I’m proud to announce that my team, Four Q BBQ, took fifth place in the rib category at this weekend’s inaugural BBQ’n at theAutry contest in Los Angeles. Overall, we placed 19th out of 29 teams using our basic backyard smokers. We beat ten teams with more sophisticated equipment and more experience, so that’s not too shabby for a bunch of first time competitors. More detailed results are posted on the BBQ Junkie’s report.
I want to thank Big Mista (The Survial Gourmet) for prodding us into this fun, exciting challenge. Two months ago, he approached the BBQ Junkie, who furthered the idea to Sylvie (Soul Fusion Kitchen), and me. We each took on a meat specialty and honed our skills prior to the big contest. I’d also like to thank Mrs. Junkie, who plated our meats beautifully, and all the friends who came out to support us at our first contest. I hope you had as much fun as I did.
Our team first met just three weeks ago at a practice cook at Sylvie’s house. I saw that everyone’s kung fu is very strong. I left that practice session feeling like I was the weak link because several sloppy errors I made led to an embarrasingly undercooked batch of ribs. Couldn’t let that happen at the Autry, so I polished my skills before the contest out of fear of disappointing my team.
Seasoned contest veterans assured me that every barbecue cook has good days and bad, and the game is how to minimize the difference. Even on a bad day, these cooks still put out better barbecue than 95% of the barbecue restaurants out there. More on this later. In the end, we had great fun, met wonderful people, and exceeded our own expectations (which was: don’t finish last).
BBQ contests are a two day affair. We showed up at 8am on Friday to check in and set up our tents. Raw meat is inspected by the judges early in the afternoon to see that it hasn’t been unfairly preseasoned.
We attended a cook’s meeting at 5pm on Friday to review the contest rules, and received styrofoam “turn in” boxes for each kind of meat. The next day, teams submit these boxes to the judges during a predetermined ten minute window. Listen to this podcast from the cook’s meeting about a nationally famous team that missed their time cut and got disqualified at a major contest.
A 12 to 15 pound beef brisket takes up to 16 hours of cooking or more, so it starts cooking first on Friday night. Next up are the pork shoulders, which weigh 5 to 8 pounds, and need 8+ hours. Pork ribs require at least 4 hours depending on their size, and chicken thighs take a little over one hour.
The challenge of contest cooking lies in delivering perfectly cooked meat during that ten minute window. Each meat has different technical demands to acheive perfection, made even more difficult if a team has only one pit to cook in. Brisket and chicken are probably the most difficult to cook well. Low temperatures render out chicken fat, but causes the skin to get rubbery. High temperatures crips the skin, but also shrinks it. Brisket’s difficult because each specimen cooks differently from the next, even if they’re of similar size and weight, and there’s no exact way to know until we cut into it.
Nightsmoke: an `80′s hair band? Teams tend fires throughout the night
Sauced chicken finishes cooking
Brisket ready for turn in
Pork shoulder almost ready for hand shredding
Someone on Chowhound asked derisively if any local big name restaurants were competing at this contest, or if it was just a bunch of amateurs. You have a better shot at eating great barbecue at a contest because these cooks lavish more attention on just a few pieces of meat to please six judges at a specific time we know they’ll eat it. A restaurant can’t possibly spend as much time trimming, seasoning, cooking and tending hundreds of pounds of meat for customers that may or may not arrive when the meat’s optimal.
At most contests, teams can not give samples directly to the public. Instead, they may give their leftover contest meat to the organizer, which sells little sample cups to attendees. There’s also no way that the contestants could supply enough meat for a hungry crowd, so several noncompeting caterers were on hand to cook for the public.
Sample line stretches 100 meters long. This photo shows half of that line.
Vendor sells giant beef ribs cooked Santa Maria style
The photo above shows the Santa Maria style of barbecue made famous by the eponymous central California town. Every weekend in that area, church groups and other vendors raise money by setting up large open pits in parking lots and slowly grill big slabs of beef over smoky, red oak logs. Sirloin tri tip roasts are the traditional cut cooked in Santa Maria, but this caterer used beef ribs. While different from the deeply smoked Southern styles of barbecue, the Santa Maria style of barbecue is equally delicious.
Hungry now? I’ll leave you with a cooking tip you can use at home in your kettle grill: Big Mista showed us the sure fire way to light charcoal in 3 minutes flat. Drizzle a little vegetable oil on one sheet of newspaper, then wad it under a charcoal chimney starter to make a sort of oil candle. The oil burns intensely for several minutes before the paper wick burns up, and by that time, your charcoal is ablaze like the Cuyahoga River.