By Ed Kowalski
July 4, 2014. That was the date that I decided to become a certified barbeque judge. Why, you ask? As a chef with a degree of local celebrity, I had been asked to judge a BBQ contest in my hometown and took to my responsibilities eagerly. After all, who doesn’t enjoy good ‘que on the Fourth of July? The terrorists, that’s who. But I digress.
With hopes raised higher than Old Glory herself, I anticipated ribs, chicken, and maybe even some brisket. Instead, I was presented with…well, let’s just say that the entries were less than stellar and leave it at that. A pet peeve of mine is people who don’t know the difference between grilling and barbequing, but more on that at a later date. OK, leave it at THAT.
The Kansas City Barbeque Society, founded in 1985, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and enjoying barbeque. Initially formed (with the aid of several adult libations) to network with other competitive cooking teams to keep them up-to-date on future contests, it is now the largest organization of BBQ and grilling enthusiasts in the world, numbering just over 21,000 members. The KCBS currently sanctions more than 450 BBQ contests worldwide, with prize monies in the millions of dollars.
Kind of has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it? Well, except for the “millions of dollars” part.
KCBS Certified Barbeque Judges must be 16 years of age or older, members in good standing of the KCBS ($35 annually) and attend a certification class ($85), in which the finer points of BBQ judging to KCBS standards are emphasized. Having met the former criteria many, many years ago, on a recent rainy Saturday morning I embarked upon a journey across the state of Ohio to the little town of Marietta, a stone’s throw across the Ohio River from West Virginia. There, in a crowded hotel conference room with nearly 60 other BBQ enthusiasts, and armed with the promise that we would be sampling meat prepared by a Marietta-based competition cooking team, I settled in to learn the ins and outs of competitive BBQ judging.Despite being formed on the premise that they would not take themselves too seriously, the KCBS is serious when it comes to competition barbeque. Before we got into the meats (the KCBS recognizes only four types of meat for competition: chicken, bone-in pork ribs, pork and brisket), we had a primer on conducting ourselves professionally while judging: no cell phone photos of the meats are permitted, no sunglasses are to be worn while judging, water is the only beverage allowed in the judging area, and there is no fraternization on judging day.
Next, we discussed the use of garnish in a dish being presented for judging. All meats are presented to judges for blind judging in a numbered 9” X 9” single-compartment Styrofoam container. The team may opt to garnish their meat or not (no points are added or deducted for doing so), but garnishes are limited to leafy green lettuces, flat-leaf (Italian) or curly parsley, and cilantro. The use of inappropriate garnish such as red-tipped leaf lettuce, endive or kale will result in scores of “1” for appearance from all judges. Likewise, foreign objects such as aluminum foil, toothpicks or skewers, sculpting or branding of meat, or forming rosettes from meat slices in an attempt to make it identifiable are strictly prohibited and will result in scores of “1” from all judges for all criteria (Appearance, Taste, and Tenderness). Sauces, if used, must be on the meat and cannot be pooled in the container or presented in cups for dipping, at the risk of disqualification. Needless to say, when competing for prize monies, such scores practically eliminate a team’s chances of winning.
On a side note, the KCBS takes food safety VERY seriously, and all meat is inspected prior to cooking to ensure that it is being held at a safe temperature. During the competition, strict guidelines for the cleanliness and sanitation of the cooking areas are enforced, and meats being held for judging are ensured to be held at proper food safety temperatures.
Now, on to the judging of the meats (aka LUNCH)! KCBS contests are a tightly-run affair, with strict timing guidelines. Chicken is to be turned in at noon, ribs at 12:30, pork at 1:00, and brisket at 1:30. There is a very tight “window”, with teams able to turn in their meats any time as long as it is from five minutes before the stated time up to five minutes after. Turning in a meat later than five minutes after will result in the meat not being judged and receiving a score of “0”.
Judging of the four meat categories in a KCBS competition is a laborious, yet relatively straightforward, affair. Table Captains, who maintain responsibility for presenting the numbered boxes to the judges for scoring on Appearance and who also serve as the intermediary between the judges and the Contest Representative, open each container and allow the judges to examine the meat visually. It is the responsibility of the Cook Teams to ensure that each Judge at a table (6 judges per table, with a 1:1 ratio of judges to teams) receives a piece of meat, so each judge, using the fork provided, picks up a piece and transfers it to his (or her) judging plate. Should two pieces stick together, judges are not permitted to shake, slice, or cut in an attempt to separate the pieces. If a team has only placed 6 pieces in a box, and two or more pieces stick together as a result of poor cutting, the judge that does not receive a piece will notify the Table Captain, who will, in turn, instruct the judge missing a meat sample to score a “1” on all criteria. The Rep will then instruct the remaining judges to change their Appearance scores to a “1”. As a result, most competition teams send anywhere from 8-12 pieces for judging.
Once a judge has all six samples on their plate, they are permitted to begin judging for Taste and Tenderness. Aside from the aforementioned “1”, which only a Contest Rep can authorize, all scores are in whole numbers from 9 (Excellent) to 2 (Inedible). Finger-licking is not allowed by the judges, so there are always an ample supply of paper towels on hand, as well as crackers, grapes and bottled water to cleanse the palate after each sample. Many judges (myself included) tend to judge on Tenderness first, as this is a sure-fire way to determine if a meat is cooked thoroughly (ever bit into an undercooked chicken thigh?). Once all six samples of a meat are judged and scores turned in, the judges are permitted to talk amongst themselves and compare notes. Comment cards are also provided to the judges to allow feedback for the teams.
Scores are weighted, with Taste representing the majority of the score, followed by Tenderness and Appearance. Scores are tabulated and the lowest score is thrown out. The winning team will, naturally, be the one with the highest scores.As a chef and longtime BBQ enthusiast, much of the information presented to me during the class was merely a refresher course, but I did have a few takeaways:
1. Restaurants have been lying to us: ribs, when properly cooked, are never “fall-off-the-bone” tender. If you pick up a rib bone and the meat falls off, it is overcooked. Properly cooked pork ribs should pull away from the bone with a slight tug when you bite into them. ‘Nuff said.
2. KCBS does not include the presence of a “smoke ring” as a judging criteria. Usually seen as the hallmark of properly-cooked brisket, the pink ring that lies just beneath the bark is caused by nitric acid building up on the surface of the meat. Normally caused by nitrogen dioxide from the wood smoke mixing with the water in the meat, it is also easily duplicated artificially with the use of a salt tenderizer.
3. Competition BBQ cooks are an intensely proud lot who assume that THEIR way is the only way. When presented with a sample of pulled pork (with the cooks watching), I scored it a “2” (inedible) because I found a few spots of raw pork in the midst of my sample.
For more information on the Kansas City Barbeque Society, or to find out the dates and times of upcoming KCBS-sanctioned contests or Certified Barbeque Judge classes in your area, head over to www.kcbs.us