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All We Can Eat
Posted at 08:00 AM ET, 05/31/2011

Barbecue sauce contest, deconstructed

Well, our little barbecue sauce recipe contest would seem to have gotten at least one person hot under the collar.

The first e-mail Smoke Signals received after the top three winners were announced came from a person who did not include his name but did let us have it for being so completely dunderheaded. He wrote, verbatim:

Most recipe contest, at least the Nat’l ones, judge entries on some if not all of the following:

Appearance, Appeal, Taste, Creativity and Ease of Preparation. I guess these criterion or standards didn’t apply in your bbq sauce maiden voyage contest?

Flavors to the testers taste buds aside, the selections appeared to lack uniqueness and creativity. and legal issues aside, checking thru search engines one can easily find some version(s) of your winners’ offerings. Surely, some of your 68 entries, inbued w/ flavor, had to be void of “boiler plate” design and framing.

A peek back at Smoke Signals’ old mail revealed the writer was a contestant who didn’t win. His sour ketchup-based sauce aside, anonymous has a point. Most of our barbecue sauces were variants of a basic idea. Our winning sauce, for example, used as its template a fairly standard mustard sauce. But the proportions were so right and the recipe tweaked so sensibly that, in the end, the 12 tasters swooned. As did I.

Creativity is in the palate of the taster. Which is to say, there’s a thin line between creativity and are you freakin’ kidding me? As mentioned in the story last Wednesday, we received some inventive recipes. They included everything from rhubarb and mango to ground espresso beans, dry sweet cherries, apricot jam and smoked beer. Did all of them work? Nope. Some of them did, though.

Indeed, the winning sauce, while starting slowly with prepared mustard, finished strong with Sriracha. Along the way, it included ancho or guajillo powder, which, while found in some boutique sauces, is hardly common to standard sauces.

In any event, props are given for the thing that works, not for the thing that’s the most outlandish.

As for the idea that you can go online, or pick up a couple of cookbooks, and find a lot of similarity between sauces: Well, it’s a little detail here or there that makes all the difference.

Regarding the way most sauce contests handle tastings, sure enough, national competitions have criteria. But they are, by no means, uniform. For example, the American Royal contest categorizes sauces, and tastes each with unseasoned pulled pork. The Safeway National Capital Barbecue Battle tastes all sauces without regard to type — and without food. And those are just two of several different judging methods.

We discussed this in last week’s blog item. We’re not schlepping over that well-trodden ground again, except to say that there are a lot of ways to taste sauce. We did it our way.

Smoke Signals also received several incredibly nice e-mails from contestants, usually asking how they might make their sauces better for next year. Short answer: Experiment. Longer answer: Experiment with balance.

Basically, the tasters gravitated toward sauces that, even if they were, say, primarily sweet or smoky or spicy, had some flavor notes that gave the sauces either a distinctive character or a beautiful balance.

If you want to get more into sauce-making, I recommend “Paul Kirk’s Championship Barbecue Sauces.” The book provides a terrific explanation for why certain things work as well as a useful chart for creating your own sauces. It is the same book we’re giving to our top three winners.

But here’s the bottom line: If you like your sauce, that’s all that matters.

Smoke Signals is already thinking about next year’s contest. Will we make changes? Maybe. Perhaps we’ll make categories (mustard-based, tomato-based, specialty, what have you). Dunno. Maybe we’ll try each sauce with smoked pork. Again, dunno.

If you have any ideas, Smoke Signals would love to hear them. Write them in the comments section below.

And thanks, again, to all who entered the contest. Smoke Signals not only appreciated your participation, but loved getting the chance to taste a whole batch of new sauces.

By  |  08:00 AM ET, 05/31/2011

Categories:  Smoke Signals | Tags:  Jim Shahin

 
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