Sunday, February 26, 2012

Insider's View of a Certified BBQ Judging Class

By Dru Chai

I'm not gonna lie. As I mentioned before on this blog, a big reason of why I wanted to become a BBQ certified judge was for the free food. I mean, who wouldn't be excited for that? If you eat, breathe and sleep BBQ, free food has to be on the top of the list. Heck, BBQ is expensive!

But as I sat through 10 hours of BBQ judging class at the NBBQA Conference & Trade Show in San Diego, I realized something. I realized that the world of BBQ competition is serious business. When I mean serious, I'm referring to everyone's passion, love, and dedication for BBQ.

The NBBQA Conference rarely happens in SoCal

As a certified BBQ judge, I want to make sure that I'm judging each piece of BBQ meat with fairness and equality. There is no such thing as a BBQ expert. Everyone has different taste buds, and their own idea of what constitutes good BBQ. BBQ judges take their "job" seriously and look that way on the outside, but make no mistake -- I'm doing a happy little dance inside each time I taste a tender, flavorful, and mouth-watering piece of BBQ.

So how was the BBQ conference and the judging classes? Well, I consider myself lucky. Both judging classes and the conference rarely make an appearance in Southern California. So I had to take advantage. Since both classes took up the entire day, I didn't get a chance to check out some of the other how-to presentations, guest speaker seminars, or the trade show. I barely had a chance to taste some BBQ, but this one was clearly my favorite.

Neil "Bigmista" Strawder serving up some pulled pork
Flavorful and tender pulled pork from Bigmista BBQ
That BBQ sauce was da bomb

MBN Judging Class Overview

Memphis Barbecue Network competitions is all about the swine -- judges blind taste test pork shoulder, ribs, and whole hog. What sets them apart from others is that there is on-site judging as well. This means they get to visit and talk with the cooks and pit masters in person, who have the opportunity to explain their cooking methods and present their food personally to the judge. We went through two demonstrations to get a feel of what it would be like.

Showing what pork shoulder is all about to a "test judge"
Pork shoulder goodness, the money muscle
Some teams will show their sauce and rub, but it's all about the meat
The class was small in size at around 20 people, and understandably so. After taking the class, we were only MBN "trained." We only become officially certified once we judge 3 competitions. MBN sanctioned competitions rarely occur on the West coast, so finding one in Southern California will be tough. Chances are, I'll probably be just an MBN trainee for a while.

KCBS Judging Class Overview
Kansas City Barbecue Society competitions occur all over the country, and quite a few of them take place up and down California. So I knew this was going to be a popular class -- there was about 60 people in attendance, jam-packed in rather small conference room. Many in attendance were BBQ teams, wanting to know more about the judging process, so they know what to look for when putting out their BBQ during competitions.

Getting ready to do some practice judging
Pulled pork category, not so good... but it's practice

This class was definitely a lot louder than the smaller MBN class. After going through a presentation, we were presented with BBQ samples from each category (pulled pork, ribs, chicken, and brisket) for our own judging session. Unlike MBN, there is only blind judging for KCBS competitions. There are a few things to look for that could disqualify an entree, so they purposely threw in some screwballs to test us. I'll definitely be looking to judge as many KCBS events as possible!

Lining up for some BBQ samples
Now that's old school
Just don't BBQ his pet

Monday, February 13, 2012

Transforming Pulled Pork into Smoked Carnitas

By Dru Chai

Part of the fun of smoking BBQ is experimenting with different spice combinations. You don't want to eat something that has the same flavor profile every single time. You want to be surprised with every bite, keep you guessing, while discovering something new that will make you say "Yum, what is that flavor?"

Recently, I decided to smoke pulled pork again after a 4 month hiatus. As much as I love pulled pork, it's just not something I crave very often. Plus, if I'm smoking pulled pork, you know there's going to be LOTS of leftovers. It's always fun to play BBQ Santa, giving away and spreading BBQ joy.

Pulled pork is relatively straightforward, as I blogged about in my last experience here. You essentially set it and forget it. But this time around, I wanted to bring a unique twist. After smoking some boneless pork shoulder (purchased at Costco) for about 12 hours, I decided to put the meat in a good slow cooker for another 3 hours. I added some Mexican-inspired spices to transform the pulled pork into... smoked carnitas! Add the hours together, and you have 15-hour smoked carnitas.

Dirty Smoke BBQ's Smoked Carnitas

Traditionally, Mexican carnitas is slow cooked in lard (yuck), doesn't have any smoke flavor, and kind of has a mushy consistency. Well, with my method, it's healthy, has a subtle smoke flavor, and has a bit of crispy exterior texture that any pork lover would salivate over. So after smoking the pulled pork, I added the following spices in the slow cooker:

- Chili powder
- Cumin
- Paprika
- Cayenne pepper
- Garlic powder
- Garlic cloves
- Bay leaves
- Finely diced jalapeno peppers
- Red pepper chili flakes
- Chicken broth (or water)

Yeah, I practically emptied out my spice rack. I probably forgot some more spices, but I can't give away all my secrets on here, right? The result was a juicy, tender version of carnitas with a subtle and sweet smoky aroma in the background. For more crispy exterior, you could add a little oil and pan fry the meat for a few minutes. Or, for a healthier alternative, just lay out the meat on a baking pan, put in the oven, and broil it. All that was left was for the meat to be transported inside a warm tortilla with all the fixin's. Lastly, a few dashes of hot sauce and a squeeze of lemon. Delicioso!

(Carnitas tacos picture intended here, but I forgot to take a picture because I was hungry)