Sunday was the airing of the third of five preliminary cook-offs in season three of the BBQ Pitmasters. The contest was in Thomaston, GA, in early April at a larger competition called Smoke on the Water.
The cooks were, in order of finish:
1) Johnny Trigg, Smokin' Triggers, Alvarado TX
2) Chris Hart, Wicked Good BBQ (formerly iQUE), Boston, MA
3) Charles Wilson, C-Dubs Corruption BBQ Crew, Puyallup, WA
Some thoughts on this year's events so far
Alas, much of the methods they use, injecting with phosphates and covering everything in sight with Parkay and brown sugar, are better suited for judgings where the tasters get only one or two bites. These are practices that should be banned from backyards.
Unfortunately, production values have declined from last season. And by now it is really apparent that much of the show is scripted. Both judges and cooks seem to be mouthing lines. Then there was the goofy sequence where one judge, just before announcing the results, asked, "who was judge number three?" because he screwed up his turkey entry. All three stepped forward. I wonder whose idea this was and how many rehearsals it took. I fully expected them to shout "I am Spartacus" (if you don't get the reference go watch the classic 1960 movie with Kirk Douglas).
And did anyone who knows the competition circuit and the history of the three seasons of Pitmasters doubt from the opening sequences that Trigg would prevail when being judged by his friends, even though it appeared Hart outcooked him?
Although the judges are said to be tasting blind, that is they are not supposed to know whose food they are eating, they would have to be blind to not have a pretty good idea. During the prep and cooking, they are allowed to visit the teams, and from the elevated judging table they can easily see what the cooks are doing. Did none of them notice that Trigg sliced his pork belly while the other two cubed theirs? Did none of them notice that Hart cooked the turkey dark meat and white meat differently? Did none of them hear Wilson verbalize his concern that his dark meat was undercooked and he would not serve any? Next season I would feel better if producer John Markus kept the judges completely away from the cooks.
Sadly, these judges, like most barbecue judges, have a preconceived notion of what barbecue should taste like, and that reared up and bit a talented cook, Hart, when he presented turkey cooked two ways. These guys want smoked meat covered with sweet sauce. They call this "the classic barbecue flavor profile".
Sadly there is little room for creativity in competition barbecue nowadays. If barbecue is part of the culinary arts, then the judges and cooks should take a look at other art forms, like music, painting, dance, and restaurants, where creativity and innovation are highly prized. I'd love to see how these guys would react to a fabulous plate from Fatty 'Cue, the Asian influenced barbecue restaurants in New York City. Probably dump it in the trash.
Worse, their preconceived notions leave little room for regional traditions. In a swath of central South Carolina, and even parts of Georgia, barbecue sauce is yellow. Mustard based. And it is wonderful, especially on pulled pork. But gawd help you if a cook from Columbia, SC, enters it in a competition outside his home state. Sadly, barbecue is becoming globalized. Pour the meat in the steel tank and pukketa pukketa it all comes out the same. (Click here for a very nice recipe for South Carolina mustard sauce.)
Johnny TriggThe 73 year old Trigg is legendary on the circuit as well as on Pitmasters, appearing on all three seasons. Called "The Godfather of BBQ" and "The Rib King" he claims to have won more than $600,000 in prizes. He cooks with a Jambo pit, a huge horizontal tube, a "stick burner" that he feeds nothing but cured logs of Texas post oak. No charcoal. This is not easy. The wood must be cured properly and temperature control on these offset pits is an art. At this, Trigg is an unquestioned maestro. That's him at right a few years ago with one of his Jambos.
Trigg epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of so many competition cooks. He can really cook the four classic meats required at events sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS), the largest sanctioning body. All their competitions feature pork ribs (usually spare ribs), pork butt (actually from the shoulder), beef brisket, and chicken parts (usually thighs).
But last season most of these Johnny Four-Notes really struggled when presented with such exotic foods as pork crown roast, frog legs, and catfish. Last season Trigg was flummoxed when asked to cook baby back ribs. I mean they're from the same rib cage as his specialty! Yes, they are less fatty and need less cooking time, but c'mon, John.
This year, the cocky cook claimed aloud "I can cook anything" and then, when confronted by a large slab of bone-in pork belly, he asked if they were beef ribs! When told what they were, he moaned "I've never heard of pork belly in my life"! Johnny, this is the streaky meat and fat layer that lies right on top of your favorite cut, spare ribs! In fact, the slabs they handed out still had the spare ribs attached! Somebody needs to explain to him this is the stuff bacon is made from, "the candy of the hog" in judge Myron Mixon's words. (I think I just set the world's record for exclamation points in one paragraph by a male over 18).
You have to give Trigg the chutzpah award, however. Daunted, he took his slab over to Hart's tent and asks him what it is. Hart wisely refused to say. "You want me to come over there and trim it for you?" he snarked. His teammate could be heard in the background asking if Trigg wants him to cook it too.
Trigg's teammate, his wife Trish, looked at it and noticed the bones looked awfully familiar, and the meat looked a lot like bacon, and finally the light went on.
Trigg, and all the others somehow decided on similar approaches: Remove the spare ribs, cook them the normal way, and then smoke the belly pretty much the same as the ribs.
Belly can be handled any number of ways, but one thing you really should do is cook it long and hot enough to begin melting the fat which then becomes semi-liquid, unctuous, and succulent. Fail to do this, and it can be wax, rubbery, and thoroughly unpleasant, especially in texture. One wonders if Trigg has ever eaten in a restaurant featuring contemporary cuisine, where pork belly is all the rage.
Trigg's secret ingredient is to slather everything in sight in Parkay Squeeze from a blue squeeze bottle, which he blithely refers to as "butter" several times. Heck, this stuff isn't even labeled margarine. For the record, butter is made from fresh cream and maybe a little water and salt. Parkay Squeeze is made from liquid soybean oil, water, salt, hydrogenated cottonseed oil, vegetable monoglycerides, soy lecithin, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, artificial flavor, phosphoric acid, beta carotene, and vitamin A palmitate.
I don't want to sound like a snob and slam butter substitutes which have their place, but somehow I hold out the hope that champion cooks will be able to make great dishes with a minimum of processed foods. Sadly, this technique has become popular on the circuit as wannabes copy the winners like Trigg, and now that we have seen how much he loves the squeeze bottle, I fear an outbreak of carpal tunnel syndrome in other cooks.
At judging time the panel like his presentation, but was seen pulling hard with their teeth to get meat off the ribs, and only one liked the belly.
When it came to the turkey, Trigg knew what he was doing. He was wise to butterfly it and lay it open, a method called spatchcocking. This is a fine way to make sure the thick breast meat, best cooked to about 165F, and the thinner thighs and drums, best cooked to about 175F, are cooked properly and evenly. It also makes sure the skin gets evenly crisp and browned, and opening it up makes it easier to flavor the cavity. At right you can see a butterflied turkey I cooked recently. Click here to see my recipe and technique for whole or butterflied bird.
But once again he squirted the bird liberally with thick yellow Parkay and then he rubbed it in with his standard spice rub. But it must work, because the judges loved it, eliciting a "Wow" from Franklin.
I can't figure out how Trigg and his wife outscored Hart and his partner Andy Husbands. From my sofa it sure looked like they rubbed out the Godfather.
Hart and Husbands have the chops. They recently released a fine cookbook "Wicked Good Barbecue: Fearless Recipes from Two Damn Yankees Who Have Won the Biggest, Baddest BBQ Competition in the World" and Husbands is the chef/owner of two adjacent chic restaurants in Boston's South End, Tremont 647 and Sister Sorel. They know what to do with belly and just about every other part. These are not Johnny Four-Notes.
Like Trigg, Hart separated the ribs and belly. He injected the ribs, an unusual practice, but growing in popularity. He then smoked them on a Yoder Pellet smoker. Pellet smokers have done extremely well on the circuit lately, and they live on the exact opposite of the spectrum from Trigg's Jambo. Pellet smokers cook pure wood, like the Jambo, but the wood comes in the form of small pellets made from compressed sawdust, each about 1/2" long and the thickness of a pencil. The smokers have a digital thermostat that controls the flow of pellets into a burn pot. They also have a fan that controls the flow of oxygen. As a result, the cook can dial in the exact temp he wants, walk away for hours, and the cooker will control the mix of wood and oxygen and remain rock solid despite wind, rain, or snow. Trigg has to do feed logs and control air vents on his smoker manually, and has no use for pellets. "A pellet cooker is for a novice cook. All you have to do is flip a switch" he says. He has a point (although I have a MAK pellet smoker, and I am a big fan).
When the belly was done, Hart then cut it into bite sized cubes. The judges loved it.
For the turkey, Hart had a different strategy than Trigg. "Turkey legs and turkey breasts are opposite ends of the spectrum." Said Hart. Legs are "kind of gnarly and fatty and the other is super lean and if you overcook it it's goin to turn to cardboard." He removed the thighs and drums and decided to give them a competition style rub and smoke them on a Big Green Egg ceramic smoker at 300F for about 3 hours. They then were dressed with a North Carolina style vinegar based sauce and garlic butter.
He injected the breasts with another popular tool of the wily barbecue gladiator. I'm not sure which brand of injection he used, but a typical blend includes hydrolyzed soy protein, vegetable oil, sodium phosphates, monosodium glutamate, autolyzed yeast extract, xanthan gum, disodium inosinate, and guanylate.
Yes, molecular gastronomy has come to barbecue. Or is it just good old fashioned ends justifies the means and pump up the meat with additives? Hard to tell the difference nowadays in barbecue or high end restaurants. While he's injecting, the Pitmasters director superimposed a caption on the screen that called injecting with phosphates "natural". Excuse me? Phosphates may in fact be found in mines, but not so much in turkey breasts.
I have tried this at home, and it does amp up the flavor and retain moisture, but I see no need to add so many compounds to the inside of my meat. If I went to the store and saw a turkey with this ingredient list I would never take it home. Cooking it properly with a good digital thermometer is going to give you plenty of flavor and juice. If you have to inject, a mild salt solution will add plenty of moisture and flavor. By the way, a digital thermometer would make a great Father's Day gift. Click the link for my reviews of a number of them.
But after injecting, Hart wasn't done yet. He then lifted the skin, and pushed a rub of garlic, herbs, lemon zest, and olive oil under the skin. This is an excellent technique I have used with great success. This gets flavors in contact with the meat and doesn't confine them to sitting on top of the skin which is harder to penetrate. He then removed the legs and thighs from the smoker and placed the breasts on for two hours. One presumes he put the legs in an insulated holding box. This is surely a recipe for soggy skin and dry dark meat, something that is hard to accomplish.
The judges didn't complain about either white or dark meats, but they didn't like two different flavors in the box from the two different preparations. Come on guys. Loosen up!
Wilson, who towed his large Texas-made rig to Georgia all the way from Puyallup, WA, probably had a long introspective ride home. He was clearly out of his league in this event, especially against such seasond vets as Trigg and Hart.
Things got off to a bad start for him. Propane is allowed only to start your fire, but not to cook. But Wilson forgot to open his chimney when he put the torch to the charcoal and walked away, and shortly thereafter there was a loud whump. Gases in the firebox exploded. He's lucky his pit didn't send shrapnel flying, although that would have been a novel way to take out the competitors. Everyone on the set looked pretty concerned, with good reason. Should this man be playing with fire?
Wilson and his wife Alli started their turkey by submerging it in a brine, a good technique but it can take hours to get the salt and flavor into the meat. Injecting salt water is much faster. He then placed the bird in a flimsy disposable aluminum roasting pan. While it cooked, he squirted the bird with a mist of what I believe was fruit juice, cooling the meat and softening the skin. Usually I want crispy skin on my turkey. Basting is the enemy of crispy.
Well the results were predictable. The thighs are low on the bird and they were sitting in liquid from the bird and the spray, and the drums, which were above the liquid were cooled by it. So while the breasts were cooking in hot dry air, the dark meat was bathing in cool liquid and air, and when he cut into the meat, it was undercooked and possibly unsafe. He wisely decided to not put dark meat in the presentation box even though the rules required both light and dark. This was the kiss of death. To make matters worse, Mixon had a bone in with his white meat.
Like the others, he removed the ribs from the belly and cooked them as a slab. He then took a jaccard, a device that has many small knife blades, and punctured the belly with it many many times. Using a "jabberwocky" as he called it, is a great way to tenderize tough cuts of meat, but belly is pretty tender to begin with. He then injected it with fruit juices.
Myron said this about his pork, "I wouldn't give you 50¢ let alone $50,000." Now that's entertainment.
What do you think of this years Pitmasters?
All text and some photos are Copyright (c) 2012 By Meathead, and all rights are reserved. For more of Meathead's writing, photos, recipes, and barbecue info please visit his website AmazingRibs.com and subscribe to his email newsletter, Smoke Signals.
Friend Meathead on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AmazingRibs