On Friday, we judged the One-Bite entry where teams had to turn in One-Bite entries that used only 5 ingredients. There were three vegetable entries, two meat entries, and three seafood entries. Contestants had to cook it on a Kingsford grill using Kingsford briquettes. The winner would receive $5,000 and an extra point towards the next day’s barbecue contest. For those of us who compete, we know how important one-point is when winners are often determined by fractions of a point.
8 important lesson from 8 World Champions
Due to the lack of garnish, teams had to decide how they might present their meat differently as there was more space than the usual 9” X 9 “ styrofoam box to arrange their meat. I noticed that many teams submitted creative configurations to 1) keep the meat warm, and 2) to make the box appear full. There was no limitation to the cuts of meat turned in so we saw for the chicken category: thighs, breasts, wings, and drumettes. For pork ribs, there were more St. Louis spares than there were baby backs. The pork category was the most diverse as there was shoulder, Boston butt, and whole hog. In the brisket category it was the most uniform presentation consisting of flat slices and chunks of point.
As expected, the quality of the BBQ entries ranged in the excellent to superb given that these are the best teams in America. Of course, with a composite scoring system, it was not easy as a judge to work out one number in your head how you thought the entry looked, how it tasted and smelled, how creative it was, and how tender it was.
As I judged the meat entries, I noted 8 lessons which, until now, I had kept to myself for the four months following that event. I kept these lessons to myself so that I would not repeat them when I’m a competitor. I’m sharing them with you now that the show has made it to TV so that you too can improve your game if you compete.
- Meat touching the inside lid – most competitors take great pains not to stack the meat too high in the box such that the meat touches the inside of the lid when the lid is closed. This marks the finish of the meat so the meat will not have a pristine look. Judges are not supposed to deduct points for sauce on the inside of the lid but if the finish on the meat is smeared, the meat does not look as good and the team risks being deducted points on appearance. I learned from the two chicken boxes and one rib box that had this issue. I wondered if the lack of garnish threw the teams off their usual game as there was a lot more room to stuff meat into the Styrofoam box and they overdid it. Most teams have a final step to close the lid and then open the lid to check the inside before they turn in their boxes. Or another explanation is the meat in the box shifted during turn-in or someone pressed down on the box lid during the transition process.
- Chopped bits were no good – when the rules call for no garnish except a piece of aluminum foil to keep the meat warm, some teams opt to line the bottom of their boxes with chopped, shredded, or pulled meat before they lay on their meat they want the judges to taste. This has two advantages. The additional thermal mass helps to keep the meat warm longer and the base acts as a foundation to present the meat higher in the box making the box look fuller. In this contest, the judges tasted all the meat in the box including the meat used as the base. Consequently teams need to ensure that the chopped meat also tastes good. I learned that several teams did not ensure that the base of chopped meat was the same quality as the choicest cuts they presented the judges. For example, there was a brisket box where the flat and point were delicious but it sat on a base of shredded brisket point that was overcooked to almost jerky texture and was dry and tough.
- Fat on brisket flat – It is customary for most teams to remove all the fat from bottom of the brisket flat before making their slices for the box. I was surprised to learn that two teams had a 1/8 inch to ¼ inch of fat of the bottom of the brisket slice for one of the brisket entries as the fat was not properly trimmed away. This excess fat would unlikely to score the team more points and could result in a lower overall score.
- Ribs not sliced through – When a judge picks up a rib bone to place on their judging plate, they are not allowed to shake the rib if it was incompletely cut through and still connected to the adjacent rib. The judge must take all ribs that are still connected and cannot pull or shake the rib to free it. That happened to me on one of the rib entries and I ended up with two ribs as they were not completely sliced through. If the box had only 6 ribs turned in, one judge would not have any meat to taste. In a normal KCBS contest that may not be a huge problem as the lowest score from the six judges are thrown out anyway and the rib score is based on the scores of the remaining five judges. However, in this KF Invitational judging process, unlike the KCBS one, the lowest score is not thrown out and all six judges’ scores count. Luckily the team that did this, they had more than six ribs in the box so a potential disaster was averted.
- Uneven sauce – Top teams are extremely fastidious about ensuring that their saucing is perfect with no uneven sauce or blotches on their meats. This is a contest of champions against champions so I learned a lesson from one entry where the sauce was not applied smoothly and appeared to be blotchy. During the times when it happened to me was when my sauce was too cold and thick when I applied it. If I’m using a sauce that is blotchy, I try to warm the sauce to it applies more evenly so I am guessing that the team ran out of time or forgot to warm their sauce.
- Too many cuts of meat – since there was no garnish, the trend I noticed was to fill the box with more meat and more cuts of meats. The lesson I learned was that when the judging guidelines require judges to taste all the meat in the box, the team faces the prospect that the judge may average the scores of all the cuts of meats presented. In a worst-case scenario, a judge could decide to write down the lowest score. For example, if chicken thighs, wings, drums, and breast were in the box, the four meats would have four scores in the judges’ mind after tasting all four. If the thighs were excellent and the rest were average, the judge would not be able to score the box as excellent overall. If the team had just submitted the thigh which was their strongest cut of meat, the box would have been scored overall excellent because there was only on choice versus four choices previously. I’m employed this lesson going forward to good results. For example, in the King of Smoker throwdown in December 2012 where SYD came in 3rd overall among 24 of the best in the nation, I turned in only brisket flat slices that day as my burnt ends did not come out excellent. If I did not learn from my judging experience at the Kingsford event, I would have turned in my burnt ends anyway even though I knew they were not the best I could produce.
- Too much smoke – it was an interesting lesson for me to learn that among the 32 boxes I judged (8 teams X 4 meats), at least two boxes had meat that was over smoked. In my humble opinion, they somehow overdid the smoke on their meat. Most folk would agree that there is a fine line between properly smoked barbecue and over smoked meats. In the times I’ve done it, it was because I did not set up my fire correctly or did not wrap the meat in time causing it to sit for too long in the pit. Whatever the reason, I was surprised to find this at this contest of champions among champions.
- Tough chicken skin – all competition teams strive to cook chicken so that the meat is tender and the skin is bite-through tender. I learned that sometimes even the top teams struggle with this problem. At least one team turned in rubbery chicken skin which was I totally unexpected. Maybe the team had an off day or had to use a different source chicken than they usually cooked.
In summary, I had a one-in-a-lifetime experience being invited to judge the Kingsford Invitational 2012. Although being treated as a VIP and being a judge to the 8 world champions was incredible, I would have loved the opportunity to trade places because in my heart, I’m more a competitor than a judge. So, for 2013, I’m going to try my best to see how far I can get in the national rankings and who knows, maybe I might be there in Belle, Missouri, in 2013 as a competitor instead of a judge. One can only dream!