Wednesday, September 28, 2011

BBQ 101 - Parts of BBQ and Judging Criteria

A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of judging at BBQ & Blues here in Charlotte, NC. I was judging the pork entries with three lovely ladies, and we started talking about the BBQ. As we talked I realized that, while they knew what they liked in the flavor and texture, they were unfamiliar with the terms used in BBQ and what the different parts were.

I’d like to explain some of the fundamentals of good Q to help the less experienced understand the terms and get more familiar with the food we love.

Many argue what the true definition of BBQ is. Some define it as whole hog; others limit their definition to pork shoulder or butt. Still others say BBQ means beef brisket. Many up North call any grilling out BBQ.

To me, grilling hot dog and hamburgers doesn't really fall into the category of BBQ. For me, it’s BBQ when it is cooked with smoke, usually at a low temperature. (See my more in depth definition here: What is BBQ?)

BBQ varies by region too. Most judges and aficionados will agree that good BBQ can stand on its own and needs no sauce. If the meat is cooked correctly, the rub, mop and smoke will make for a symphony on your taste buds.

When it is cooked correctly, all BBQ will share three main parts (chicken may be an exception to this rule): bark, smoke ring and the meat. When the meat is judged, it is judged on three criteria: appearance, tenderness and taste.

Parts is Parts in BBQ

Bark, also known as Mr. Brown, is the outer part of the BBQ’d meat. Many think this is burnt and charred. If the meat is cooked low and slow, however, the meat doesn't burn. If there is lots of sugar in the rub, it may caramelize and burn; but most bark is simply carmelized spices. The bark tends to be tan, mahogany or dark brown almost black color, depending on the rub spices used.
You can see the dark brown to black bark on this pork butt

The bark is formed from the rub that is put on the meat. As the meat cooks, the juices pull to the surface and mix with the rub creating a shell of sorts. It is this shell that helps keep the rest of the moisture in to make a flavor that is oh so good. If you mop while cooking, this also contributes to the bark's flavor and helps to return some moisture to the meat.

Chicken doesn't tend to get bark on it, but it does get a smoke ring. The hardest part of cooking chicken is getting bite-through skin. Bite-through skin is the grail of the pit master for chicken.

When the meat is served, always put some bark in with it. Mixing the bark in with the rest of the meat helps to highlight the flavors that you work so hard to get.

Smoke Ring
Just under the bark is usually a red ring called the smoke ring. This can be from 1/8" to 1/4" depending on conditions. Many say this is a sign of good BBQ, and it can be. Certain chemicals can be used to enhance this ring without smoke, but a good smoke ring sure looks nice when serving up a plate of brisket.

The meat takes on a red tinge due to a chemical reaction between the smoke and the meat. Many mistake this pink tinge as undercooked meat. That misconception is one reason many BBQ restaurants don't serve smoked chicken, as it tends to look pinker than the other meats and gets mistaken as being undercooked.
You can see the red smoke ring on this box of brisket.

The Meat
Depending on what you are cooking, the meat will vary in color. Pork is also known as Mrs. White. When pork is done cooking, it tends to be white to tan, hence the name.
Mrs. White and Mr. Brown getting together.

If you ever hear a pit master or BBQ fanatic talking about Mr. Brown and Mrs. White, they are referring to the bark and the inner meat. When they get together in good Q, magic happens.

If the meat is cooked correctly, it will come apart easily and be very tender and moist. The low and slow style of cooking helps to break down the connective tissue and take a regularly tough piece of meat and make it into a beautiful, tender bite of sustenance.

What Judges Want

The judging criteria can be a bit subjective.
  • Appearance : Would I want to eat this? Does it look appetizing? We each have our own opinions.
  • Tenderness: Is it tough? Soft? Does it fall apart? This one is a little less subjective, but people like their meat different ways.
  • Taste: Do you like it? Is it too salty? Too smokey? Too spicy? One persons spicy is another persons mild.
Each of these three things help you decide what good Q is.

When a box or plate of BBQ is set in front of me, I look at it and think, “Does this make me want to eat it?” We eat with our eyes first, so if something doesn't look appetizing we will tend not to want to eat it. If it is sloppy and messy, it doesn't make me want taste it.

Looks good enough to eat.
This one is a less subjective then the other criteria. With pork if you feel like you are tearing off a piece or have to chew it forever, it is too tough. If it feels like a pork paste in your mouth, it is over cooked and just has a nasty texture.

Chicken is much like pork in the area of tenderness. One thing many try to achieve is a bite-through skin. When smoking chicken, the skin may have great flavor but tends to get rubbery. You want to be able to bite into the chicken and have just the piece of skin you bite into come off into your mouth and leave the rest of the skin on the piece of meat.

Many people like their ribs to "fall off the bone." These are overcooked. When you bite into a rib you should get what is called a "watermelon bite". You know when you bite into a piece of watermelon and you leave teeth marks? Kind of like that. When you bite into a rib, only the piece you bit into should come away, leaving the rest of the meat on the bone. That’s when you know the ribs are cooked correctly.

Brisket shouldn't fall apart when it is served. You should be able to slice it about the thickness of a #2 pencil without it falling apart. You can do a pull test with brisket, where you take one of your slices and pull it apart gently. It shouldn't fall apart but shouldn't be hard to pull part either. As it stretches you should see some of the connective tissue holding it together stretching out. If it's like shoe leather, it is too tough. If it falls to bits, it is too soft.

I think this is one of the most subjective parts of good BBQ. Everyone has different flavor preferences, but there are some that most can agree on. Good BBQ doesn't need sauce to enhance it. It should taste good on its own to let the meat flavor shine through.

Many judges seem to lump taste and tenderness together. When I compete, I find that the taste and tenderness scores seem to go together. I have turned in meat that I thought tasted ok but the tenderness was perfect and gotten great scores. I have also turned in meat where the tenderness was awful and the flavor was phenomenal and received terrible taste scores. For some reason, many judges don't differentiate the two.

When judging, I've had BBQ that I want to keep eating and BBQ that I just want to spit out. When comparing notes with the judges after the tasting, we often have all agreed on which BBQ was the worst but could not agree on which one was the best. Most people can tell bad BBQ without difficulty. When it comes to what you think is best, opinions may differ.

As I have said, BBQ varies from region to region. Tastes vary but the main parts of BBQ stay the same: bark, smoke ring and meat. The judging criteria doesn't change: appearance, tenderness and taste. A little bit of knowledge can enhance your experience with BBQ and help you understand what the fanatics are talking about.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Meyer's Elgin Sausage - Part III (Smoked, Spicy and Oh, So Yummy)

Creator:Meyers’ Elgin Sausage
Location: Cuetopia, TX - Home of the Fighting Sausage Heads
Cost: @$21.50 +shipping
Link: Sausage

All good things must come to an end. Last weekend my supply of Meyer's sausage did. It was a happy but sad day. Happy because I got to savor the wonderful flavors of their Hot Smoked Sausage and Smoked Mexacan-Style Sausage with Jalapeños (Tejano). Sad because I now have no more Meyer's sausage and I'm not sure I will like what we get here. Ok, that last bit is crazy talk because we love sausage, but it defiantly won't be the same.

Last weekend we had some friends over and I smoked some meat including the sausage. Meyer's sausage smokes nicely. It plumps up and the juices are released in the casing making for a nice juicy sausage that is full of flavor. As I said in my first review of Meyer's sausage the casings are firm but not tough, this makes for a nice eating experience. You don't feel like a dog trying to tear through a piece of leather.

Hot Smoked Sausage
This sausage is great. The flavor is like the smoked sausage but they add a bit more red pepper to give it a nice kick. Some "hot" sausages are so spicy you don't taste the meat because your mouth is on fire. Not with this sausage. It gives a nice burn but you still can taste it. It just enhances the flavor and eating experience. For some this sausage would be too spicy but I think it has just the right amount of heat.

I really liked the flavor of this sausage. This was also my wife's favorite along with the Smoked Jalapeño sausage I reviewed in Part I. It has a great chorizo flavor and the jalapeño brings the sweet pepper flavor to it. It is no surprise why this sausage won a second place people's choice award.

The hot sausage would great in scallop potatoes, chowder or any number of dishes. The Tejano sausage would be great in enchiladas, Mexican stews or other dishes with a south-of-the-border twist. I had left overs of both so I chopped them up and made a gumbo with some pulled pork I had. The sausage brought the right amount of extra spice to the party and made my families mouths happy.

Both of these sausages receive a full rack of ribs with a side of sauce on the Gibbs' Ribs* scale. I definitely recommend ordering some from Meyer's Elgin Sausage and try some of their other goodies.

*When I do reviews, books or otherwise, I rate the items with ribs (they are my favorite BBQ dish). A full rack is great and a single rib is poor. I will tend to stick to a full rack, half rack or one rib.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Review: Meyers Elgin Sausage Sausage - Part II (Beef and Potatoes)

Creator: Meyers’ Elgin Sausage
Location: Cuetopia, TX - Home of the Fighting Sausage Heads
Cost: @$21.50 +shipping
Link: Sausage

After the first set of sausages we had from Meyer's my wife kept asking when we would be eating the others. I decided Sunday night would be a good night for a pack. I was home and the ladies were out shopping so I decided to make supper for us.

In the variety of sausage I got from Meyer's Elgin Sausage was a pack of beef sausage. I really enjoyed the other sausages they made and thought they would work well with scallop potatoes. So, I decided to make scallop potatoes and sausage. Normally I cook the sausage with the scallop potatoes but since I knew the ladies wouldn't be home soon, and the potatoes would take an hour, I decided to smoke the sausage.

I put the charcoal in the chimney starter and lit it so the charcoal would be ready when I put the potatoes in the oven. I thought about smoking the potatoes too but didn't have a disposable pan. I got the potatoes in the oven and got the cooker fired up with the ready-to-go coals.

The cooker was at 250° so I put the sausages on and let them cook. I checked them once after about 30 minutes and turned them over. About 10 minutes after my wife and girls arrived home supper was ready.

The beef sausage is really good. The spices in it bring out the beefy flavor of the meat and they have a little bit of heat, like good sausage does. They seemed to be a bit juicier then the previous sausages and the casings a little tougher. I think I could have cooked them a little longer as they didn't quite split. My wife said these were her favorites along with the jalapeño and cheese ones. After making sausage for so many years Meyer's really knows what they're doing.

These sausages go great with scallop potatoes and would go great with sautéed peppers and onions or just by themselves so you can enjoy the full flavor of them.

On the Gibbs Ribs* scale these also get a full rack. I'm looking forward to trying the next two packs I have.

*When I do reviews, books or otherwise, I rate the items with ribs (they are my favorite BBQ dish). A full rack is great and a single rib is poor. I will tend to stick to a full rack, half rack or one rib.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review: Meyers Elgin Sausage Sausage - Part I

Creator: Meyers’ Elgin Sausage
Location: Cuetopia, TX - Home of the Fighting Sausage Heads
Cost: @$21.50 +shipping
Link: Sausage

One of the BBQ people I follow on Twitter is @cuetopia. He is the official Twitter spokesperson of Meyers Elgin Sausage and the Fighting Sausage Heads. Since I have been following him he has tantalized and taunted me with pictures of their smokehouse making sausage. I finally procured some to test and do a review on.

Some friends invited us over to watch a football game, eat chili and socialize. I figured this would be a great time to cook up three packs of the sausage and get some other opinions about them.

I looked at what we had and decided two "regular" and a spicy one would be good to try. I pulled out the Smoked Sausage, Smoked Sausage with Garlic and the Jalapeño & Cheese.

I didn't want to do a long smoke, so I decided to grill the sausage. I used some Kingsford Hickory charcoal. Once the fire was going I put the sausages on.

About every ten minutes I rotated them so they could cook evenly and move them around so no sausage was on a hot spot too long. The temp on the grill was low so it took about 30 minutes to cook them. The sausages cooked up nicely. Swelling up, splitting and releasing their juiciness into the coals making for a mouthwatering aroma.

Once they were cooked I put them in a dish with cheap labels and tinfoil separators. After all we didn't want them to get mixed up.

All three of them were juicy, not greasy like some sausages. Their casings gave a nice crisp snap when I bit into them or cut them. They weren't tough like some, where the whole casing tears off as you try to gnaw through the outer casing to get to the tender meat on the inside. Just the right toughness to hold it all together to grill or smoke.

Smoked Sausage
The Smoked Sausage is great. I took a bite and thought, "WOW! That's good sausage." It has just the right amount of smokiness so you can tell that it has been smoked over hickory wood but not too much where it's overpowering.

These sausages are great by themselves but would make a dish of scallop potatoes really good. My wife makes a great corn chowder and these would make it even better (that is hard to do as it is very good.)

Smoked Sausage with Garlic
I love garlic. Most dishes I cook have garlic in them, even my BBQ pork. I was looking forward to these sausages and was not disappointed. These sausages are just like the Smoked Sausages but with garlic. It is not overpowering, in your face, breath-of-death giving garlic. It is a subtle garlic flavor that enhances the overall taste sensation of the sausage and bumps it up a notch.

These sausages stand well on their own but would be good in an Italian sandwich with onions and peppers.

Jalapeño & Cheese
I like spicy. Every time I eat jalapeños or jalapeño flavored anything I feel ill. These sausages scared me. I thought, "Great, I'll eat these and my stomach will feel like it's turning inside out and my mouth will be on fire." Boy was I surprised!

These are my favorite sausages I have tried so far. The spice is there but not the, "grab-a-gallon-of-milk-my-mouth-is-on-fire" type. It is a nice slow burn. You really don't notice the heat at first but after a couple of seconds your mouth is pleasantly warm. My wife, who is not a fan of spicy, really liked them too. The smokey flavor and the heat make for a happy mouth and I had no ill side effects from the jalapeños.

These sausages would make great enchiladas or other Mexican style dishes.

All three of these sausages are great. I wish there were a local store I could by them at. If I had a BBQ restaurant I would serve these. To quote one of my friends when I asked him what he thought of the sausages, "Mmmm...mmm...mmmm...good. On the Gibbs Ribs* scale these easily get a full rack of ribs with extra sauce on the side.

*When I do reviews, books or otherwise, I rate the items with ribs (they are my favorite BBQ dish). A full rack is great and a single rib is poor. I will tend to stick to a full rack, half rack or one rib.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review: Mmm... Beefy

Creator: Meyers’ Elgin Sausage
Location: Cuetopia, TX - Home of the Fighting Sausage Heads
Cost: @$14.95 +shipping
Link: Beef Jerky

The folks at Cuetopia were kind enough to send me some of their product to sample. I am glad they did. I received a box of some of their sausage, beef jerky and a rub. Over the next few weeks I will be posting reviews of the products.

I like beef jerky. My girls like beef jerky. When we go on trips we buy beef jerky at gas stations we stop at. If it is a local brand of jerky, we will try it. Otherwise it is one of the big name brands.

Myers’ jerky is great. It is beefy with the right amount of salt to bring out the flavor. It is not greasy or oily like some of the major jerky brands. It is not soft, which I like. They smoke it and dry it out so you have to suck on it and chew it for a while making it last longer, causing you to savor the flavor more.

I let my family try some and they all said the same thing, “Mmm… beefy,” and promptly asked for more.

If this jerky was in a store next to the other brands I would pay the extra for it. It is that good. On the Gibbs Ribs scale* I gladly give this jerky a full rack. As the folks at Cuetopia say “We make our jerky for us to eat; we just sell what’s left over.”

*When I do reviews, books or otherwise, I rate the items with ribs (they are my favorite BBQ dish). A full rack is great and a single rib is poor. I will tend to stick to a full rack, half rack or one rib.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

BBQ & Blues 2011

September 9-10

This year the team I compete with has taken a break from BBQ competitions so I have decided to judge a few that are close by. BBQ & Blues is an annual event in Charlotte, NC that I have competed in. This year I judged.

I am a certified KCBS BBQ judge but have been interested in the MBN style and thought this would be a good way to find out about it. I sent in my judging application and was selected to help judge the backyard category of pork. I lucked out and got to judge ribs too.

My family had dentist appointments on Friday, so we thought we would go by the competition to see where it was and see what all was there. We walked around and I talked to various teams. It's a bit different not competing and seeing your competitors. Some have new cookers, new rigs and new trophies. Others never change.

We also got to check out the backyard cookers and sampled some of their anything-but entries. An anything-but is something other then BBQ. It could be wings, dessert, wrack of lamb or salmon. Usually it is made on site and cooked in a cooker. We got to try some wings and they were good.

Saturday my family dropped me off at the train station, which I took up to Charlotte. On the way a girl who was visiting from South Korea started to ask me questions about Charlotte and what I was heading there for. I told her about the competition and she decided to tag along and check it out. She had never heard or seen anything like it. I showed her around the festival and told her about how the meat is cooked and what the judges look for. One of the teams was kind enough to give her a sample of their ribs. She loved them. I had to head in to judge so we said good-bye and she toured the rest of the festival.

The judging for MBN is similar but different from KCBS style. In KCBS both professional and backyard categories are judged at the same time by two different groups of judges. It's quick and efficient and the meat is turned in within a 10 minute window so it is still hot. As soon as the coordinators have six boxes they are delivered to a table and the judging starts.

In MBN style (for backyard) the contestants line up and wait for the coordinators to start to collect the boxes. They have a turn in time and that is when the judges start to collect the meat. Each box is marked with a table number and a box number 1-6 to identify it. The coordinators write down the teams and the unique number. Once all the meat is set on the tables the judges are seated and the boxes opened to judge.

Both styles use three categories; appearance, taste and tenderness. MBN adds an overall score area where you give the meat a rating from 10 down.

I was able to judge both the ribs and the pork. Last time I judged backyard the rib entries were not good and the chicken all tasted like lighter fluid, so my expectations were not high. I was pleasantly surprised by the entries. All of them were good. In the ribs category there were a couple that had great flavor and tenderness and really stood out. One entry was really tough but had good flavor. Only one of them looked good, had good tenderness but the flavor profile was not to my liking. In the pork entries I judged, one of them I scored all 10s. It looked good, was tender and I just wanted to keep eating it. It had the right combination of sweet porkiness and salty bark. One entry tasted like it had been injected with bad juice of some kind. It had a sour, bad fruit taste which was unfortunate because it looked delicious and was perfectly cooked.

After judging I was able to walk around the competition some more and talk to some of the professional teams that had cooked whole hogs. I was even able to get some samples, and they were GOOD. Someday I will cook a whole hog.

Saturday was a lot of fun. Eating good BBQ. Talking BBQ with old friends, teaching new friends the finer points of BBQ and learning of some new places I want to check out and write reviews on.

BBQ & Blues 2011 II

The second day of photos from the BBQ & Blues competition in Charlotte, NC. I'm working on a third post about my experience and thoughts on judging for it. They also had a car show.