What makes barbecue perfect? Local certified BBQ judge explains what it takes
CLEVELAND, Ohio – What makes barbecue amazing?
While the Cleveland’s Best team at cleveland.com has been on the road for a few weeks to taste-test the Top 20 finalists as determined by reader votes, we asked a professional BBQ judge for some tips on what makes BBQ superb.
Larry Cielec of Cleveland is among the 30-some Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) certified judges in Ohio.
Personal preference aside, there are professional guidelines for appearance, texture and taste that KCBS judges must adhere to when judging the more than 500 sanctioned barbecue contests worldwide each year.
While Cielec doesn’t get paid to travel to competitions and judge the efforts of hundreds of pitmasters, he jokes there isn’t another profession where “they pile pounds of meat in front of you and tell you to enjoy yourself.”
KCBS employs a blind judging process, meaning judges do not know which competitor’s wares they are tasting. Judges are seated at tables, but aren’t permitted to speak to one another until after they have tasted all of the meats and their forms have been turned in to the team captain.
When judging, Cielec says he and fellow judges are looking for three things.
Competitors are expected to present their meats on a green background. Usually curly parsley is used.
Before taking that first bite, judges are looking at how the six pieces of meat they are presented with look: are they uniform in appearance; do they look well-done or under-cooked or burnt?
“Every one of us has eaten meat that is over-done or under-done,” he said. “If you look down by the bone and the meat looks almost like it is not cooked because it is red, then it is properly smoked.”
Is the meat dry or moist?
When you bite into a rib, does the meat fall away from the bone? Cielec says you want the meat to “pull away from the bone with your bite,” not fall off or stick to the bone.
When judging chicken, the skin should be “crispy and come off with the bite of meat.” If the skin pulls completely away from the meat or is rubbery, points are deducted.
If you can taste the meat and taste the smoke in the meat, then the pitmaster has done his job, Cielec said.
Sauce should complement the meat.
“Sauce is a personal preference, whether you like it hot and spicy or sweet, it should never take away from the meat and, as a judge, you don’t judge based on whether the sauce is to your liking,” he said. “The only time the sauce should influence the score you give the meat is if it overwhelms the taste of the meat.”