Barbecue is one of the major food groups and people around the country take their barbecue serious. Few are as serious as competition barbecue pit masters who stand to win good money if a group of judges favors their food. In this episode, we talk with the Hot Coles Barbecue Team of Gallatin, TN, and we learn tips of the trade so that you can make your own ‘cue the best in the neighborhood. Read more in the blog on this episode along with the temperatures our guests suggest are right for four types of meat.
There was a LOT of information that came out of the podcast on Competition Barbecue and I’ve more to add here. Let’s start with the cooking temperatures the pros recommended in case you weren’t able to jot them down as you listened.
Chicken – Breast meat should be about 165 and leg or thigh meet to about 185. As always with chicken, make sure the juices running out of the piece are clear to be sure the meat is fully cooked.
Ribs – Because they are so thin, rib temperatures are difficult to gauge. As with other meats, you’re shooting for around 200 to 205, but there are other more reliable tests. One is to prod between the fourth and fifth bone for tenderness. Another test is to pick up the rack (it WILL be hot!) and bend it. If it flexes easily, they are cooked.
Pork butt – The pros say to put it on the smoker for about four hours or until it hits 190 degrees, then wrap it heavily in aluminum foil and let the temperature come up to 200 or 205. There is a saying among barbecue cooks: “I didn’t start winning until I started wrapping.” Wrapping keeps moisture in the meat.
Brisket – This is a difficult call. The pros said to start checking it at about 200 degrees. Like ribs, if you can pick it up and it folds into a “U”, then it’s in good shape. If you’re just cooking tip, then follow your thermometer. Again, you can cook it to about 190, then wrap it and let it come up to temperature.
In ALL cases, the meat needs to rest before serving. For chicken and ribs, that runs about 15 minutes. For pork and brisket, that easily be 30 to 45 minutes. The meat will be fine and still warm. Be patient, it will be worth your time. This is also good advice for grilling steaks and other meats.
When I’m talking about taking the temperature, I’m not talking about an instant-read device. Invest in a probe thermometer with a cord that extends outside the cooker to a display. The probe should be inserted into the deepest part of the meat. This will give you accurate readings without poking holes in the meat that allow juices to escape.
As I mentioned in the podcast, I’m a Kansas City Barbecue Society master judge and have done more than 75 contests over 10 years. In that time, I’ve learned a lot from different teams and my own cooking. Now is my chance to share some of that with you.
Perhaps most importantly, you’re cooking for your taste, not to make competition barbecue. It will cost you a fortune to produce competition barbecue and you won’t get a company to sponsor your backyard cookout. Cook it the way you like it.
That said, many people think if meat is falling off the bone, it’s cooked just right. In judging competition barbecue, that is considered overcooked. Test it for yourself: Take a bite of a rib or pork and press it against the top of your mouth. If it’s mushy, then you’ve lost the texture of the meat. If you like that taste or texture, then go for it!
Another important thing to know is that any meat will take all the smoke it’s going to take in two hours. You can cook it longer, but it won’t get any more smoke flavor. That gives you lots of options. For example, if you’re cooking a pork butt, you can put it in the smoker for two hours, then finish it in the oven. The same is true of brisket. When I cook ribs, I braise them in the oven at about 200 degrees for a couple of hours, then put it on the smoker to finish. That keeps them moist and tasty.
Pro teams will inject liquid into their meats. The pros we spoke with said that wasn’t necessary, but I disagree. Injecting chicken can be difficult because the pieces are so small. If I inject chicken, I do it with chicken stock – preferably homemade. Injecting ribs makes no sense for home cooks.
I always inject my pork butts. The meat is so thick and the cooking time so long that I feel the extra moisture helps. My injections are based on pineapple juice, a little orange juice, garlic powder, onion powder and a few other things. When you taste it, it won’t taste good. Use it anyway. If you want to know the other things, it will cost you a drink – maybe two — and you should know I like premium booze.
If you like pulled pork, don’t make yourself crazy using forks to pull it apart. Break out Kitchenaid mixer with its beater attachment. Cut the pork into medium chunks and beat it a few pieces at a time until you get the texture you like. Be sure not to overbeat it. If you want sauce in your meat, this is a great time to add it in. It’s also a good time to season the meat with salt and pepper as needed.
Most of all, your goal should be to have fun and enjoy some good barbecue.