by Ross Bowen, Tastemaker in Residence
The Minnesota BBQ Society trained and swore in 65 judges last weekend at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Owatonna, MN. This is the third year in a row I’ve helped with the training.
Anyone can be a BBQ judge. If you are reading this post on the Spirited Table, you already show interest, which is the only qualification. Of course different judges have different preferences, but your taste buds are as good as anyone else’s. I hope that some of you will take the class and become qualified judges when we hold the class again next March.
As a judge at a BBQ contest, you are required to show up at the venue at 11 AM, before the tastings begin at noon. You are not allowed to fraternize with the teams, or drink alcoholic beverages beforehand. Teams will turn in meat from the four competition categories – chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder, and beef brisket. This is a lot of meat. We expect judges to take just one bite out of each sample. For this reason you will see a lot of judges with small coolers on hand to save the leftovers.
Six judges will be seated at each table. A trained “table captain” will bring Styrofoam go containers filled with meat to your table. Each container will have at least six pieces or samples of meat.
The first score you give to an entry is appearance, from 1 to 9. Appearance counts only about 1/7 of the score, but as a competitor, we feel it punches above its weight, since it sets the judge’s expectations. Teams usually build a “putting green” of parsley on top of lettuce to provide a garnish that beautifies the meat. Garnish is optional and is not supposed to affect the scoring of the meat. It can take up to thirty minutes just to prepare the garnish for each of the 4 competition meats.
After the showing of the entry, each judge will take one sample from each of the six competitor’s entry containers and place them on a disposable place mat with six squares, one for each entry, so you can distinguish each one from the other. After testing the meat, you will give scores for taste and texture, also from 1 to 9. Taste gets a higher weighting than texture. Taste if affected by the quality of the meat, smoke, rub, any brining or injecting, and sauce. Texture may be the hardest quality for the cook to get right. A meat with good texture will be moist, and neither too chewy nor too soft.
The first meat that will be served to you is chicken. Most teams cook chicken thighs, because dark meat keeps its moisture better than white meat during the smoking process. I have friends that have experimented by turning in white breast meat, but I’ve never heard that they’ve gotten high scores for it.
Ribs are next. Competitors try to fit in 8 or possibly 10 ribs. We believe that this improves the psychology of the judges. A full box makes a judge happy. In particular, the sixth judge will be able to have a choice of ribs, rather than just taking the last leftover rib in the box.
Pork is the third meat. Teams used to just turned in pulled, but nowadays chunks and medallions are usually turned in as well. While a box with three different variations on pork looks good, if one of the three styles has a poor texture or taste, it will pull the overall score down, even if the other two are fantastic.
Brisket is last. The reason brisket and pork are served last is that they take the longest to cook. I usually start my brisket and pork about midnight the night before. (Chicken takes a few hours at most, and that is why it is turned in first). Brisket turn-ins usually include slices from the “flat” and squares cut from the “point”, which are also known as burnt ends.
The judging runs from 12:00 to 1:30. Judges are then free to leave, or go visit the teams. Scoring takes until 4:00, and judges are welcome to stay, but they usually leave shortly after their job is finished. A lot of them drive several hours to the contests, which are scattered all over the state and in Iowa, so they’ve got a drive in front of them.
If you are interested in becoming a judge next year, I’d love to see you at the class. Send me a note and follow this blog. We will post the information on the Minnesota BBQ Society webpage as well (MNBBQSociety.com).