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Low and Slow

Published on: June 14th, 2011

If you watch the Food Network, read foodie magazines or find comfort in websites such as Epicurious or Serious Eats, you probably know that barbecuing—competitive barbecuing, specifically—is on fire.

With glistening, char-covered ribs and plump, sauce-shellacked chickens, barbecue may just be food porn at its most mouth-watering. Staring at a magazine spread of blackened brisket or watching a TV host bite into a thick slab of ribs, leaving remnants of char, meat juice and sauce across his cheeks, does what any worthwhile food-related media should: make us hungry.

But what’s an average backyard cook to do with no real skills at the grill and no barbecuing technique?

We wanted to get the dish on competitive barbecuing—and offer our readers some tips on getting low and slow—so we called up Doug Piersel, the president of the Rocky Mountain Barbecue Association. The RMBA specializes in education and outreach about barbecue and supports competitive barbecuing in the Rocky Mountain region. He also leads a competitive team, Smoke N the Rockies.

When it comes to smoke and meat, Piersel knows what he’s talking about.

“When I started in Colorado (in 2004), there were two competitions. Today, there are 18 contests in the Rocky Mountain Cup,” Piersel said. “And I get a few calls each year from people who want to start another contest. And at the competition in Pueblo, we get around 25,000 people coming through the gate.”

The organization has about 240 members and 100 competitive teams. They come from Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona.

But while the good word on barbecue is spreading, it doesn’t mean just anyone can create the beautiful proteins pulled out of the smokers on Best in Smoke.

“One thing that happens with backyard cooks is that their neighbors say, ‘This the best barbecue we’ve ever had.’ And it might be,” Piersel said. “But it’s nowhere near what competitive cooks do. Their friends aren’t lying to them. But professional cooks do something totally different.”

So, Piersel said, take some advice from the pros. If you want to step up your game, purchase a smoker (there are quality smokers at McGuckins or Karl’s Farm for under $200. Even Home Depot and Lowe’s carry smokers.) and start looking for new ideas, recipes and techniques on online forums (rmbbqa.org/smf/).

A mistake that backyard cooks often make is they overcook their meats. Ribs shouldn’t be falling off the bone, he says. There should be a little pull.

“If the meat is falling off the bone, the judges would kill the team,” Piersel said. “A lot of people think it’s the standard. But there should be texture and flavor.”

On the other hand, patience is also a virtue. Barbecuing is all about going low and slow. You’ll probably need a solid 14 hours when you’re barbecuing a brisket. Piersel suggests a 225-degree standard; at 225 degrees, brisket or pulled pork will take about 12 to 14 hours, ribs will take about six hours and chicken will be just a couple hours. Make sure to check internal temperature of all meats.

And then there are the little things: cut the membrane off the spareribs and remove the fat from the chicken.

Piersel gives one last piece of advice for those who really want the best barbecue on the block: Come to a competition—on Friday, not Saturday during the contest—and bug the pros.

“One of the things backyard cooks can do is find a contest in their area. Go to the contest and talk to the competition teams there,” he said. “You’ll find professional teams are friendly. They are happy to show you what they do. They won’t give you recipes. But they will help you with techniques and tips.”

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