More than “Meats” the Eye: How BBQ Competitions are Different


By ACF Chef Ronna Keck, HAAC

If you’ve ever been to a barbecue competition, it is fun to enjoy the smell and taste of some delicious barbecue. But do you know what goes into the process of a competition? It’s not all about the Friday night party!

FB_IMG_1664798459249[12]Some ask, what is a BBQ competition? Here’s a breakdown of what goes on. While there are similarities to the ACF’s competition manual for professional chefs, there are differences. Here are some of the steps that go into preparing for and participating in such a competition.

Step 1: Ready Your Mise En Place

It all starts on Friday morning, pulling your smoker, wood, charcoal, meat and all other items needed for set-up at your designated spot. This process can take a couple of hours since you are setting up a makeshift kitchen.

Once your space is set-up, it’s time for your meat inspection. The meat cannot be seasoned or marinated in any way before inspection. The temperature of the raw meat is also checked. After your meat is inspected, you begin the process of seasoning and/or marinating.

Step 2: Fire Up and Cook

Now it’s time to fire up the smoker. Using the wood of your choice, begin the 12-14 hour cooking process for the briskets and pork butts. This involves spraying the meats and maintaining a low and slow 250°F temperature during cooking with wood and charcoal. If needed, wrap and sauce meats when ready.

Everything is cooked on a schedule. Turn in times for the categories have a 10-minute window; there are 30 minutes between turn in times. Once you turn in your container, go back and get the next category ready. The timing is crucial; if you’re even a second late, you are disqualified completely!Picture8

There are four main categories: chicken, ribs, pork butt or shoulder and brisket. Some competitions have other categories, like sausage, miscellaneous and desert.

Step 3: Present to the Judges

Presentation is your personal preference, just like the ACF competition manual suggests. Each meat entry is placed in a container for presentation to the judges. Leaf lettuce, usually used on the bottom of the container, parsley, and kale are the only garnishes allowed.

A table captain is assigned to each table of six judges. The table captain presents each container and is available to answer questions. Each container is judged on presentation and appearance; it’s the first thing the judges see. They must see six identifiable pieces or, in the case of pulled pork or burnt ends, enough for six judges. If the meat is not cut through, causing a judge to pick up two pieces, a score of 1 issued, which is not good.

Judging is graded by numbers one through nine with nine being perfect. Judges are not allowed to talk to anyone, including each other, until after all scorecards are turned in. A perfect score is 180.

Picture3Are BBQ competitions fun? Yes, they are! The competition gets serious when it’s time to get those six perfect rib bones for the judges. It is two days of work but well worth it. Look for competitions in your area. Kansas City BBQ Society has listings of competitions; however, they are held all over the United States.

The reward is to hear your name called at a contest and, of course, the prize money. But most of all, have fun!

Chef Keck is a member of the Flower of the Flames BBQ Team and vice president of the ACF Kansas City Chefs Association, which hosts an annual small plate grilling and smoking competition for scholarship proceeds.