By Starrla Cray
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN Barbecuing isn’t just for the backyard anymore.
In recent years, outdoor cooking has gained popularity as a competitive endeavor and Eric “Gus” Gustafson and Rollie Radtke of Lester Prairie have a taste of what it takes to become a champion.
The two friends earned their official barbecue judging certification in December, through a one-day course in Ponca City, OK with the Kansas City Barbecue Society. They also participated in a barbecue cooking class that weekend, taught by famous cooks David Bouska and Ed “Fast Eddy” Maurin.
“It was non-stop barbecue for two days,” Gustafson said. “That’s all we ate.”
Looks good, tastes good
When judging chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket, three criteria are evaluated: taste, appearance, and texture/tenderness.
“The scoring is nine through two nine is the best, and two would be inedible,” Gustafson said. “It’s subjective to your tastes; what you think is a nine, the guy next to you might not think so.”
Disqualified entries are given a score of “one.”
Grounds for disqualification include the use of an unapproved garnish, pooled sauce, or less than six samples of meat available for tasting (one for each of the six judges).
The use of garnish is optional, and is limited to certain types of lettuce.
“If you use kale, you’re disqualified, and you can’t have red-tipped lettuce, either,” Gustafson said.
Taste is given the most weight in the judging process.
“They have these little comment cards to write on,” Gustafson said. “They suggest you do that to help the cook out.”
At the judging class in Oklahoma, Gustafson and Radtke began taste-testing at 9 a.m.
“We judged ribs, and we judged chicken,” Gustafson said. “You just take a bite and see if you like the texture and the flavor. Then, you go through the scoring process on your card.”
Gustafson is experienced at making barbecue ribs, pulled pork, and briskets for friends and family, but after trying the competition meat, he was able to taste a difference.
“When I had their ribs, I was like, I have lots to learn,” he said. “They were very good.”
Tips from TV BBQ Pitmasters
The instructors, world-famous champions who have been on the BBQ Pitmasters TV show, have spent countless hours perfecting their technique.
“There’s all kinds of little tricks they use, and they are meticulous in the preparation,” Gustafson said. “One guy is super specific on temperature, and the other guy looks at it and goes by texture.”
Some competitors will buy an entire case of ribs, look through it, and select the best piece to use for competition.
“Learning those issues of what they go through gives me more appreciation as a judge,” Gustafson said, adding that students were taught what to look for when purchasing their own meat.
Pieces for judges are prepared with special care. Each one is cut in a specific way, and barbecue sauce is often painted on the underside to ensure that the flavor meets the tongue.
“[The instructors] gave us their recipes, and answered every question we had. We learned a lot,” Gustafson said, adding that one of his questions was how to potentially market the barbecue sauce he and his wife make.
“It was a really good experience to do with a good friend,” Gustafson added. “It was fun to road trip down there.”
Gustafson assumed he and Radtke would be the only ones who traveled out of state for the Oklahoma judging class, but it attracted people from all over.
“There was a guy from Alaska, a guy from Montana, and a guy from South America,” Gustafson recalled.
Click here for information about upcoming cooking and judging classes through the Kansas City Barbecue Society.