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.


  1. "The meat takes on a red tinge due to a chemical reaction between the smoke and the meat."

    This is incorrect. The "smoke ring" comes from the interaction of myoglobin in the meat and nitric oxide being released from the burning wood/charcoal. Smoke will not add any pink smoke ring to the meat. You can easily achieve a smoke ring with no smoke!

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