How to be a Winner at BBQ Cook-off Competitions
If you happen to be a pretty darn good backyard BBQ cook that’s looking to take those grilling skills to the next level, this article is for you. And if you don’t mind a bit of friendly competition, barbecue cook-offs are an excellent way to dial in your barbecuing methods. But before you jump in with both feet, you’ll need to understand that BBQ competitions are much more than grilling meat…
Even though cooking competitions have been well-documented for the last couple of centuries, it’s a little-known fact that these are particularly based on culinary skills. Even so, one of the more popular versions of these competitions also revolves around BBQ cook-offs. And more importantly, your cultivated skills will also require strategy more than anything else if you’re looking to be a winner.
As you’ll read further in this article, we’ll include 10 expert tips that can help fuel your desire to compete with ease and win a BBQ competition.
Also See: Best Competition Smokers
Winning Tips for Competition BBQ
Don’t be a Perfectionist to make perfect BBQ
They say practice makes perfect, but really the first step to becoming a champion is obviously your overall technique. Don’t just stick with just one recipe, try variations and strive to create new ones before you start competing. Know what you’re working with and all the ingredients that complement each other with a flair for combining all of these into what’s presented in the end.
This includes working with several various cuts of meat, seasoning rubs, and sauces.
Don’t forget that your side dishes will also earn big points when they are paired correctly with what you’ve created. All of this pre-contest experience may sound redundant but this helps you decide on-the-fly what to do when competitions actually start.
Get to know your Meats
Learning about the various cuts of meat that you’ll encounter at BBQ competitions is a lot easier when you can identify them by sight and their respective cuts. Each of these types of meat will need different prepping and cooking times to get the best taste and texture that will Wow the judges. If you haven’t toiled around with many select cuts just yet, (not just brisket and ribs), then it pays to have a trial-and-error experience before you step into the competition circuit.
Build a crash kit for making rubs and sauces
You might have an idea what meat you’ll be preparing at a competition but when it comes to rubs and sauces, you’ll want a premade selection ready to go. This means you should premix powders and sauce mixes that you bring in a ‘first aid’ type kit that is already beforehand. This gives you a selection of your best mixtures that can be applied faster to meats so you can pay attention to other competition duties. This also gives you time to perfect sauce and rub flavors.
Keep your cool when managing your temperatures
Don’t sweat little details like cooking temps if you use high-quality digital thermometers for instant updates on where your cook is at. The temperature of your meat will make or break any dish especially monitoring grill and smoker temps in addition to internal meat temperatures. Use the latest temperature monitoring technology to give you instant updates to stay ahead of the competition so you can deliver perfectly cooked dishes on time at the cooking time you intended from the start.
Also See: Best Pro BBQ Accessories
Dress to Impress when Competing
Make the most of your finished meat dishes look as attractive as possible with what is allowed in each competition submission. Judges will be more likely to spot your submission when your meat is arranged in a way that catches their eye with artistic flair and mouth-watering appeal.
Learn how to add regulation-approved garnishes that add color and style to your plate to show judges that you’re looking to impress their visual senses before their taste buds…
Prepare for Serving right from the Start
Your cook might be going for 2 or 3 hours, but it will be just as important to get your ingredients pre-prepared and ready to go when you need them. Not just your sides, but preparation items that go onto each submission plate for the judges to see. Just like any respected line cook knows, everything in your kitchen should be as pre-prepared so you aren’t fumbling at the last minute to have everything finished on time and ready to be judged immediately.
Quality test your dish from start to finish
Some might call it nibblin’, but you know that you should always test small bites from your dishes to control quality control. The flavors that develop will evolve and change during a cook which is why periodic taste testing will maintain the flavor and texture you’re looking to present. If something starts to change in these flavors, you can identify the problem and fix it accordingly before the time is up for submissions.
Don’t Side-Step your Side Dishes
If allowed in a particular competition submission, side dishes added to your submission will add a whole new layer to your dish. Understandably, some dishes only allow garnishes which should be arranged with artistic intention. Side dishes that can be added further flesh out your dish and compliment flavors and round out a full meal appearance.
The added bonus is that side dishes can also win further awards if they’re delicious all by themselves.
Create a Checklist
Just like any other reminder that helps you monitor what’s been completed for each step, a checklist is essential to your competition efficiency. Don’t let anything be left to chance by including pre-prepared sections and itemized reminders for everything you do from start to finish. This keeps you on track and further helps track time if you add the current time added at each checkpoint. This isn’t showing that you’re forgetful but mindful of every step of the way.
Enjoy yourself and Live a Little
You wouldn’t enter a competition without enjoying the biggest part of the chase, which is to enjoy what you’re doing. This gives you more confidence aside from the time constraints and pressure to compete against others. Be yourself and take in the enjoyment that barbecue is intended to be enjoyed. Some of the best and biggest winners of BBQ competitions are some of the friendliest and fun people to be around because they enjoy what they do first and foremost.
Pitmasters Tips for Winning a BBQ Competition
Love ’em or hate ’em, the pros all have a thing or two to say about winning high-stakes BBQ competitions. When it comes down to the final decision, the overall flavor and presentation are what judges are trained to look for…
Myron is a seasoned competition pro that knows his BBQ a lot more than most people know how to flip on a light switch. In fact, he wrote the book in it, -more than once! His advice is very simple but very realistic when it comes to competition barbecue.
“Judges want to be Wowed by the flavor and presentation”
Essentially, you need to know your basics long before you decide to compete. Become a master of sauces and rubs that bring out the flavor and are tested and continually improved. He’s no slouch for technology and uses thermometers that are fast and efficient to monitor his meats. But the biggest part is how the final meal appears is just as important since this is what judges see first.
Chris is a BBQ Hall of Fame Champion that’s been competing since 1992 and writes plenty of barbecue books as well. He’s no snob when it comes to giving advice and helps everyday cooks learn something new about the simple things that make cooking meat feel easier.
“Pay attention to little details like arranging vegetables artistically around plates”
Chris obviously learned that appearance (no matter how slight) will dazzle the visual senses in ways that make us drool at what is being presented. It might only be a little bit of parsley or pepper flakes, or a splash of colorful veggies. If you learn how to arrange things on your plate around your prepared meat and dishes, it makes a huge impact!
See more pro BBQ tips to help you on your journey of claiming your stake as a Pitmaster.
Our Recap Checklist
- Don’t be a Perfectionist to make Perfect BBQ- Learn the ingredients and BBQ methods before you start anything serious to rely on your base skills first.
- Get to know your Meats- Get the experience you need by being comfortable around different cuts of meat that become second nature and how to prepare them.
- Build a crash kit for making rubs and sauces- Bring proven sauces and rubs that you know are great tastes to any competition beforehand.
- Keep your cool when managing your temperatures- Use thermometers that give you fast results inside and outside meats to monitor cook times better.
- Dress to Impress when Competing- Learn to dress your competition foods in the best possible way to get the attention of judges right away.
- Prepare for Serving right from the Start- Get everything sorted out beforehand at your BBQ station so you aren’t preparing anything at the last second.
- Quality Test your dish from start to finish- Test the flavor as it develops and cooks to make sure the taste is turning out exactly as you wanted.
- Don’t Side-Step your Side Dishes- Side dishes are an important part of BBQ meats if they are allowed, but also help to round out your barbecue cooking skills even more.
- Create a Checklist- The best strategy is to have a list of things to do all through your competition so you aren’t forgetting the smallest of details from start to finish.
- Enjoy yourself and Live a Little- Be your own boss at any competition by being yourself and enjoying what you do since others will see that you’re completely comfortable under the gun.
What is the best way to practice BBQ techniques?
Start your practice at home in your backyard or anywhere that you can practice without being hurried or disturbed. Learn the cooking basics and how to identify the cuts of meat you work with so you can determine how to best cook them. Take plenty of notes and keep track of cooking times and preparation that goes into each cooking project.
Here’s a quick infographic that shows you some of the common differences between practices used by everyday grillers and the pros.
What kind of thermometers should I use for consistent cooking temperatures?
Digital thermometers work the best but don’t forget that internal meat probes will give you accurate internal temps while oven thermometers will tell you what your temperature is inside a grill or smoker.
Use the latest thermometers that can connect to WiFi devices so you can check these temperatures from anywhere at a glance.
How do I ensure an appealing presentation when presenting dishes?
You don’t need to be an art major to learn how to make meals look appealing. Be creative by looking for colors that are interesting yet mouth-watering since you want judges and people to see how delicious your presented BBQ dishes are looking right from the start. Even when these elements are at a minimum, tiny bursts of color still pack a punch.
What should I take into consideration when planning ahead for serving times?
A: Manage your meal according to what is being prepared by having everything you need set aside so you can get to it right away.
Using a checklist will help you manage this easier so you can see what needs to be done when preparing one item after another. This helps you manage your preparation from start to finish without sweating over little details.
What are some recommended side dishes that add depth to a BBQ meal?
Side dishes that go with meats will always be subject to personal taste, but trying out side dishes on early BBQ projects will always be the best way to decide what side dishes go best with select meats. You might have a personal favorite that is highly regional while traditional side dishes like mac & cheese or coleslaw are more popular. Create your own recipe book to include as many of them as possible and which meat they taste the best with.
What type of wood should I use when smoking meat?
Traditional wood for meat is often hickory, but isn’t limited to oak, apple, or maple. Fruit wood is sweeter on meat than heavier woods like oak or hickory. You’ll find that certain meat tastes better with wood that adds body to select meat like pork or chicken, but is not always meant for beef. In general oak, maple, and hickory are always popular for smoking beef.
How do I ensure perfectly cooked dishes every time?
All meat is technically cooked when the internal temperature reaches its limit no matter how it appears on the outside. This is why Sous Vide meat is technically cooked inside and outside but appears terrible. Ensuring that cooked BBQ meat looks attractive on the outside but tender on the inside is a careful dance that requires careful watch while it cooks. Often, meat is wrapped in foil at times to cook faster and then uncovered to let cook on the outside. Practice is a must to get the right balance of cooking times refined enough to master BBQ cooking.
What is the most important aspect to keep in mind during competition days?
Being prepared is the most important part of any competition aside from the part that you should also take each competition in stride. Don’t take yourself too seriously while sticking to a checklist that takes off the edge a bit with an easy numbered outline of what you should do. Just like painting by numbers, it’s methodical yet essential to keep yourself focused. This allows you to enjoy the process from start to finish so you can focus more on the fun part of BBQ cooking.