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.
Finding a properly cooked brisket can be a challenge. The cut of meat has a grain that runs in two different directions, which makes it hard to cook to tender perfection. “You think it’s ready to eat and it will taste like your old tennis shoes,” says Wells. “Or you can cook it and pick it up and it will fall apart.”
To tell if brisket is cooked properly, pick up a piece and pull it. If it has some elasticity, it’s done right.
Burnt ends have become popular in barbecue restaurants around the country. These charred, trimmed ends of the brisket started as a once-a-week, until-we’re-sold-out treat, but now many restaurants are fulfilling the demand by cubing and flash-grilling brisket to create instant burnt ends. How can you tell the difference? Wells says that real burnt ends are crispy and “nearly all char,” while the fabricated ones are meatier.
“If it’s drowning in sauce, you’ve got to wonder what the cook is trying to hide,” says Wells. That said, there are purists who believe real barbecue should consist of nothing more than meat and smoky flavor. But the general consensus is that some sauce—but not too much—is nice for dipping.
“When some people eat ribs, they want sauce on their face from ear to ear,” says Early. “I like the sauce to stay on the rib. I want to bite it and use a napkin, but I don’t want to take a bath.”
It wouldn’t be real barbecue without cole slaw. Whether your preference is for a sweet or vinegary slaw, the cabbage should be crisp and green with a fresh smell. Early adds that a good slaw shouldn’t have too much mayonnaise, as “it needs to compliment the meat and not be too runny.”
Early tasted hundreds of hush puppies on his journey around North Carolina. To him, the perfect hush puppy should be rich with corn flavor and boast a crisp exterior. There should be little signs of grease rings on the interior (too much grease is a sign of improper frying). And it should never, ever taste sweet like a cupcake.
In the end, there’s a straightforward way to learn which style of barbecue is best, says Lake High, the president of the South Carolina Barbeque Association. “By golly, you just stick it in your mouth, try it, and note whether you like it or not,” he says. “Then write down the address of the place you’re in so you can come back!”