Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rocky Top BBQ Cook-Off - A Rookie's First Competitive BBQ Experience

Do you remember that feeling in your gut an hour before your first REAL date?  The nervousness and the excitement were trying to wrestle each other into submission while your brain was just trying to think rationally about the situation. 

That's how I felt the Thursday night before the Rocky Top BBQ Cook-Off here in Knoxville a few weeks ago.  Sure, I've been going to competitions for a few years.  I have played small roles, on other people's teams, using other people's equipment, using other people's recipes, and following other people's direction.

For the first time, it was all on us.  Our team, our equipment, our recipes, and we were calling the shots.

Our team consisted of myself, Alexis, and our neighbor, John.

Going into it, we had 3 pretty realistic goals.
  1. Have fun,
  2. Get everything cooked and not missing any turn in deadlines, and
  3. Not finish DAL.  (Dead Ass Last)
#2 is harder than it sounds because you have to cook long cooking "big meats" like brisket and pork shoulder and shorter cooking meats like ribs and chicken, timing it so they are all ready to turn in at 12, 12:30, 1, and 1:30.  You have a 10 minute window for each turn in time and if you miss it, you're DQ'd.
Here's how it turned out.  You'll have to excuse the pictures - I didn't even bring my camera so these are all phone shots.

Friday Morning - Load In
We're local so we didn't bother to set up until Friday morning.  Out of town teams often show up Thursday evening.  We were able to get everything in two vehicles for a pretty easy set up.

We had a 10 x 20 space and took just 1 EZ-Up, our gear, The Warthog and a kamado.

The view outside of our pop-up.

Team banner
I had a while before we had to prep anything so I walked around to get shots of some of the other teams getting set up.  

Our neighbor on our left side.

Molloy's BBQ setting up.

82's BBQ - our neighbor and new friends.

The clouds threatened but that's all.

World Champions - Lotta Bull BBQ - were on hand.

Our favorite local team - Rocky Top Barbeque - Walt and Rebekah from Jonesboro have been bringing it strong in this area in the past 18 months or so.

Big BBQ rig?  Nope, just a really nice porto-john.

View from the South side of the contest.

Another one of our favorite teams - Monty Pigthon and The Holy Grill - Sid and Connie got a lot of calls here last year.

Episcopal School's campus is a very nice setting for the event.  It will be a tight fit if the event grows too much more but still a great campus.

Dead End BBQ was there vending their great BBQ to the crowds.

Friday Afternoon - Ancillary categories, Team Meeting, and Big Meat Prep
Most contests have ancillary categories on Friday night that include "anything butt" which is anything except one of the 4 man entries, desserts, and sponsor categories.  For example, Wampler's Sausage sponsored a sausage category.   These are typically turned in early in the evening.  

John had to work and Alexis had an appointment, so I had this one on my own.  I went with our "Turtle Eggs" which are smoked sausage balls stuffed with a chile and creamy cheese mixture.

Did two versions - one with regular sausage and one Wampler's made special with moonshine in it.
First turn in time met.
The contest organizer has a team meeting with all of the teams just to re-hash the standard rules, discuss any event specific items, and to clarify any questions.  This is where I found out about the new KCBS ruling that meat can be separated and put "back on to finish cooking" once cooked to USDA specifications (i.e. 145 with a 3 minute rest).  That means you can now remove the money muscle from the butt when the money muscle hits sliceable temps (180-185°F) and cook the rest of the butt to pullable temps (195-200°F).

Phillip and Kathy Brazier are the KCBS Contest Representatives for most of the events around here and I think that they do a fantastic job.  They are friendly, helpful, and are always around to answer questions.

Time for prepping the brisket and pork shoulder.  Jasen Adam of 82's BBQ from Danville, IL was super helpful when he found out it was our first comp on our own.  He kept checking on us making sure we knew what we were doing with our timelines.  Jasen also let me borrow this kick ass meat injector for prepping our big meats.

It is the Chop's Power Injector System. Usually I use a single needle meat syringe so I thought it would be 4 times as fast but that was it.  I was wrong.  It was more than four times faster but it was also so much easier.  First, the open end hypodermic needles didn't clog as much as the closed end one I use.  Second, I have to refill my small syringe every 4 ounces.  Third, the pump injector supplies even pressure compared to doing it by hand.  One use was enough to convince me that I need to get one of these.  The $100+ seems a bit high at first glance but the single needle syringe I have costs $20 and doesn't have all of the benefits of the Chop's unit.  Trust me, I will have one of these before our August contest.

Me injecting our brisket with a solution of beef stock, Liquid Aminos, and Worcestershire sauce.

John injecting our pork butts.
I didn't get shots of us prepping the meats other than that but here's a shot of me trimming the briskets and seasoning them from the practice cook the week before.

The fat cap needs to be trimmed to 1/8th of an inch and then I trim out a lot of the fat between the point and flat.

At the contest, I screwed up a little on our beef rub, messing up the salt ratio because I used a much less coarse salt.  I learned if I don't have Bourbon Barrel Smoked Salt, to mix and grind the other ingredients (black pepper, green peppercorns, garlic flakes, onion flakes, dried red and green bell pepper, oregano) first, then add salt until the balance is right.  I am REALLY happy with our beef rub, just need to mix it right.

We used the same beef rub on our Waygu brisket from Father's Day and it was phenomenal.
For the butts - we trimmed down the fat cap and opened up the money muscle so it could get bark on most sides.  We seasoned them with my basic NMT BBQ rub but we boosted the turbinado sugar and garlic pepper seasoning.  

Friday Evening - Entertainment, Small Meats Prep, Blind Box
As the sun sank down, the bands came out to play.  They had some good live music again this year, nice and upbeat to help keep us moving.

First, we trimmed and seasoned the ribs using my NMT BBQ rub.  Then they went to rest in the Cambro until the morning. We did 3 racks for the contest.

Next up was trimming the chicken.  And by trimming, I mean taking off the skin, scrapping the fat off, cutting the thighs into shape, and putting them back together.  This is the most hated job in BBQ comps because it is time consuming and gross.  No pics.  We brined one batch and not the other.

We also got the Warthog fired up during this time and got our brisket and pork butts on.  We were using hickory and the plan was to cook at 270°F.

Since I took the bullet for chicken trimming, Alexis and John did built the blind boxes which is almost as tedious.  It involves trimming bunches and bunches and bunches of parsley to fill our 4 turn in boxes.  

It was 1 in the morning at this point and I was just glad not to be building blind boxes.
John and I stayed up the entire night feeding The Warthog small hickory splits every 30 minutes.  We had a very clean fire burning but it was small so it took more work. We're practicing now with bigger fires with some smoker modifications so we won't have to tend to it so frequently.  Alexis managed to get a few hours nap in the car.

We also had to mop our butts and brisket throughout the night.  My brisket mop was just Albukirky Duke City Sweet sauce cut with beef stock and a few other ingredients.  The pork mop was your basic vinegar, sugar, salt, red pepper sop mop.

We did have one screw up when the fire box door didn't get secured so it swung open, spiking the cooking temps enough to temporarily make it look like the meat temps were done.  Cooler heads prevailed after a brief $&@*! moment and things were okay. 

Saturday Morning 
Dawn came and sunlight filtered through the smoke rising from the contest sight.  It becomes what I call "busy quiet" - a lot of utensils banging, pit doors squeaking, foil tearing, and the occasional barked order but the laughter and idle chit chat from Friday is gone.

Ribs go on the cooker and everyone is checking their briskets and butts.  Oh yeah, while we were at breakfast that Wampler Sausage hosted for the teams (THANKS!), Jasen told us that our thermometer was going off.  We knew it wasn't ready and assumed it was an error, so took our time eating since we hadn't eaten in 18 hours. 

Yeah...the one non-Thermoworks thermometer we were using crapped out on us.  I'm pretty sure the pork butt was NOT at an internal temp of 482°F.  Just a hunch.   That's okay, the rest of my electronics are Thermoworks and they have never failed me in 4 years. 

A little later, John gets the Vision kamado grill ready for chicken.  Our plan was to cook two batches of chicken - one on the kamado and one on the pit - then pick the one we liked the best.  

These were the brined thighs and during cooking, the skins shrunk up on them.  Lesson learned.
Saturday 12:00 Chicken Turn Ins

The thighs in the smoker weren't quite done so we didn't get to choose, we had to go with the chicken thighs that used a recipe we hadn't tested before.  We thought they were actually pretty good even if the appearance was off.

Alexis carrying our very first KCBS turn in box ever.
Saturday 12:30 Rib Turn Ins
Our ribs weren't quite as tender as I wanted them so I put our two better racks on the kamado to get 30 minutes at a higher temperature.  That did the trick.

When we cut them I was really impressed.  Maybe, just maybe, we could get lucky and get a Top 10 call.  A few other people not on the team tasted them and thought they were excellent too.  I did a bad job on the box but it would have to do.

Saturday 1 Pork Turn Ins
This was my first time ever cooking the money muscle for slicing.  I like pulled pork not sliced and as a judge, I've never been won over by sliced money muscle.  I really wasn't sure what I was doing but boxed it up like this and glazed it with a thinner version of our rib glaze.

Saturday 1:30 Brisket Turn Ins
We took the brisket off, removed the flat from the point, and made burnt ends with the point.  The burnt ends weren't ready when we first checked them but by the time we got back to them, they were overdone and dry.  

I channeled Danielle DivaQ Dimovski in my head and heard her say - "If you're not happy with something don't put it in your box."  

So I 86'd the burnt ends and just went with slices.  

John (red shirt) and his wife, Anna Mae, carrying our final turn in box.
So we did it.  I was so freaking happy to make that last turn in that I literally wanted to jump up and down and scream.  I let a team high five suffice.

Contest organizer, George Ewart, stopped by to see how we did for our first event and we told him that we felt strong in ribs, then chicken, then pork, and brisket was our least confident showing.  He laughed and said we'd probably tank on ribs and score high on brisket.

A wise man named Thomas Petty once opined that The Waiting Is The Hardest Part.  He was right, sitting around in the dead humid heat for hours anticipating results is tough.  About an hour before results (4:30), I realized that I was teetering on heat exhaustion and was feeling worse by the minute.

Completely. Worn. Out.

Fifty teams registered for the contest but two didn't make it. The competition at this contest was tough - three of the top 15 teams in the country were there as well as a world champion.  Here's how it shook out.

Sausage:  14th
Chicken:  34th  (no surprise, we never tried the recipe we used before and had the skin issues)
Ribs:   44th (huge disappointment since we thought this was our best)
Pork:  12th (big surprise for me, but John and Alexis weren't shocked)
Brisket:  18th (wow, I expected 48th.  I even threw the rest of the brisket away I hated it so much.  George was right!)

So overall we finished 28th, right about in the middle of the pack.  Not a bad showing for our first contest ever.  We also met all three of our stated goals.
  1. We had fun.
  2. We made every single turn in time.
  3. We did not finish DAL
If you are on the fence about trying a competition - do it.  If you are a comp team in the region, you need to make Rocky Top Cook-Off on your "must do" list for next year.
Thanks to everyone for being so helpful and friendly! It was a blast, we learned a TON, and we are looking forward to our next competition at the Mountain High BBQ Festival and Car Show in Franklin, NC in August.