Ready Set Cook

From the panhandle to the Piney Woods, from Gulf beaches to the Mexican border, Texas is dotted with barbecue cookoffs, events where contestants vie not only for bragging rights for the best ‘cue but often for cash prizes, as well.

In a state where barbecue is serious business, these events are no mere group of cooks getting together for a weekend of fun; they’re events that bring out serious smokers who guard their secret recipes.

With the best barbecue the topic of heated debate throughout the state, it’s no surprise that you’ll find cookoffs almost every weekend during peak times. In the spring and fall months, when the weather turns cooler and cooks don’t mind spending hour after hour bent over a fiery smoker, you’ll find both small community cookoffs and high-dollar events that bring out the stars of the smoke-filled barbecue world.

The pits usually fire up on Friday afternoons, and contestants stay up throughout the night, checking their meats to make sure they reach smoky perfection. Using secret spices, the pit-masters season the meats and start the slow process of smoking over their chosen woods. Hour after hour, the cooks work basting or “mopping” the meat with marinade to keep it from drying out.

The next morning, the teams make their final preparations and ready the meats for judging. Samples of their entries are placed in plastic-foam containers; numbered; and turned in to the judges, a group with the difficult task of sampling the many entries to determine the best. Although the meat can be basted with barbecue sauce during preparation, after the meat is sliced, sauce is not added for the presentation. The judges are looking at the smoky wonder of the meat itself, not the quality of the sauce.
How do you judge good barbecue from a so-so product? Typically, judges base their decisions on color and appearance (especially a well-defined smoke ring), texture, taste and aroma. It’s not an easy task; judges taste sample after sample, clearing their palates with saltine crackers, grapes and cheese between bites as they try to focus on each entry individually.

Once the judging is completed, the real fun begins. At most cookoffs, cooks are encouraged, though not required, to provide the public with samples of their craft. In the relaxed atmosphere after the judging is completed, cooks also enjoy talking about the art of barbecuing, sometimes even sharing tips and secrets.

Every competitor’s recipe varies (and some will remain secrets the pit-masters will take to the grave), but most recipes call for slow cooking over a variety of woods that might include oak, hickory, pecan or mesquite chips. In Texas, the meat is rubbed with dry spices and sometimes accompanied by a tomato-based sauce that can range from sweet to spicy.

Although barbecuing is serious business to these cooks, the task of barbecuing is spiced with plenty of levity. At most cookoffs throughout the state, a favorite event is the showmanship competition, with comedy skits and a lighthearted atmosphere; trophies are often awarded for best showmanship, as well as most elaborate rig, master chef and reserve master chef.

Whether you call it a barbecue, BBQ or Bar-B-Que cookoff, there’s no doubt that when it comes to Texas cookoffs, you have to call them fun.

About the Authors: Paris Permenter and John Bigley are the authors of numerous Texas guidebooks including Texas Barbecue. Paris and John also edit, an online travel guide.