The second annual Elkhorn Ribfest packs the Walworth County fairgrounds with enough tender, delicious meat to make any vegan cringe. It also brings out the burning need to try your hand at some pitmaster techniques on your own. One of the great things about Ribfest is that you can ask the pitmasters face-to-face. Most won’t divulge their most secret of secrets (see earlier article) but you’ll be surprised at how open and approachable the cooks are.
What you’ll learn by going booth-to-delicious-booth is a lesson for your own experimentation. Most at- home grillers are tempted to try a different rub/sauce/wood combo for cooking each meat. The pros don’t. They find one flavor ‘profile’ that works with all the meats they cook. It varies booth to booth, but not within the booth. Remember an earlier tip: Ribfest competitors serve up chicken, too.
The reason the pros use a single flavor profile: You gain experience and confidence by reducing the variables. BBQers become competition pros by focusing on perfecting the basics: Meat selection, meat preparation, fire/temperature control, timing, and how they garnish and present the meal. One flavor profile provides consistency.
Every pitmaster with whom you talk will have a different take on the basics. Whether it’s your first Ribfest of you consider yourself a master of the meatwave, introduce yourself to competitors... you’ll get the best tips for your own creations.
If you’re too ‘chicken’ to ask, use your eyes and nose to learn how to cook outdoors like a pro. Observe the smoke at Elkhorn Ribfest. Notice that you never see tons of it, and it always smells great. The lesson here is that less smoke is more, and that bad smelling smoke will make un-festworthy meat. You won’t smell or see charcoal lighter fluid either: It ruins flavor.
Two other highly visible pro tips:
1) EVERYBODY uses a thermometer. Not only is it practical for food safety, consistent temperature is paramount to great BBQ.
2) NOBODY peeks. Opening the grill or smoker to eye the creation lets out the heat a good pitmaster is striving to control.