Cooking at home vs competition cooking

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.

About Curt McAdams

I guess I'm a bit of a foodie, learning to cook from my mom, then getting obsessed with outdoor cooking, competition barbecue, bread baking and just about all things food. Lately, I've been trying to upgrade my photography skills a bit, though I still have a long way to go.


  1. Curt,
    Just want to say that was a wonderful article… The pictures of the Ribs, Brisket, and Pork look great!!!
    One of the toughest things to do is to cook for judges. Cooking for family, Well let me tell you they love your food no matter what you cook is what I have found with the exception on being to spicy… I live in Dutch Country, Lancaster, PA Keep up the good work.
    Capt Ron

  2. Ron, I don’t know how you found this article, from almost a year and a half ago, but thanks!

    I’ve spent a lot of time in western PA, but I’ve been in eastern PA enough to know the whole state is pretty gorgeous, and I hear your area is great. Good luck in competition this coming year.

  3. Hi Curt,
    I was just surfing the net doing research and to find some new bbq places eat… This is when your blog popped up…
    The area is very nice as well as the people are… This was a main reason I moved here from the Southern NJ Shore area…
    Thanks and have a great year and also with BBQ comps

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