When Carolyn Wells and her friends started the Kansas City Barbeque Society in 1985, they were just trying to create a club where local barbecue enthusiasts could find out about upcoming competitions. To become a member, you only had to promise to not take it all too seriously.
Fast-forward to today, when barbecue is serious business. Wells insists that it’s still fun but cannot deny that the world of barbecue has grown beyond her wildest dreams. She has seen competition barbecue grow from 50 to 60 contests across the country over 25 years ago to 450 being sanctioned by her organization this year.
With so much barbecue out there claiming to be the best, what’s an eater to do?
We consulted some of the most experienced barbecue judges in the country to find out what makes for good eating. Here’s what to look for in some of the more popular barbecue-joint offerings.
Ribs should have a crispy, caramelized exterior and a tender interior. “A pink tint to the meat is fine,” says Jim Early, the founder of the North Carolina Barbecue Society. While judges may quibble over the merits of dry-rubbed ribs versus wet ribs, most agree that a rib where the meat is falling off the bone is a sign of overcooking and a competition loser.
You should be able to bite off a piece of meat easily, but not too easily, says Early: “I don’t like to be holding a rib like an ear of corn and take a bite and [have] all the meat on that rib falling off and be hanging like a flap on my chin.”
When you’re looking for good pulled pork, it doesn’t matter whether the meat has been chopped by hand or machine. What’s most important to barbecue judges is that the pork is tender but not mushy. Overly soft meat is a sign of overcooking. In good pulled pork, you get a marriage of meat flavor, smoke, and spices.