You’ve seen it on TV, you’ve heard the chatter around the water cooler at work, and everyone that attends your backyard cookout tells you that your BBQ is the best. Maybe it’s time to enter a barbecue competition. Not only is it a fun way to spend the day (or days in some cases), but you will also meet people, pick up tips, and--who knows?--maybe win a cash prize.
What follows are tips for getting started.
Before you even think about entering a contest, it makes sense to attend one. That way you can watch teams in action and, hopefully, chat competitors up for tips. There are literally thousands of events from small contests sponsored by the local Rotary Club to national competitions with high-dollar prizes. (The World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Memphis offers $145,000 in prize money.)
The competitions will differ in what you'll find as a spectator. Look for one nearby and go ahead and check it out. Walk around and watch the teams in action to get a feel for what they do. Some BBQ teams may be quite secretive, but others will be happy to share some knowledge with you, and maybe even a bite of what's cooking! Many competitions these days are attached to car shows, rodeos, or concerts, so you'll find more to do as well.
You can search for nearby competitions online. A good resource is The Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS), which lists hundreds of competitions, including international ones, on its website and includes links to them. If you live in the Northeast, check out the Northeast Barbecue Society for competitions close to home
Many competition cooks start their career as a BBQ judge. Why? It's a great way to see how teams are judged and to eat great food! There are differing levels of judge certifications and different BBQ societies and associations have different requirements. But to become a Certified Barbecue Judge (CBJ) through the KCBS, all you need do is attend one of the half day judging classes the organization sponsors in various places around the country. Once you are certified you can sign up as a judge.
As a BBQ judge, you’ll get to see the meats that are entered for judging, taste everything, and see what you’re up against before you even fill out your first entry form. This is an affordable and fun way to become part of the competition world.
What you will be cooking depends on the competition you decide to enter. You can often enter a single cateogry, say, chicken, or you may have to cook four different proteins: chicken, pork, ribs, pork butt, and brisket. Before you think about entering, you should have your recipes and techniques nailed down. A good place to start is by making Traeger's competition recipes. To find them, go to the main recipe page and type in the word competition. You'll find recipes likes these ribs that teach you how to cook ribs just the way the judges like. Hint: They don't want fall-off-the-bone tender.
When it comes to competing in BBQ competitions, you can't do it alone. You need a team. (But don't worry you can name yourself "chief cook.") Not all of the team members have to be chefs. There's plenty of tasks that will need to get done that don't require cooking skills, like running to the grocery tent and beer tent for supplies, setting up and cleaning up, and decorating your booth. What is perhaps most important is that your team (usually of four) works together well and can get along over the long time it takes to cook and serve up some 'cue.
Well, that and a killer name.