My Birthday Barbecue

As I have previously said, not only am I a barbecue judge, I am also an avid back-yard barbecue chef.  My first time cooking was back in high school when I tried to slow-cook some ribs.  I didn’t understand the whole "smoke ring" thing and couldn’t understand why the meat got more pink the more I cooked it.  By the end, I would up with ribs that were kind of like a pork jerky, they were so overcooked.  I’ve learned a lot since then.

For my birthday on April 30th, I invited friends over for a barbecue.  I did two types of chicken and ribs: dry rubbed and teriyaki style. For the chicken, I did both legs and thighs.

The teriyaki style chicken and ribs were marinated (separately) in one of my favorite marinades from Paul Kirk’s Championship Barbecue Sauces, one of my favorite barbecue cookbooks.  The ribs marinated for about three hours, the chicken for about 5.  I wish I had done them for longer, but I was out the night before, also celebrating my birthday.

The dry rubbed ribs were rubbed with a variation on a few different rub recipes I like to blend together and vary each time. I need to get a digital kitchen scale so that I can more accurately record what I put in.

The dry rubbed chicken were brined with a 1/4 cup of salt, 1/8 cup of brown sugar, 3/4 gallon of water and half a bottle of Goya’s Mojo Criollo, my new favorite "secret weapon" for chicken.  I let them brine/marinate for about 1 1/2 hours, then rubbed them with a super secret combination of spices and herbs.  So secret, even I don’t know what in it – I really need to get that kitchen scale….  But its some sort of combination of Mrs. Dash, McCormick’s Salt-Free Garlic & Herb and a bunch of other pre-mixed spices that when blended together work magic on barbecued and grilled chicken.

The ribs went on the grill first – I’m using my Char-Griller Smokin’ Pro with the fire in the side fire box.  For fuel, I use Nature’s Own charcoal and some apple, mesquite and hickory wood for flavor.

The ribs cooked for about 5 hours total, with about 30 minutes wrapped in foil.  For parties, I like doing this, since most people like their meat a bit more tender.  30 minutes near the end of the cooking was perfect I found – the meat had set, and it tenderized it with the steam, but didn’t come out greasy, mushy or falling apart.  I finished the ribs with some final teriyaki glaze (also from Paul Kirk’s book) for some and a bit more rub that I sprinkled on and then put directly over the flame for a nice crust.

The chicken was put on about half-way through the ribs cooking time, so they cooked for about 2.5-3 hours total.  Similar to the ribs, the chicken was finished off depending on their initial prep: the teriyaki style got a glaze, and then the dry rubbed got some more rub and grilled.  One of my favorite things to do when cooking thighs is to pull the skin back to expose the meat and the fat lying under the skin.  I then put some rub on and put it over the fire with the skin to one side and the meat exposed to the flame. This allows the rub to char a bit giving it great flavor right on the chicken meat and renders out whatever fat is left under the skin.  It makes for a piece of chicken that is not fatty, tastes nicely barbecued and can be eaten in its entirety.   

I was expecting the teriyaki to be more popular among the general public, but it turns out everyone enjoyed the dry rubbed stuff better.  Dry rubbed ribs and chicken are usually the territory of the most hard-core barbecue fans, so I was a little surprised.  However, even though this is me talking about my own barbecue, I can’t blame them – it came out really great.  But I always love good teriyaki style, and this definitely qualified as good!!


Judging vs. Cooking

One of the topics that gets the most heated debate on the NEBS email list is judging, how judges judge, and whether judges should be required to cook with a team in order to be a judge.

I used to be wholeheartedly on the side of requiring a judge to cook, but as I enter my third year of judging and have seen an increasing amount of self-righteousness among the teams towards their entries, I’ve changed my mind a little bit.  I think that judges should have an understanding of the process of barbecuing – a thorough understanding, in fact.  But the teams who make the strongest and loudest arguments for judges to be cooks are doing themselves a disfavor.  Let me explain…

The arguments which flame up on the mailing list often revolve around relatively nit-picky elements like the temperature of the food the judge eats, garnish and/or presentation, or amount of sauce, rub, and flavor profiles.  One of the arguments that is made for judges being required to cook with at team (they don’t have to have a team of their own – just cook with a team) is that doing so would help them understand why the food could be cold by the time it gets judged, or how hard it is to make a turn-in container look good, or how even the flavor profile can change after it comes off the grill and cools off…

The problem with this argument is that often when an entry gets judged down because it was cold, it is because it affected the taste.  And often out of six entries in a category, the one that gets judged down because of temperature is the only one that arrived cold.  So there’s the hole in the argument: if 5 teams managed to get a warm sample to the table, why couldn’t the 6th.  Wouldn’t it be the 6th team – the one with the cold entry – that would be screaming the loudest for the judge to have empathy for the difficulty of competition barbecue?  If that was the case, then we’d be giving good scores for effort, not for success.

Now, I’m sure someone will say "well, that’s not fair – what if its cool out!!?!?"  Well.. then probably everyone entry will be kind of cold.  And that’s OK.  Or maybe someone will say "you’re not supposed to compare entries when judging!" which is true.  And I don’t.  However, you can’t help but notice that an entry is cold.  If the rest of the entries are cold (and supposed to be warm) and it affects the flavor of each fairly, then its a level playing field.  If only one is cold and the rest are warm, then I’ll judge the cold one on its own merit – how does it taste and feel?  Is it appetizing?  I don’t compare it to the other entries for those qualities, I simply am using the other entries to gauge whether it is an issue with outside temperature or the entries taking too long to get to the table.

So that is just one example of where I think the "judges must cook" argument falls apart.  However, I think that there is definitely a level of education that should be mandatory for judges.  At one contest last year I was speaking with my fellow judges and I was amazed – absolutely blown away – by how many don’t do barbecuing on a regular basis.  I think that if you are an avid backyard BBQ’er, you know how difficult it can be.

I’ve stayed up until the wee hours of the morning cooking a pork shoulder.  I’ve had ribs that I thought would come out great be disappointing and chicken I was unsure of be the hit of a party.  I’ve had side dishes be ready way before the meat (and they think turn-in times are tough!) and vice-versa.  I have a cabinet full of spices and rub mixes that I’ve concocted through the years, a bookshelf of barbecue cookbooks, and a notebook where I keep track of every time I cook, taking note of weather conditions, where I got the meat, what I did to prep it and how I cooked it.

Anyone who says I don’t know barbecue simply because I’ve never cooked with a team can go stick it.  I appreciate what these guys do and that’s a big part of why I haven’t made the plunge yet – its an expensive time-consuming hobby and I’m not ready to do that right now.  Probably someday.  But any cook who makes a blanket statement about the ignorance of judges insults me and anyone else like me.

There are also plenty of cooks who judge from time to time to better understand what the judges are looking for or simply because they didn’t enter the contest.  I think it is equally important for cooks to judge – no cook should berate a judge without judging several contests themselves.  Even then, cooks can have just as odd tastes as any judge.  At a recent contest, a piece of chicken (thigh) that had the lightest possible grill marks, fatty skin, and wasn’t cooked to complete tenderness got rave reviews from two long-time cooks.  I thought it tasted par-boiled, lightly grilled and then heavily sauced.  I had a bigger piece than the other two and there are always differences in each piece in a box, but I found it interesting that two cooks found what i really thought was a sub-par piece of chicken to be extraordinary.  I can’t offer a reason why, I just thought it was, and my fellow "only judges" agreed with me.

I don’t have a truly solid solution – maybe its an informal gathering of cooks and judges where the judges would have a chance to cook with teams without the pressure of a contest, and the cooks could eat with judges and ask what they would judge a particular piece and why.


The Purpose of this Blog

My primary goal of this blog is to document what will hopefully be my tale of becoming a more experienced KCBS Certified Barbecue Judge and going on to compete in barbecue contests.

I’ve been judging for three years and been doing backyard barbecueing since I was about 16 or so.  I don’t even know when, where, or how I fell in love with barbecue.  I used to love eating ribs in restaurants, and then somewhere along the way I discovered "real" barbecue – cooked for hours with low heat coming from charcoal and/or wood.  Smokey, spicy, salty, and tasty – I love it all.