Welcome to our first monthly newsletter. As I write this, we are preparing for our first BBQ competition of the year, a Florida Barbecue Association event in Jacksonville, Florida. The event is March 24th and 25th, but we have a big rib cook for a customer this week to complete first. Then we can begin to really focus on Jacksonville.
Since I'm gearing up to compete, I guess that's a good topic for the first newsletter. I know that a lot of bbq enthusiasts dream of competing in BBQ competitions, but don't know where to really start. So I want to discuss everything that we have to do to get ready to compete successfully. Once again, with a contest date looming, the workload monster at my job rears it's ugly head. Working my butt off to be able to compete just makes the experience of competing more satisfying.
People find many ways to relax after a hard work week. They might go fishing, play golf, go to a Nascar race, or camping. But for some of us barbeque nuts, we can think of nothing sweeter than traveling to a small town, setting our smoker and "portable kitchens" next to friends (and believe me every person you cook next to at a contest will treat you like a good friend), and staying up all night focusing on cooking the best barbecue in the world!
My wife really gets on to me about focusing on cooking at a BBQ competition. She knows how much I love barbecue and how easy it is for me to get so excited meeting old and new friends while talking "shop". I get easily distracted . But she is absolutely right about being focused while cooking. I guess that's why I enjoy cooking at contests probably more than I do at home. At home there are just too many distractions. If I'm cooking at a contest, nothing else matters. I don't think or worry about anything except what I need to do to cook my best.
So what does it mean to focus on your cooking? The definition of focus is to be able to see something clearly. I try to have in my mind exactly how I'm going to cook at every contest. But as I get older, it's harder to just remember something. I have to write it down. So for every BBQ contest, I determine exact times for when to prep the meat; when to rub, inject or marinate the meat and so on... in fact every step of the cooking process is listed out on a time line. Having a written time line is really helpful if you are cooking with team members. It allows them to be more involved in the cooking process. And if you win an award, the team members will be able to share in the joy because they were able to help cook.
About two weeks before a BBQ contest, I place orders for the rubs and sauces I will need. Most of the charcoal and wood I use in competitions can be purchased at Home Depot, but I get apple and other smoking woods from a local store dedicated to bbq. A note about charcoal: I try to purchase new bags even if I have partially full bags already at home. I just feel that once a bag of charcoal has been opened, it will quickly begin to absorb moisture from the air. Moisture in charcoal can cause problems with lighting and maintaining the fire.
The weekend before a BBQ competition is a good time to go thru all of our bbq equipment and clean, repair, or replace any items. I load most of my cooking equipment in large plastic containers. On the lid of each container, I make a list of all the items inside the container. Listing the contents of the box on the lid allows me to know where to look for items at the contest. I also use the list to check items off the packing list as I load up the van for the contest. I tape my packing list on the window of the van so that I can easily check items off as they are loaded.
I purchase the competition meats about one to two days before leaving for a contest. Ribs, chicken, and pork butts are all easily found, but brisket can be hard to find at times. I have a butcher that can order Certified Angus Beef briskets as long as I give him ample notice. I always take an ice chest to pick up the meats so that there is no risk of the meat spoiling. When I return home, the meats are put in the bottom of the refrigerator and the temperature is set to the coldest setting. On the day I leave for a contest, the last thing I do is place the meats in a large cooler and cover with ice. The ice chest full of meat is loaded into the van last so that it can be removed first at the contest. This way the meat can be inspected quickly by the contest organizers.
The event organizers did a really great job for a first time event. They had a few problems, but considering the size of the event, the mistakes were minor. The event was held at Metro Park which is just outside of the Gator Bowl. There were quite a few live bands performing and Robby Knieval was to jump across two barges in the St. Johns River, but high winds prevented him from jumping Saturday (postponed until Sunday).
We arrived Friday just after noon and quickly got our cooksite set up. We set up next to a team that we have cooked with before, Big Green Eggs and Ham. As you can imagine, they cook only on Big Green Eggs. The teams on either side of us had large RV's creating a wind block on either side of us. Unfortunately the wind was blowing all weekend right thru the canyon created by the RV's. Being so near the river, the wind chill factor made Friday night even more miserable. I'm so thankful to have such a wonderful wife. She stayed at the cooksite with me the entire weekend. In fact she only got a couple of hours sleep the whole weekend. I don't think I would be half the cook I am without her encouragement and ideas.
But somehow we made it thru the night. Saturday was very pleasant and by 10:30 we were starting to get our chicken ready for turn in. The presentation box we turned in for chicken was one of our best ever. The chicken was tender and tasted really good, but I thought that it was too salty. I had tried a change in the chicken marinade and just had the salt level too high. Chicken has been one of our strongest categories in competition because I believe our sauce is so unique. Most teams turn in chicken with a traditional style bbq sauce, but the sauce we use is so different that it stands out from others. Just too dang salty this time....
Next we worked on ribs. Since we began competing, our rib recipe has remained almost exactly the same. I hate to say this, but again the sauce is what sets our ribs apart from others. Our cooking technique is relatively simple and would probably bore most teams, but the combination we have found with the rub, sauce, and smoke flavoring woods...well, it just works. The ribs we cooked at the BBQ competition in Jacksonville were really good. We had one rack of ribs that were just outstanding and we tried to get all of our turn ins from that slab. As we were nearly finished with the presentation of the ribs in the turn in tray, my wife (Laura) said that it didn't look good. I agreed with her and removed all of the ribs back to the cutting board. She tried to wipe the tray clean, but the sauce on the ribs had stained the tray. Luckily, the FBA doesn't label the trays for each meat so we used the stained tray for pork, where the pork would cover the stains. Laura was the difference in us getting 4th place in ribs and a good check.
On to pork! We cooked four butts for the competition and one butt for People's Choice (where the public samples the teams bbq and picks the winner). The butts were very tender and juicy, but I wasn't real happy with the outside bark. The bark never got a dark, rich color and the flavor was a little bland. I also loaded the pork tray and forgot to sauce the meat (this is what happens when you go 30 plus hours without sleep). I don't know as of yet where we placed, but we didn't crack the top ten.
My lack of sleep doomed our brisket also. The brisket had cooked thru the night and I was having to cook it a little longer than usual to get it tender. With about an hour before turn in, the brisket finally began to soften up. My fuel in the smoker was just about spent, so I was just going to let the fire die down and leave the brisket on the smoker to stay warm. My mistake was in not recovering the brisket pan with foil. I had removed it to check the brisket and failed to replace the foil. End result was the brisket began to dry out heavily. Dragging each slice back thru the au jus sauce helped some, but by then the damage was done. The brisket tasted awesome and the next day I reheated a few slices and they were even better, but the judges didn't award us a top ten.
We are still waiting on our final scores from Jacksonville to know exactly what the judges thought of our cooking, but overall I think we cooked decent. We made some mistakes, tried a few new things and some worked and some didn't. We plan to sit down in a couple of days and look at what we did right and wrong so that we can continue to improve for our next contest in three weeks.
Hope to see ya'll at a contest soon!