the temp on the grate was less than 200. This was about 6:30 am. I removed the butt from the smoker and put it in the oven at 200 degrees. Keep in mind, I had to go to work, so I just thought what the heck, let’s see what happens. I got home around 6 pm and opened the door to the most wonderful smoky odor of braising meat. My meat temp was about 205 and falling off the bone though a little overcooked but still good. I'm learning.
I ventured into my second attempt the next weekend. I changed my seasoning/rub blend a bit, cooked with fat cap removed also using the Brinkman. Same result. After that I moved to using the New Braunfel's smoker. No more success though my seasoning rub mixture is near where I want it and I am a little better with temp controls. My teammate, BigMista recommended a great reference web site at the Virtual Weber Bullet site. Now for those of you who are not familiar with that abbreviation and neither was I before getting into this competition. WSM stands for Weber Smoky Mountain. I'm not going to toot their horn for them but after a bit of research this is what I wanted. You can fill this baby with charcoal and wood which can last as long as 18-24 hours without refilling. You can go to bed at night without having to think about refilling the till or having your temperature fluctuate too much compared to the smokers I was using.
Nearing the date we set for our teams dress rehearsal/ trial run, I was a bit anxious thinking how was I going to smoke this butt with my current smokers. G surprised me the Saturday before the practice run with my very own WSM. He spent the best of one day going from store to store in search of this baby. Finally he found one, had it put together in our living room and ready for me to use. Glory be, I'm cooking with the big boys now.
I did another practice run using my new WSM. I also used a method I found on the Virtual Weber Bullet web site called the Minion Method. I won't go into detail in that I have provided the link for you to read up on this method. How about filling the charcoal bin full of coals and disperse wood chunks throughout? Add lit coals from your chimney and adjust the vents to get the temp you want. This one fill will last 18 to 24 hours and your night of sleep will be undisturbed with the confidence that your temps are stable. I used this method and I was happy except that I had a hard time initially adjusting the temp as it ran a bit too hot. This was probably due to its newness and something to do with the reflective nature of new shiny enamel. My teammates suggested that all I needed to do was use the smoker more to dirty it up inside plus close off the bottom vents. That worked. After a couple of more practice runs, I was ready to compete.
I cannot overstate the importance of the dress rehearsal held at my home. This was an opportunity for us all to get together for the first time. Did I previously mention that we are all food bloggers who met over the internet only recently? We tasted each other’s entry with suggestions for improvements and helpful hints which could be used during the competition. We also practiced dressing the turn in boxes with lettuce and parsley. Initial appearance of the entry to the judges is very important. A sloppy box can get you low scores.
Though we talked about what we needed to bring to the competition each of us was sort of on our own to assure that we had what we needed individually to prepare our entry. BigMista at Survival Gourmet posted a suggestion on this subject. (What we found is that during the competition we had too much stuff including food for ourselves).
The most important aspect of this dress rehearsal to me was that G discovered that this competition is serious and requires a lot of attention to detail including appearance, taste, texture of the meat and compliance with the Kansas City Barbeque Society, KCBS rules. It is not just a matter of a group of folks getting together to BBQ. Though it can be fun, it is not a party per se.
The meat you use during the competition has to be cooked in its entirety at the competition. Nothing can be pre-seasoned prior to the KCBS official meat inspection of your selection held onsite the afternoon you arrive. I call it “virgin” meat. Your seasonings, rubs and sauces may be prepared off site. Sanitation rules are also very important which includes how you store the meat (temperatures cold and warm), cleanliness of your site, dishwashing containers and disinfecting solutions (bleach in water).
I have watched a many FoodTV presentations of championship BBQ competitions in addition to specials on customized mobile BBQ pits and smokers large and small with all sorts of creative individual trademarks and accoutrements. Once we arrived at the Autry National Museum and viewed others setting up, we saw examples of these same types of pits. Larger and highly specialized is not always better nor does it assure championship meat. We knew that a simple WSM could also produce great results. Heck, some competitors had multiple WSMs in addition to large pits. I remember our site neighbor saying he had the WSMs so he could sleep at night. (By the way, they won the BBQn at the Autry Grand Championship using the WSM for pork and brisket. We should have paid more attention to them).
Competition sponsors contribute quite a bit. Donated to each team was an ample supply of ice, soft drinks and water. You can’t be guaranteed of what you’ll receive at each competition but for this one there was plenty of ice and water. Also pay close attention to sponsors of the event for it might give you a clue for what you might want to prepare for the “Anything But” competition. “Anything But” is the entry of anything but pork, chicken, ribs and brisket which might be an additional judging event for the competition. Southwest was the theme for BBQn at the Autry. The winning entry was a rack of lamb dish. California Lamb sponsored the Southwest dish competition. (Doesn’t that make you go- hmmm? Just a thought.)
So Day 1 we set up our area. Our meat is inspected and given the go signal. We attend the official “cooks” meeting at 5pm where we are given an overview of the official KCBS rules including listening to a tape of the most important aspects of competing and judging. The official time clock is set and we adjust our watches accordingly. A story about a winning team that lost as a result of being late turning in their last entry because Food TV network was taping them on their approach to the turn in point – however they were a minute late and thus the entry was disqualified. No one wants anything you have worked that hard on to be disqualified so pay strict attention to the times.
Traditionally chicken is due at noon, ribs at 12:30pm, pork at 1:00pm and brisket at 1:30pm. You have 5 minutes before the time and 5 minutes after the due time to turn in your entry. Nothing before and nothing after the due times.
After the cook’s meeting we continued our preparation for the sauce and “anything but” competition. Turn in times for these were 7:00pm and 7:30pm respectively. Brisket and the pork butt need to go in the smoker by 8 pm the evening before in order to be ready for turn in the next day. With our smokers prepped and ready the pork butt and brisket went on. The competition was on full force. After the sauce and “anything but” turn in, the rest of the evening is filled with visiting, socializing, eating and drinking,
The sun went down and the weather turned cold. Hats, gloves and heavy jackets were in order. Our husbands and wives left for a cozy warm home. Some of our group chose to sleep in the car or truck and others of us in the tent. The next morning would be hectic with chicken and rib prep. The only other chore left for the night was to intermittently check the WSM temps to assure they were stable.
Team work is the key to success in this arena. We were a team and it showed during the whole process. Each person filled in where needed assisting each other from setup to box presentation to cleanup. Wives, husbands and girlfriends there at our sides. Thank you all. As noted we finished 5th in ribs which was thanks to Professor Salt. Our overall results were as reported by BBQ Junkie and at BBQ Dan's site.
I look forward to future competitions.