Then we tell readers what we think of the joints we visit.
Anyone can talk a good game, some readers have gently reminded us since we began our Barbecue Chronicles in late 2009.
So we decided to see if we could also walk the barbecue walk. Last September, we entered our first competition, the Blues, Bandits & BBQ festival in Oak Cliff.
It was an exhausting, but totally fun time as we camped near the corner of Davis and Clinton for two hot, sweaty days and one largely sleepless night.
During the day, two popup canopies protected us from the brutal sun, but our close proximity to our two smokers, which we steadily stoked for nearly 30 hours, magnified the mid-90s temperatures and our sweat.
Thankfully, as Sheilagh Cooper observed afterwards, “hickory smoke masks any and all other odors.” Sheilagh is married to Marshall Cooper, our head pitmaster.
“Not one of you stunk! At least not from the distance I tried to keep,” added Martha Gooding, wife of Posse member Bryan Gooding.
Over the two days, we cooked 250 pounds of brisket, ribs, chicken and sausage for friends, family, judges and festival goers, who numbered at least 2,000, by our estimate, and probably more.
Most of what we cooked was regular meat, with plenty of fat, from grain fed animals. “Raised on Cheetos and day-time TV,” cracked Bryan Gooding.
For the judges, however, we had to cook organic meat, much of it grass fed. It was provided by Urban Acres, a store located across Davis Street from the festival site.
Generally, organic meat is very lean and can have a gamey taste. One of the racks of ribs we were issued looked, with only a little imagination, like strips of bacon connected by bones.
We had done several test runs before the competition with different kinds of organics. We knew we would have to cook the brisket and ribs much longer than normal to achieve tenderness, and that we would have to spice up the rubs to boost taste.
Cooper added extra kosher salt, black pepper, granulated garlic and cayenne to the brisket rub. Gooding brined the chicken in a mixture of water, vinegar, salt and sugar.
We used a spicy hot rub on the ribs and, in a departure from our normal practice, wrapped then in foil halfway through their six hours in the smoker. During one test run, we didn’t wrap the ribs. Mistake. They were dry and tasted awful. We threw them away.
Internal meat temperatures are also critical. The chicken had to hit 160 degrees. The brisket, which weighed 16.5 pounds and was wrapped in foil after about five hours of heavy smoke, had to reach 205 degrees. After nearly 20 hours, it hit 203. We pulled it from the smoker and put it in a warmer, where it rested another 5 hours.
During down time, we talked to, and learned from, competitors on many of the other 21 teams, both pros and backyard barbecue kings, like ourselves. It was especially fun talking to some of the professional cooks, like Justin Fourton from the Pecan Lodge at the Dallas Farmers’ Market, who won for ribs, and Rick Fairchild at Lagarto Catering in Highland Park, who won for sausage and was Grand Champ.
Big Rick described how he cooks brisket for ranch hands during round-up. He digs a pit and puts in a bed of hot coals. On top of that he puts a layer of rocks and then the meat, wrapped in foil.
“We used to wrap it in burlap,” he said.
Then comes another layer of rocks and more coals. He covers everything with dirt.
We also learned a valuable tip from Oak Cliff’s Heavy Metal Cookin’ Team, which won for brisket. They were directly across the street from us and their hammock sure looked inviting at 3 a.m. It would be a good addition to many backyard setups, too.
The judges, generally, didn’t care for much of the organic barbecue they scored. In comparison to regular meat, it fell short on all counts: taste, tenderness and look. They thought the chicken and sausage entries were better, on the whole, than the brisket and ribs.
We would agree. Many of us thought Bryan’s chicken was the best we had ever eaten, organic or otherwise.
In the end, we placed first in chicken and second in brisket. Not bad for a maiden voyage. And it was fun. That's why we’re planning to do a few more cookoffs this year.
Story by Gary Jacobson
Photos by R.J. Hinkle & Chris Wilkins