Top 5 Tips for Making Winning Barbecue

Pitmaster Harry Soo makes the cut at the Diamond State BBQ Championship in Dover, Del. See more pictures of extreme grilling.
Discovery Communications

Put down that pulled pork. You didn't know that making barbecue was a sport? It is, and TLC's new show, "BBQ Pitmasters," fills you in on it as it trails some of the biggest names in barbecue as they travel around the United States to competitions. "There's a whole world out here that's like NASCAR racing," says Myron Mixon, one of the show's pitmasters. "You have sanctioning bodies and circuits."

Do you want to become a respected member of the barbecue brethren, a genuine pitmaster? Start at small, informal contests. Then work up to an event sanctioned by the Memphis Barbecue Network. If you win at that level, you're off to the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Memphis.

At Memphis in May, you face up to 300 teams and have about 24 hours to cook a whole hog, whole pork shoulders or pork ribs. With your best salesmanship, you present your barbecue at the grill, as well as in a blind box, where your meat sits in a lowly, numbered Styrofoam takeout container with nothing but some lettuce garnish.

Then you hope for the best.

Mixon started barbecuing with his father, Jack, in southern Georgia when he was 11 or 12. When his father died in 1996, Mixon decided to compete to help sell the family's barbecue sauce. In his first competition, he won two first places and a third.

"You can jump out of your backyard into this," says Mixon. "From that day on, I was hooked." He named his team Jack's Old South and became a world champion five years later. Then, he won two more times.

We listened to Mixon's seasoned advice on how to cook winning barbecue. Fire up your grill and read on for his top five tips.

5
Get Good Meat
Mixon peers into his pit to see how his culinary goodness is holding up.
Mixon peers into his pit to see how his culinary goodness is holding up.
Discovery Communications

You can't hide bad art with a nice frame. And you can't hide bad meat with fancy sauce. Good meat is fresh. It's also the foundation of good barbecue. Mixon gets all of his meat from a Mennonite farm in Georgia, where the pigs are raised organically and the animals that Mixon selects are butchered on-site, right before he cooks them.

Quality meat doesn't have to be expensive. When Mixon buys a whole hog from the Georgia farm, ranging from 135 to 235 pounds (61 to 107 kilograms), he pays $1.09 per pound.

Even at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest in Memphis, some teams buy their meat at the grocery store, says Mixon. At the grocery store, you don't know where the meat came from or how it was raised. Winners of the world championship tend not to buy grocery store meat, says Mixon.

We're on to what distinguishes honeyed ribs from diablo ribs -- flavor.

4
Focus on Flavor Profiles

A flavor profile refers to how much sweet, salty, sour and bitter taste is in your finished barbecue. The flavor comes from the meat, the cooking method (wood or gas, pan smoker or grill, hickory or cherry wood, for example), marinating, dry spices you add (called a dry rub) and the sauce.

For each meat you barbecue, work on a flavor profile. Taste, then repeat, recommends Mixon. He spends most of the year working on flavor profiles. That's because competitions often hinge on creating the best flavor. "If the meat is tender and moist like it should be, it comes down to a flavor contest," he says.

If you want to cook rather than sell barbecue condiments, you don't need to make your own sauces and rubs from scratch, says Mixon. Instead, choose from the many commercial products. "My recommendation to anybody coming into competitive barbecuing is to pick out a good sauce and rub, and stick with it, because it's not worth trying to reinvent the wheel. If you have a flavor profile you want to do, somebody else has done it."

The Ribber City Sauce Company won a Scovie (hot sauce) Award in 2008 with its habanero-infused honey condiment. But mixing the wrong flavors can make your barbecue taste too strange for anyone to enjoy. Read on.

3
Match Flavor to Meat
Mixon shows off his meat the Diamond State BBQ Championship in Dover, Del. It’s safe to say that it probably doesn’t taste anything like pumpkin pie.
Mixon shows off his meat the Diamond State BBQ Championship in Dover, Del. It’s safe to say that it probably doesn’t taste anything like pumpkin pie.
Discovery Communications

If Mixon were in your kitchen, he'd tell you that certain flavors go with certain meats. By "go with," he means traditional and conservative matches. "Vinegar, apple juice, those kinds of flavors go with pork. [For] beef, you want something that's beefy, like a broth," says Mixon. "I don't get into the bizarre."

For those who are still tempted to be creative, Mixon has some further advice. "I know some teams that use damn allspice and everything else in their rubs. Well, hell. We ain't making no damn pumpkin pie. You don't need to be putting no damn pumpkin pie seasoning on no damn piece of pork."

If you can't eat your barbecue without a pile of napkins, read the next tip.

2
Not Too Messy
Contestant Paul Peterson’s meat doesn’t look it’s going to be that hard to enjoy with or without napkins.
Contestant Paul Peterson’s meat doesn’t look it’s going to be that hard to enjoy with or without napkins.
Discovery Communications

Sauce and glaze are splendid ways to flavor barbecue. They're the solution if you can't smoke, marinate or inject the flavor you want into the meat. But sauce and glaze can backfire, mainly by being the wrong consistency. You don't want so much sauce that you have soup.

Good glaze simply surrounds the meat and holds its own. Bad glaze can be so watery or copious that it drips off in jellylike gobs. It can also be overly dry and gummy.

In professional barbecuing, judges call these consistency problems a mess. "You get marked down if the sauce or glaze on your meat makes too big of a mess," says Mixon.

You want extra flavor without a mess. Mixon has creative ways of getting that. Consider honey. Honey is one of those ingredients that can doom your glaze by making it too gummy or drippy. If Mixon wants honey-flavored barbecue, he adds dehydrated honey, which is a powder. That way, he gets the flavor of honey without the mess.

If you're agitated by this tip, the next one will start a brawl.

1
Cook for the Judges, Not for Yourself
If you want to make it on the competitive circuit, you better rethink your regional barbecue ties.
If you want to make it on the competitive circuit, you better rethink your regional barbecue ties.
Discovery Communications

This tip is a tough one -- one that asks you to abandon your sentimentality in order to cook good barbecue. Good barbecue, at least as competitions define it, pleases a crowd.

That means no clinging to regional roots. Mixon grew up in southern Georgia, where he ate barbecue in the Memphis style, with vinegary sauce. But if the people who are tasting your meat -- in his case, judges -- aren't from a region that eats Memphis-style barbecue, Mixon recommends using a different sauce. If he's in the Kansas-City region, he'll use the Kansas-City way of cooking, with sweet, tomato-based sauce. "I tell you this from experience," he says. "Vinegar-based sauce ain't going to win [in Kansas]."

Next, you've got to cut family ties. Even if your grandfather taught you that barbecue is naked unless the pepper sauce sets off five alarms, forget it.

"You've got to pick a flavor profile that's kind of middle of the road," says Mixon. "A small fraction of folks likes stuff really hot. That may be true, but you can't make this barbecue really hot because the percentage of people in the public that likes hot stuff is the same as among the judges."

Keep reading for more fiery content you might like.

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Sources

  • Mixon, Myron. Personal interview. 11/9/2009
  • Ribber City. "Products." 2008. (11/17/2009) http://www.ribbercity.com/Merchant2/merchant.mvc?