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The Bark – And Good Bite – Of Competitive BBQ

When some of the nation’s best pitmasters arrive in Walworth County for the second annual Elkhorn Ribfest, it’s time to pick up some extra napkins and some new lingo. The pros are cooking the same cuts of meat you can buy, but in a style most of us mere mortals cannot replicate, and they give familiar words new meaning.

The word ‘bark,’ for example is a label for a part of the cooking upon which pitmasters stake reputations. In simple terms, bark is the outer crust that forms when smoking meat. Simplicity ends there, however. Since it’s considered the most flavorful layer on the outer surface of the meat, it entails mystery, pride, sugar, and seasonings in a formula as complex as quantum physics.

Bark forms from heat caramelizing the sugars in the rub. Enhancements come from spices or even the specific brand of sugar used. Pitmasters achieve good bark from spraying or misting the cut of meat with liquid containing sugar – apple juice, for example – periodically during the cook. You won’t think of trees or dogs next time you hear the word bark.

Glue doesn’t mean Krazy or Elmer’s to pitmasters, judges, and connoisseurs. Glue is the carrier for the rub’s sugars and spices. Cooks are using – either straight or in some combination – molasses, honey, EVOO (extra virgin olive oil for those unfamiliar with Rachel Ray), honey, agave nectar, booze, mayonnaise, or the ever-popular CYM. That’s Cheap Yellow Mustard. Glue is an option. Some pitmasters don’t glue: They let refrigerated meat set out a bit until it sweats and pat on the sugar and spices.

Bite, you would think, means the spiciness or lack of it. Bite actually refers to the chicken part of the competition. BBQ’d chicken is smoked with the skin on it. Chicken done right has good bite, as in you bite through the skin instead of into it and having a huge flap of chicken skin tear loose and slop onto your chin.

One thing you won’t see at Elkhorn Ribfest is a shiner. Not talking about black eyes here, though a pit boss would consider a shiner to be a black eye to the reputation. A shiner is when a rack of ribs bares exposed bones in the middle. This means too much meat was butchered off… and the bones ‘shine’ through the meat.

The three days of delicious bark and no shiners starts at the Walworth County Fairgrounds July 14.

Photo by Arin Habich, used with permission.

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