Competition Barbecue: Ribs 101
September 19, 2013
When I first started competing in 2003 as team Smoke In Da Eye, I was certain that my backyard recipes were good enough to hold their own among the seasoned veterans on the circuit.
I had been attending the Memphis in May World Championship BBQ Cooking Contest since 1999, collecting valuable tips and techniques from as many competitors as were willing to lend their insight.
Around the same time, I stumbled across BBQ-Brethren.com, an online forum dedicated to swapping recipes, tips and a whole lot of BS. It was there that I discovered a contest in my own backyard (not literally but pretty darn close!). I assembled a small team of family and friends, loaded up everything I could possibly find that was barbecue and grilling related including a small pig and my pig cooking box, and hit the road to Belmont Racetrack in Bellmore, NY.
The competition was fierce with the local Brethren and the New England BBQ Society contingent dominating the grilling contest (I opted to keep it simple and save my inaugural KCBS brisket, chicken, ribs and pork shoulder/pork butt/pork picnic contest for another rain-doused weekend), though we did manage to break the top 10 in a few categories.
And while I walked away disappointed, the experience that I gained was worth all of the sleepless nights that got me out of the backyard and in to the fire on that hot, hot weekend all of those years and contests ago.
In the spirit of the competition barbecue family (and hopefully encouraging other backyard grillers to jump in to the game at least once), here’s a few tips for perfecting my favorite category – pork ribs.
1) Stockpile charcoal. Home Depot and Lowe’s have AMAZING deals on Kingsford charcoal during Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day weekends and without the charcoal and/or wood at most sanctioned contests, you’re guaranteed a DAL (aka Dead A$$ Last) finish.
2) Select your favorite smoking wood (I prefer 3-4 small chunks of cherry wood)
3) Selecting ribs. I love cooking and eating baby back ribs, but unless it is a grilling contest in which cooking time can be short, I tend to stick to spare ribs as they more often than not keep me in the top 10.
4) Prepping the ribs. Doing your first contest is stressful enough so why add additional pressure by trimming your meats on-site? Note that your meat will be inspected before you can do anything so bring proof that the ribs haven’t been enhanced for juiciness and that any additional rubs, injections (yes, there are plenty of folks that inject butter and other flavor enhancers in to ribs and God bless ‘em as long as it continues to do right by them!) are left for after you get the “all clear.”
5) K.I.S.S. How much equipment do you really need to cook a couple (or four in my case) racks of ribs? 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 winds starts picking up), I use:
- A single bullet style smoker
- A single kettle grill for finishing/saucing the ribs
- 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)
- A meat thermometer (required by the Board of Health)
- A fire extinguisher (required)
- A couple pairs of tongs in case one pair is missing or is dirty
- A very sharp boning knife
- Two cutting boards or disposable cutting boards to avoid cross contamination
- Some 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)
- 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 the ribs (note, I often use the lids to move ribs to and from the smoker grill)
- A sauce brush (if you opt to use brushes with natural bristles, be VERY aware of stay strands which can end up in the sauce and result in a 1 in appearance as it is a foreign object. Same goes for small pieces of foil, toothpicks or a thermometer)
- Scissors for trimming the green leaf lettuce or parsley garnish (more on that below)
- A single long wooden skewer (used to push stray lettuce in to the turn-in clamshell once it is closed)
- 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
6) 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.
- Foil (!!!) for wrapping midway through the cook
- A binding agent (mustard in the case of the ribs pictured here)
- 1 or two dry rubs to create multiple layers of flavor (I used a pre-seasoning base of Butcher BBQ Honey Rub and Head Country barbecue dry rub seasoning for this batch)
- a butter substitute that comes in stick form
- a sweetener like honey or Agave syrup
- Barbecue sauce. I use KC Masterpiece original that has been modified by adding natural cherry juice, chipotle powder and one or two other ingredients.
- Lettuce or parsley. I have done exactly one parsley box in my life and I intend 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)
- 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) Arrive early and ask plenty of questions. Organizers and teams are always willing to help out new teams so take advantage of their knowledge and guidance.
8) Rub down the ribs and start the fire. I use the Minion method for starting and maintaining a 225-250 degree fire for the entire cook time. Start with the much recommended 3-2-1 method of cooking (3 hours of smoking, 2 hours wrapped, 1 hour rest in an empty cooler or other container) and adjust as needed once you get a better feel for how your ribs cook in a competition setting.
9) Attend the cook’s meeting, at least the first time. 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 ribs 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)
10) Get cooking and get ‘em turned in on time! I have had way too many issues with the 10 minute turn-in window (five minutes before the 12:30pm turn-in time until five minutes after), but that, as well as my second adventure judging a contest, is a tale for another day!
- Clint Cantwell, Grilling.com Editor