Competition Barbecue: Pork Shoulder/Boston Butt/Pork Picnic

October 11, 2013

With several of the competition barbecue season’s biggest contests just around the corner, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting back on my first contests including my tips for the pork rib category found here.


Today, I’m turning my attention to another category that has done well by me since first jumping in to the competition barbecue game – Boston butt, picnic, or whole shoulder.


Competition Pork Butt

Competition Pork Turn-in Box

1)    Understanding the terminology.  The most popular cut among competitors on the Kansas City Barbeque Society circuit is the bone-in pork butt which, despite the name, comes from the upper half of the pigs front leg (the shoulder) and has been separated from the lower portion, or the picnic.  The whole shoulder, on the other hand, is required in Memphis BBQ Network contests and at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.

2)    Selecting the meat.  Though not always easy to find, I prefer to use bone-in pork butts that weight in at 10+ pounds each as they will shrink during the cooking process and I like to have plenty of smoked meat to choose from when preparing my turn-in box. Unless you are getting your meat directly from a pig farmer or butcher shop, you more often than not will be faced with cryovaced (sealed air-tight in plastic) cuts and are at greater risk of encountering meat that just ain’t right (you’ll know it when you open it and smell it).  Therefore you should also look for pork that is rosy pink in color versus grayish-white, a personal indicator that the meat has been sitting in the meat case longer than it should.

3)    Preparing the meat.  When competing in KCBS sanctioned contests, I always do my trimming ahead of time in order to cut down on the work once I arrive at the contest site.  Be aware, however, that the meat cannot be pre-injected or seasoned ahead of time and will be inspected before you can start cooking. Pork butt, picnics and shoulders are naturally fatty so I tend to remove the majority of the exterior fat, setting it aside to render down for my injection.

4)    Preparing dry rubs and sauces.  When it comes to competition dry rub seasonings and barbecue sauce, I started out by creating my own from scratch.  While I love my own creations, it does create extra work and can wind up costing you quite a bit of time and money when trying to perfect your recipes.  I recommend using a commercial dry rub for your first few contests (I currently use The Slabs Perk Up Your Pork “Kyle Style” Pork Rub).  For the sauce, I prefer to doctor up a combination of commercial sauce in order to create my own custom blend.  For my current competition sauce, I combine 3 bottles of commercial sauce (I use KC Masterpiece Original), 1 cup of Blues Hog Barbecue Sauce, 1 cup of Blues Hog Tennessee Red, 2 cups of 100% cherry juice and a tablespoon of chipotle powder.  Heat for approximately 30 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning, and you’re ready to roll out to your first contest!

5)    Preparing the injection.  Injecting meat is a great way to introduce layers of flavor throughout the meat.  As with the meat and sauce, I create my injections ahead of time and store them in a plastic apple juice container.  When I started competing, I used a quart of apple juice, 2 tbsp. garlic powder and 1 cup of apple cider vinegar, a combination that I still love as it complements the meat quite well.  I have, however, modified the injection recipe, cutting back significantly on the apple juice and adding chicken stock (1 parts apple juice to 3 parts stock) and adding ¼ cup of a popular competition flavor enhancer, Butchers BBQ Pork Injection.  I also add a few ounces of the pork fat that I previously rendered over low heat as fat equals flavor and flavor equals more top 10 calls!

6)    Fuel.  Aside from a few gas powered contests, most organizers and sanctioning bodies require wood and/or charcoal fueled fires.  I use a mix of Kingsford Competition Briquets and Kingsford Original blue bag charcoal along with some smoking wood (I prefer 3-4 small chunks of cherry wood)

7)    K.I.S.S.  How much equipment do you really need to cook a pork butt (or two in my case as I always like to have a backup in case one cooks too fast)?  In addition to the basics like a canopy and racket straps and plastic water jugs (to weight down the canopy if and when the rain and wind starts picking up), I use:

  1. A single bullet style smoker (I use 18.5 in. Weber Smokey Mountains as they take up very little space in my 8×12.5 foot competition trailer)
  2. Two six foot tables with adjustable legs for my 6’3” frame and a smaller table for a wash and rinse station (required by the Board of Health)
  3. A meat thermometer (required by the Board of Health)
  4. A fire extinguisher (required)
  5. A couple pairs of tongs in case on pair is missing or is dirty
  6. A very sharp boning knife or chef’s knife for cutting excess fat off of the turn-in meats
  7. Two cutting boards or disposable cutting boards to avoid cross contamination
  8. Two meat probes (used to keep track of the internal meat temperature)
  9. A box of food safe gloves (required by the Board of Health and available at any restaurant supply store or from a friend in the professional, competition, or farmer’s market cooking game)
  10. 4 “bus tubs” (black or grey tubs with optional lids used by busboys to bus tables at a restaurant), 3 for the wash-bleach rinse-wash station and one for seasoning and injecting the pork (note: I fit a clear plastic garbage bag over the bus tub in order to cut down on the mess and makes cleanup just a little bit easier)
  11. One injection needle (available in most hardware stores in the barbecue and grilling aisle.)  Alternatively you can use a heavier duty injector such as the Spitjack injector I use in competition.
  12. A plastic squirt bottle for sauce
  13. 1 medium sauce pan for heating the sauce
  14. Scissors for trimming the green leaf lettuce or parsley garnish (more on that below)
  15. A single long wooden skewer (used to push stray lettuce in to the turn-in clamshell once it is closed)
  16. A clock or watch that has a working battery so that you can ensure your time is on par with when they say your food needs to be turned in

8)    Shop smart.  As with equipment, you don’t need more than what you will actually use at the contest.  One cooler for non-meat essentials like garnish (if required) and beverages and a second one for raw meat.

  1. Pork shoulder, Boston butts, or pork picnics
  2. Plastic wrap for wrapping the meat after it has been injected and rubbed down and foil (!!!) for wrapping the meat midway through the cook
  3. A binding agent (I use Baconnaise, a vegetarian bacon flavored mayonnaise.  Again, fat and flavor is key in competition cooking)
  4. Commercial barbecue sauces and dry rubs as mention above
  5. Lettuce or parsley.  I have done exactly one parsley box in my life and I intent to keep it that way for the foreseeable future.  There are masters out there with some great tips for doing them faster but I’m determined to keep the dying art form of lettuce boxes alive for as long as possible)
  6. Two extra cans of adult or non-adult beverages for your turn-in box (I learned somewhere early on that the two cans create a perfect indention in the garnish in which the meat can rest comfortably)
  7. 1 bottle of pork marinade (I use a half bottle for each butt when wrapping them in foil during the latter part of the cooking process)

9)    Arrive early, get your meat inspected, and ask plenty of questions.  Organizers and teams are always willing to help out new teams so take advantage of their knowledge and guidance.

10) Final pre-cook meat prep.  Inject the meat and give it a pre-cook rub down with your favorite barbecue dry rub.  Wrap the meat with plastic wrap and store it on ice in a cooler until it’s time to cook.  One hour before the meat goes on, I start the fire using the Minion method.  By using just a few hot coals in the center of the charcoal ring, I am almost always able maintain a 225-250 degree fire for the entire cook time. I put my butts on at midnight and allow them to smoke uncovered until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees (note that the meat will stall at 150-155 degrees for several hours, allowing for a good night’s sleep if your nerves will allow for it).  I then remove the butts, wrap them in foil with the pork marinade, and return to the smoker until the internal temperature reaches 185-190 degrees.  The meat can them be stored in a Cambro or in an empty cooler if they finish early

11) Attend the cook’s meeting.  This will insure you have all of the turn-in times and rules down pat and you will also receive your 10×10 Styrofoam box (double check your team number and the one on the top of the box otherwise you’ll be cooking some amazing pork for some other team.  Also keep track of the top and bottom as it is easy to “build a box” upside down and find yourself re-building it at the turn-in table)

12) Get cooking and get ‘em turned in on time!  I remove my foiled meat from the Cambro or cooler about 20 minutes before the turn-in window starts (five minutes before the 1:00pm turn-in time until five minutes after), vent them, then start building the box with some combination of sliced, pulled and/or chunked pork.

13) Have fun!  Competition cooking is more than just showcasing your outdoor cooking skills.  It’s also a chance to meet some of truly great people and spend hours swapping barbecue and grilling war stories and competition memories!


- Clint Cantwell, Editor

Related Topics: Barbecue Competition | Competition Barbecue | Competition Bbq | Competition Bbq Tips | Competition Pork | Competition Pork Butt | Editor's Picks | Pork Butt | Pork Picnic | Pork Shoulder | Pork Turn-in Box | Turn In Box

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