I had the opportunity to visit Memphis in May earlier this week and experience the World Barbecue Cooking Contest. Given how long barbecue takes to make, there was plenty of time to discuss barbecue approach and philosophy with members of the competition teams. While teams were generous with their knowledge one topic was taboo. The ingredients in a barbecue rub are top secret – don’t even think about asking for ratios. They were quick to share advice on commercially available rubs including Sweet Money, Victory Lane, and Peppered Cow. One guy who had a few trophies from past years suggested adding Black Cherry KoolAid to the rub. Upon further reflection, and while this suggestion may be a lark, I recently had a phenomenal Dr. Pepper reduction from a very well respected Twin Cities Chef, so this isn’t as crazy as it first sounded.
I use a Big Green Egg regularly and am familiar with the basics of smoking. Many of the teams made their own smokers, and some of my favorites were all re-purposed vehicles, including:
- Delivery van
- Taxi cab
- Race car
- Vintage car
In case you are in the market for cooking for 50+ people the most common smoker that I saw was the Backwoods Smoker out of Dixie, LA. However, the most fanatical people build their own. I heard stories of vintage refrigerators, boiler equipment, and even old boats as re-purposed smokers.
If you are curious about how a re-purposed smoker van that no longer has an engine or a steering column gets put into position check out this video:
Some of the best cooking tips that I will be sure to implement throughout the summer are below. Everyone I spoke with thought the magic smoker temperature was 225 degrees, even for some cuts I wasn’t expecting. Wrapping meat in foil or butcher paper is very common, and it ended up being more than just to control timing of serving. Warning – if you don’t use an instant read thermometer like a Thermapen to measure internal temperature a lot of this will be technical. Thanks to The Grand Masters of Cooking Disasters, Pork Illustrated, The Danish National Barbecue Team, Central BBQ and Clint Cantwell in particular for the tips.
This was the one that surprised me the most. I usually cook to 195 or 200 degrees to be able to pull it, but removing from heat at 178 degrees allows for the fat to render just enough to then seep into a pan while the shoulder is resting. The result is a succulent shoulder that is basting in delicious juices. I was invited to try it and the guy who gave me this tip was most proud of the fact that he had cooked $1.99/lb pork shoulder to this result. It was the best damn shoulder I have ever tasted. Another interesting tip was to smoke with beech wood for flavor and apple wood for color.
While I have heard of the 3-2-1 method I have been very happy with my ribs on the Green Egg and didn’t mess with what was working well. I also have the luxury of cooking 2-3 racks at a time, so I can pull them off when they hit 193 to 195 degrees with a great result. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, and when I was invited to try the results my perspective on wrapping ribs in foil during the cooking process and adding liquid such as apple juice to create steam shifted considerably. Previously, I believed steam would destroy the bark I had worked so hard for on my ribs. If I can reproduce the results that I tasted there will be nice bark, even moister meat, and cleaner separation from the bone.
Trimming is everything. The best brisket has all fat that won’t render removed and is trimmed to at least 1 inch in height. The part that will be chopped versus sliced should be separated at 183 degrees so the flat won’t dry out. Everyone wraps their brisket – some in butcher paper and some in foil for at least 2 hours prior to serving after it comes off the smoker. The best brisket joints in the country wrap to distribute moisture and use butcher paper for its breathability and lower level of steam to maintain the beautiful bark they worked so hard for, and this is the approach I plan to take the next time I smoke a brisket. The closest I came to getting through the BBQ rub barrier was the advice to start the seasoning process with smoked sea salt and pepper and then applying the Brisket rub as a second step. Of course, Brisket rub should have much less brown sugar (or turbinado) than pork.
In the past I had smoked at 350 to 400 degrees with the theory that the skin would be crispiest with this temperature. I was advised to stick to the magic 225 degree level, and increase the marinade time to 2 hours for a low acidity marinade and 1 hour for a higher acidity marinade.
Clint Cantwell, who is Kingsford Charcoal’s Director of Smoke and Fire and Editor of Grillocracy.com was making some great cowboy ribeyes with a coffee rub using only indirect heat at about 400 degrees. The steaks were about an inch and a half thick. I had typically used a reverse sear (indirect heat first with very high heat for a nice crust) but these were some succulent steaks without the reverse sear.
The Danish National Barbecue team was in attendance. While they were competing in the traditional US categories I really wanted to learn about traditional Danish Barbecue. After some pleasantries, we talked about Stegt flæsk which is essentially pork fat in parsley sauce. Pork Belly is cut to 1/3 of an inch, salted on both sides, and smoked until crisp at the magic 225 level (about 45 minutes) and finished with parsley and potatoes. I am particularly excited about this experiment.
Some tips if you are considering attending the event:
- Technically, the competition teams can’t share their food unless you are an invited guest and the food vendors that are open to the public are primarily the carnival rotation that put out high quantity and moderate quality food. To get around this, sign up for the Kingsford Tour of Champions which allows you to judge a number of booths, sample entries, and hear from the teams first hand. If you get this opportunity just remember that competition barbecue is like the Pepsi Challenge – one taste is amazing but a whole meal could be overwhelming. And adjust accordingly for your backyard smoking.
- If you are a true enthusiast, spend time just after the gates open to meet people, share stories and learn. This may result in invitations to return when the food is out. Just don’t expect it, and be prepared to share what you have tried, where you have succeeded, and what didn’t go well for you. You will get advice on how to do better.
- If you are completely hardcore, find a way to join a competition team.
Some unsolicited advice for the event organizers: have the category winners talk about their creations during the award ceremonies. There is some amazing cooking going on that needs to be shared.
Finally, the competition isn’t only about the food. There are some seriously well thought out and executed themes and props to create the atmosphere where even someone from the North will have a great time. Here are some of my favorite images: