Lessons for Novice BBQers, Part 1

Gary Park
Gary Park (left) says temperature control is a simple, yet sometime troublesome obstacle for inexperienced teams.

by Cole Pepper

I’ve tapped into my network of BBQ chefs to ask them about some of the common mistakes that they made when just starting out cooking in competitions. If you are a novice contest cooker, some of this advice might help you avoid some of the pitfalls that can frustrate BBQ chefs as they hone their craft.

This is the first of a three part series. Today’s question:

What is the most common mistake that you see inexperienced BBQ teams make at contests?

“Overcooking the food,” says Paul Herring, captain of Big Bad BBQ. “I recommend an empty cooler to store cooked meat to keep it warm until turn in time.”

There are probably a dozen techniques to keep your entries at the proper temperature until turn in time. If you try to time it just right, you are asking for trouble. Some, like Paul recommend a cooler, others will utilize an insulated pizza bag and some will try to keep the entry warm wrapped in towels or other insulation. Experiment and see which works best. If you target 20-30 minutes before the start of turn in to have your meat off the heat, you have time to choose the best pieces and to arrange them in the turn-in box properly.

Gary Park, competitive barbecuer and owner of G’s Slow Smoked BBQ in Middleburg, FL preaches temperature control.

“I know it sounds like a simple tip, but I’ve seen many a team struggle with their temperatures going up and down through the whole cook,” Park said. “Practice cooking and practice more while cooking/smoking different meats, preferably the ones being used in a contest. Don’t wait until the week before a contest and start trying to figure out a particular grill/smoker! Be consistent!”

One competition chef who wished to remain anonymous warned against going overboard.

“Over spice, over sauce, over smoke. It’s a BBQ competition where the meat needs to do the talking. Every judge who is willing to take part in this competition is there because they love the meat flavor. How will anyone know what spice, sauce, smoke combination a group of judges will love?”

That’s a common theme. There is virtually no way to tell what the judges preference will be. Some prefer a little more spice, others like it sweeter. While judges are charged with trying to establish a consistent baseline from which to judge, one tip that can help is to see if the judges are largely older or younger. If the average age seems to be toward retirement age, tend toward the sweeter side. If the average age of judges is in the 40s, spicier can score well. This is only a rule of thumb.

Two words most commonly used by our panel? Practice and preparation.

“Plan your cook and practice it at least once before the contest to have your timing down,” said Brian Shell. “It is way different than doing it in YOUR backyard for family and friends.”

In all, though, keep it simple, says Palm Valley BBQ captain John Rowan.

“[Novice teams] make their recipes too complicated,” Rowan said.  ”They try things they have never done before. Keep it simple because that is what BBQ is.”

Cole’s BBQ Ribs


by Cole Pepper

Barbecue chefs are something like magicians. It’s next to impossible to get them to share their secrets. Despite my ability to pull a coin out the ear of a four year old, I’m not much of a magician, so I’m willing to share my technique for great BBQ ribs with you. I’m going to share the approach that I use with the Big Green Egg.

Here’s what you will need:

  • 1 slab pork ribs (I prefer St. Louis cut spare ribs, but the full cut or baby back ribs work just fine)
  • One half gallon, old fashioned lemonade (made with sugar, not high fructose corn syrup)
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • One cup Cole Pepper’s Blackjack BBQ Sauce
  • One packet Cole’s Rib Rub (available at Green Man Gourmet)
  • Aluminum foil
  • Ziploc or similar freezer bag
  • Hickory wood chips
  • Apple or cherry wood chips

First, prepping the ribs. I prefer the membrane to be taken off. You can usually ask the butcher to Cole smoking on BGEdo this. If you have a full cut of ribs, instead of St. Louis cut, you can always make rib tips as an appetizer.

After the ribs have been trimmed and the membrane removed, place the ribs in the freezer bag and fill with lemonade. Ribs will likely have to be folded to fit. Seal bag and place in refrigerator overnight.

Approximately one hour before you plan on putting the ribs on, start your fire with lump charcoal. Then, soak a combination of hickory and fruit wood chips in water. I prefer a 2:1 hickory:fruit wood mix.

Then, remove the ribs from the freezer bag and place on a cooking sheet. Pour Cole’s Rib Rub on both sides of the ribs until all parts are dusted with a light layer of spices.

Return ribs to refrigerator.

Once fire is at desired temperature (I prefer to start at 240 degrees F), add wood chips. Let fire return to 240 F. Place ribs on Big Green Egg with place setter in place for indirect cooking.

Monitor fire. For the first 2-3 hours, the key is having enough smoke to add flavor to the ribs. I like to run between 225-250 during this time.

At the 3 hour mark, wrap ribs in aluminum foil and return to the Big Green Egg. There is very little more smoke flavor to be gained at this point. Continue cooking at 225 for 2 hours.

When ribs are 15 minutes from being taken off the smoker, mix 1 cup Cole Pepper’s Blackjack BBQ Sauce with 1/2 cup lemon juice as a baste. Brush bast on ribs and return (while wrapped in foil) to the Big Green Egg for the final 10 minutes or so. Remove ribs from heat. Let rest for 3 minutes. Cut and serve with a side of Cole Pepper’s Blackjack BBQ Sauce. Enjoy!