Clearing the smoke
Judges-to-be learn ins, outs of barbecue
Bob Nowak wanted to know what judges were thinking when they scored his team Lost in Sauce's barbecue, so he became a judge.
"We haven't performed like we want to, and we haven't scored like we want to either," he said. "Hopefully we'll learn something here today that will enable us to win grand champion."
Nowak participated in the Kansas City Barbecue Society Judging School Saturday at the Shawnee Civic Centre. More than 70 people attended the four-hour class taught by Ed Roith, Kansas City Barbeque Society Master Judge.
The class was filled with team members trying to get inside information on how to perfectly cook and present brisket, ribs, pork and chicken. Others were there because they wanted to judge.
Starting off the class, Roith emphasized that judging barbecue contests is different than going to a friend's house for a backyard barbecue.
"Put out of your mind anything you've had about barbecue in your backyard," he said.
Caroline Wells, director of KCBS and one of its original founders, said the rules are there because the teams insist on them.
"Everything is to level the playing field for judging what people have cooked in competition," she said.
There are rules to become a judge, Roith noted, emphasizing that judges aren't allowed to consume alcohol prior to or during judging. That rule brought a chuckle from the students.
"You're all laughing, but when it comes to judging that's out, folks," he said. "We only allow you to have water and crackers. We won't allow anything that affects the taste of the food."
There are six judges per table to judge barbecue. They first judge on presentation, looking for at least six identifiable pieces and no fancy garnishes like cabbage, kale or red-tipped lettuce, although parsley and regular lettuce are allowed.
Next, judges receive a piece of meat and judge for taste and tenderness based on the guidelines for that item. Chicken can be presented with or without the skin with white or dark meat and should be moist with clear juices. The meat on pork ribs should come off the bone right where it was bit into and nowhere else. If the meat sticks to the bone, it's undercooked and if it falls off the entire rib, it's overcooked. Pork shoulder or Boston Butt should not become mushy or it is overcooked. If sliced, it should pull apart easily. Brisket should break apart with little effort, but if it crumbles it is overcooked.
Judges score each category on a scale of two to nine, with one meaning disqualification and six being average. And while sauce often is on the meat, judges should judge the taste of the meat, not the sauce, Roith said.
After learning the guidelines of judging, the students had a chance to judge for themselves. KCBS volunteers prepared meats in each category, so that the judges-to-be could test their knowledge as if they were at a competition.
The smell of chicken, pork and brisket filled the air, but before the first group of meat came out Roith advised the participants to take a bite or two from each item, just enough to taste it.
"If you were to eat everything on that judging plate out of the four categories, you would be eating 2 1/2 pounds of meat," he said.
Judges are allowed and encouraged to walk around barbecue contests, but they shouldn't come back with prejudices on equipment, Roith said.
"It isn't the equipment, it's the cook, so don't ever be swayed by what you see out there," Roith said. "Don't ever look down at the guy with the 55-gallon drum because that guy is likely to walk away the winner."
John Hills, of Olathe, took the barbecue class Saturday so he could become a better cook. He's beginning to take part in his family's tradition of competing in barbecue contests.
"I've been wanting to take one of the classes and just on the KCBS Web site, I just saw it posted," he said. "I've learned a lot so far."