From Backyard to BBQ Competition

From Backyard to BBQ Competition


So you consider yourself a decent BBQ cook. You’ve spent countless hours perfecting your craft and all your friends and family rave about how good your cooking is. Well, it’s time to take your BBQ to the next level and enter your very first local completion. The problem is, you don’t even know what the first step is and the more you think about it, the more overwhelming the whole idea becomes. You know you love to cook awesome BBQ, but simply do not know where to start.


Our backyard to completion guide is here to help. In it we cover what to expect, what you can anticipate on spending, and some tips and tricks to make sure you stand the best shot at taking home the prize.


How Competitions Weekend are Structured


Most competitions start Friday afternoon, as everyone participating starts to arrive and has their meat checked in. There will also usually be some sort of cook meetings to familiarize you with the rules, and many times also include music and festivities. For friends and family that have come along, this is usually the best part of the weekend!


Most teams will plan on getting their smokers going Friday evening, and putting in their pork and brisket butt so it can smoke overnight. Then, Saturday morning is generally when teams will put their chicken and ribs on the smoker to get those going. If you’ve ever seen a competition in person or on TV, you’ve probably seen the contestants preparing the meat in presentation box with parsley and lettuce. This will take place sometime on Saturday before you actually turn it into the judges.


Most competitions will follow the following structure: Chicken should be at the judging tent by 12:00 p.m., pork butt is at 1:00 p.m., and brisket finishes it off at 1:30 p.m.


Depending on the competition, there may be additional categories like sauce, sausage, etc., and some will also vary the above turn-in times, but those are very rare in my experience. Remember, any later than up to 5 minutes before turn in time will result in a disqualification. Judging is typically over by 2:00 p.m. and an official representative of the KCBS enters the cards into the computer. The award ceremony follows by about 1-2 hours. This window is usually when you pack up all of your gear and equipment.


At the awards ceremony, you will have the chance to congratulate and root for your fellow contestants. This is one of the best things about competitions and the BBQ community in general. Everyone sincerely wishes success for everyone else, and at the end of the day it’s all about good BBQ.


Now that we have a very generally idea of how everything is laid out, let’s get into some nitty-gritty details.


Tips to Prepare for Your First BBQ Competition


In my opinion, one of the best things you can do to familiarize yourself with the process and take some of the fear out of the whole thing is by attending competitions as a spectator before competing yourself. If you go on Friday night, you’ll have an opportunity to ask questions and pick the brains of people who are already seasoned. The BBQ community is incredibly friendly and more than willing to share their knowledge of competition practice to someone looking to become involved. Also, they will be much less busy Friday night than they are on Saturday.


However, even though most teams will be too busy to chat on Saturday, keep your eyes peeled. By simply watching and observing, you will no doubt pick up on invaluable information and smoking/cooking techniques. Pay extra close attention to the timelines, and when the teams start preparing their boxes and bringing them to the judging tent. Before I started competing, I actually volunteered in and around the tents and learned a lot in exchange for my time.


Another great way to learn is to become a volunteer judge. This is probably some of the best prep you could ever receive and it’s a lot of fun, too! There are no real prerequisites outside of a love of good BBQ, but you may want to consider a judging class, which is offered by the KCBS. Make sure to call ahead and get everything squared away with the coordinators and don’t just show up and expect the competition to accommodate you. Also, make sure you look at the KCBS rules handbook before you attempt to help judge a competition. You can acquire one of these through the KCBS office and if you have any questions, they will be happy to clarify any points you might not totally understand.


When you do finally enter your first competition, it’s helpful to take a more measured approach and just enter one or two categories at first. You obviously won’t be in contention for the top prizes, but only having one or two things to focus on will make the experience more manageable and much less stressful, especially your first time at bat. Some competitions will offer “fun” categories and these are a great idea for beginners as it will offer you your best shot at going home with a ribbon.


Selecting Your First BBQ Competition


When people ask me how to choose their first cook-off, I usually recommend something small and local. It does not need to be a large sanctioned contest to give you a good experience and a true sense of what the competition environment feels like. I also recommend contacting the organizer to inquire about how many teams they had participate the year before. If it was fewer than 20, you know that the event will be more relaxed and a better opportunity to get your feet wet. Plus, with a smaller competition, you will most likely get more individualize “fist-timer” attention.


Also important for your first competition is mindset. Don’t go into it expecting to take the whole thing. It normally takes a few times to go home with a ribbon. However, taking the time to find a smaller event does increase your chances.


How Many Team Members Do I Need?


I have seen many teams crush a competition with only one or two people, but somewhere between four and six is more common. It doesn’t matter who makes up those people, as long as they are up for a little hard work and a lot of fun. And since there are some costs associated with entering and cooking, it’s nice to have a group to spread that out over.


How to Choose a Team Name?


When participating in a competition, you’re going to need a team name. Get together with your teammates and figure out something that fits and is representative of the group.  Make sure to get creative and have some fun with it, but also remember that there will be other people at the cook-off, most with families.


How much is This Going to Cost Me?


Most competitions have a $100 fee to enter, but some are lower than that and some are higher. When purchasing all your meat and various ingredients, you can reasonably expect to also spend about $100, and another $100 for other expenses like miscellaneous equipment, food to eat throughout the weekend, etc. While some teams are going to go the extra miles and make sure to procure specialty (and expensive) meats, you can easily make it out the door for $300.


What Do I Need to Bring With Me?


Obviously, you need to bring your smoker, 2 pork butts, 2 briskets, 12-16 pieces of chicken, and at least 3 racks of ribs. Make sure to come prepared with enough sauce for all of your meats, marinades and spice rubs, charcoal and/or wood.


Everything you need to prepare your entries likes knives, basting brushes, foil, plastic wrap, dish soap, water, gloves, etc., should also be packed up and brought with you. Also, don’t forget that you need two portable tables that will serve as your kitchen counters. My team and I are big coffee drinkers, so I like to make sure that we have plenty to last us throughout the weekend. You can buy a catering package from somewhere like Starbucks, but I prefer to make large batches of espresso ahead of time with my Jura espresso machine and add hot water later. This usually ends up saving me a good amount of money.


What Type of Smoker Should I Purchase?


A lot of teams produce great BBQ with small Weber grills or other backyard units. Other teams go bigger and purchase commercial cookers, but don’t feel like you have to in order to compete. There are world championships that have been won with very humble equipment. In my home kitchen, I opt for nice, high-quality cookware since I’ll be using it day in and day out. When I cook for competitions, I keep it super simple and have never had any problems.


What Happens When I Arrive Competition Day


Show up as early on Friday as possible. As soon as you arrive at the grounds, locate the coordinator or a representative who will be able to show you to your team’s cook site. This person may be able to check-in your meat on the spot, or someone might come shortly after to do so. I always suggest having all of your meat in one container to make this process as quick and easy as possible. At this stage, the meat must be raw and contain no seasoning, in addition to being stored on ice. As far as trimming your meats, you can do this beforehand or when you arrive on Friday.


What Happens Post Check-In


This is where the cooking and fun begins. The most important event that takes place on Friday is the cooks meeting where you will get all the info you need and probably some one on one coaching. Just let the rep know it’s your first cook-off, and they will make sure that you understand all the rules you need to.


How is Judging Performed?


At the meeting mentioned above, you will get your Styrofoam boxes which will be used for presenting your meat to the judges. These boxes will have a number on them which corresponds to your assigned team number. Before turn in time, you will be required to place at least six pieces of meat in each container, along with some parsley and lettuce as decoration. I generally put more than six pieces in the box, which makes it look more attractive and the extra portions will be appreciated.


You will turn your box into a rep, who will then take it over to the judge’s table. The judging uses a blind system so the to ensure a fair an impartial judgment and no personal relationships effect the outcome. The judging occurs based on this set criteria: the appearance, taste and tenderness/texture. In each of these areas you will receive a score from 1-9. The taste score is doubled so this will count for the majority of your score. If you want to know the exact mathematical multipliers, these can be found in the KCBS handbook.


What’s Next?


This guide should have given you all the info you need to be well on your way to entering in, and successfully completing, your first BBQ competition. This is an extremely fun and rewarding hobby filled with great people that are likely to become lifelong friends.


See you at the competition!


Remy Bernard – Owner and Editor at Miss Mamie’s Cupcakes. A baker, chef and writer, Remy started Miss Mamie’s Cupcakes as a way to deepen and spread her passion for making delicious food. Since starting the blog, her focus has shifted to a more eco-conscious, greener way of living that emphasizes small steps which can have a big impact.


She can also be found on Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook.




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