I’ve seen several threads on message boards about whether barbecue competitors cook at home just like they do for competition. The answer is often ‘Yes’. I sometimes wonder, though, if this is due to wanting to practice or because of preferring competition barbecue all the time.
Here’s how I see competition cooking being different from cooking at home:
It’s simply that, when I cook at a competition, I concentrate on making 6 servings/slices/pieces/ribs as good as I can make them.
That sounds simple, but there’s a bit more to it than just cooking 6 servings of everything.
Let’s take each of the basic competition foods, though I’m only showing examples of ribs and brisket above.
When I cook chicken at home, I generally do beer can chicken. As chicken goes, this is a great way to get a moist, flavorful whole bird. Plus it’s fun and looks cool!
For competition, though, I need more control over the individual pieces. I turn in thighs, so that’s all I want to cook; I can keep them moist much easier than I can with breasts. I also use a method that creates what we hope is what the judges want. At home, I want something different than that. And, at home, I don’t need each piece to look the same size, etc.
Mostly, the differences have to do with cooking whole chickens vs. thighs, and I don’t use just barbecue type spices and sauce at home… I tend to do more Italian flavors on my chicken at home.
I prefer spare ribs (St. Louis cut) at home and at competition. This is just a personal preference, though. The differences have to do a bit with method, but mostly with flavors.
For competition, I want ribs to be done to the same level of tenderness, so that’s no different. However, for competition, I make them a whole lot sweeter than I do at home. Judges in the Midwest, tend to like sweet ribs over anything else, so that’s what we give them.
Also, I may cook whole racks at a competition (I do), but I’m only concerned with about 4-5 ribs right in the middle, and I want them as straight as they can be. By straight, I mean that I want the bones to be perpendicular to the length of the rack. I’m going to stack 4-5 bones on top of another 4-5 bones for my turn in box, and I don’t care how the rest of the ribs turn out. Usually, the ends of the racks will be overdone.
I also put competition ribs in foil, every time. After I get the color I want on the ribs, they go in foil until about done, then back out for a little while again. When the ribs go into the foil, they get a whole mess o’ sweet added to them, in the form of preserves or honey/sugar/juice. This adds that sweet that judges seem to like, on top of a bit of spice from the rub and the sauce.
At home, I may not foil at all, and I may not use sauce. It’s up to what I want at the time. I do know that I don’t foil for as long. I want the whole rack to be the same as much as possible, not just the 4-5 bones in the middle of the rack.
Pulled pork isn’t much different between home and competition, really. I may not inject the pork before cooking when I’m at home, but the rest of the process doesn’t change. I will pick and choose the meat I turn in, but the process isn’t any different, really.
Like pork, there’s not much difference. Same rub, same technique. I may not sauce at home, though, and I do use sauce in competition (same with pork, now that I think about it… no sauce at home, sauce at competition). However, I’m still only looking at the middle of the brisket for my turn in. At home, I don’t care if the slices crumble a bit at the ends, but I don’t want that at competition… I want them cut as smooth as they can be!
The only real difference, on any meats, is that I may concentrate the flavors a bit more at a competition. I may only have one bite with which to impress a judge, so it better be one great bite! At home, that level of flavor in each bite may be too much when eating a meal.
And maybe I don’t win because I don’t always cook the same way! I’ve gotten my philosophy about cooking for others changed around, though. Whether it’s judges, my wife, friends or clients, I cook what I think they’ll like, not what I think they should like.