Dry vs. Sauced Ribs

Most "laymen" think of barbecued ribs as being slathered in a sauce of some kind, but for those of us who are die-hard barbecue fans, we know that a truly great barbecued rib doesn’t need sauce – nay, it may be BEST when not covered in a sweet and spicy thick red sauce!

Oh the glories of a dry rubbed rib.  When prepared right, it give the meat a chance to be the shining star – the true center of attention, with the spices providing enough support to make it interesting.  The perfect dry rubbed rib (and in my opinion, the perfect rib, period) will be moist and tender, nearly falling off the bone, but not quite, with a good smoky flavor but not overpowering.  The rub should be interesting and noticeable, but not overwhelming. 

My personal preference leans a bit towards the salty side, with savory flavors such as garlic, onion, celery seed, paprika and chili powder making up the flavor base.  It should be spicy, but not hot, savory but not salty.  The rub should be present in sufficient quantities so that it creates an almost crispy crust – a "bark" – on the outside of the ribs, providing a pleasing light crunch when biting into the meat.

I still enjoy trying a variety of sauces, but when presented with a well-prepared dry-rubbed rib, the sauce should be on the side, serving as a dipping sauce, not slathered on the ribs themselves. 


What is “GOOD” Competition Chicken?

Back in 2004, during my first year of judging the New England Barbecue Competition, I remember having a piece of chicken which was an epiphany.  This was a dry-rubbed chicken thigh perfectly cooked with a great savory spice rub.  The skin was crispy, the meat was tender and juicy, it was cooked perfectly all the way through without falling off the bone or becoming mushy, and it tasted like it had actually been barbecued, not cooked in an oven.  That still stands as the single best piece of chicken I’ve judged since becoming a barbecue judge.

The topic of what is "good chicken" in competition is hotly debated.  Most teams submit chicken thighs – a few will do legs, and only a rare handful will even attempt chicken breast – it dries out too easily.

Thighs are great for barbecuing since they have a lot of flavor and fat, which keeps them from drying out.  However, this also means that they have a lot of fat under the skin which can become rubbery and soggy if not cooked thoroughly.  The new KCBS judging guidelines say to not judge a piece of chicken up or down depending on whether it has skin or not.  I agree with that.  However, a piece of chicken that has good skin will always get higher points from me, since I think it simply has better taste and texture – two of the three things the entry is being judged on. 

What is "good skin"?  It is skin that has been cooked so that at least most of the fat has been rendered out.  Crispy skin is a plus, but simply cooked to the point of tenderness is fine.  "Bad skin" is anything that is fatty, rubbery, and takes away from the taste and texture experience.

However, in the end, the judging isn’t about the skin – its about the meat.  So the biggest complaint I have about many chicken entries is that too many of them taste like they have barely been on a grill or smoker.  I’m not sure how teams manage to cook a piece of chicken over a charcoal or wood flame and not get some smokiness or grill taste in there.  They are juicy, tender and have a nice sauce or rub on them, but they simply don’t taste barbecued.  I’m not looking for something with dark black grill marks, but something that shows and tastes like its been in contact with either an open flame or the grill above an open flame would be great.


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.