The line of professional barbecuers stretched a quarter mile down Pennsylvania Avenue last weekend, with the U.S. Capitol in the backdrop. The heart of D.C. was blocked off to host one of the nation's most contentious sports: competitive barbecuing. "To these guys, winning this can be like winning the Super Bowl," said a spokesman for the competition.
Officially, it's known as the National Capital Barbecue Battle, and it happens once a year in Washington. Here's how it works: contestants converge on the capital from all across the country, towing massive, custom-built grills for the competition. They bring their own cuts (chicken, beef, pork), and specialty meats (let's just use the phrase "the whole hog competition") for a series of timed and closely monitored categories, judged by an elite group of judges, who don't just taste the meat, they also inspect it before and after cooking. Every sport has illegal ways to gain an edge, professional barbecuing included. Contestants can gain an advantage by pre-marinating or spicing the meat overnight; no one's ever been busted at a level of play as high as the national championship—yet.
Myron Mixon, a burly Georgian caterer and cooking instructor, took home this year's title of National Barbecue Champion and $11,000. Not to mention a set of trophies adorned with gold-plated cows and pigs on top. Newsweek's Daniel Stone grilled Mixon about what it takes to create winning barbecue. Excerpts:
You're the envy of fraternity guys everywhere. What makes competitive barbecue?
Competitive barbecue is that kind of cooking where you can take one bite of something and it's just got a "wow" factor. It's so full of flavor, it's so rich. All the marinades and sauces and rubs just make it pop. It's all about flavor profiles. Your wood or charcoal provides you with a flavor, the sauce provides you with flavor. The rub you use gives a flavor. Lining them all up is the key. You want to get a flavor profile that hits consistently, and that's about your own taste.
What's the key behind picking up grilling to that new level?
It's all a combination. One thing for me is the wood. We use peach wood that is very unique; most people don't use that. We also use special marinades and rubs. All these things step it up to the point where you have a product you'll be proud of. It's not one silver bullet that wins it for you. You have a whole lot of steps to make it real good.
OK, you're a professional, but most people aren't. I don't have fancy wood or fancy sauces. Do you have any advice for casual grillers?
All right, let's talk ribs for a minute. What I would do, I would take the ribs and marinate them in a one-on-one mixture of apple juice and white vinegar. I'd marinate them for probably about two hours. Then I'd apply whatever rub you like. Now I wouldn't go out and buy all these ingredients to make your own rub, there are too many really good rubs on the market; just go with what you like. Rub the meat on both sides. Then take your charcoal. If you're using a charcoal grill, part the charcoal on the left and right. Leave the middle so the meat sitting in the middle has no fire under [it]. You don't want to put the meat over direct heat. Light the coals. You want to get the coals white, then lay the meat in the center. Let them stay there for about an hour and a half. Then you take the ribs off and take some aluminum foil. Put down some honey the length of the meat on the bottom of the foil. Then come in with some dark brown sugar and margarine. Lay the ribs down upside down. Then on the meat itself, put the same thing: dark brown sugar and honey.
Wow, that sounds pretty—
Now, wait a minute, I'm not done. You want to put the ribs back on the grill upside down for an hour and a half. Then you take them out and they've almost fallen off the bone by then. Then take them, glaze them on the bottom and top, wrap them back up and put them back on the grill for another 15 minutes. Let it caramelize up. Then you got it.
Can you use the same method for chicken breast and beef too?
Yes, that's the same method I always use with all cuts.
What's the biggest amateur grilling mistake?
Most of the time, first thing wrong is to overcook something. Everybody thinks that once some chicken gets crispy on the outside, it's done. But when you burn it like that, it's usually still raw on the inside. The reason they do that is because they use a charcoal grill, trying to cook chicken with direct heat. They undercook chicken most of the time and overcook hamburgers and other beef. Put your charcoal on the sides, then you grill in the middle. Here I'll show you. [Demonstrates]
Oh, like the Red Sea.
It's probably easier to go out and get good barbecue, rather than do it yourself. How do you pick a good barbecue restaurant?
I don't pick the name brands. Look, when you go to a small town, the best breakfast ain't at Denny's. It's always someplace like, I don't know, Joyce's Bar and Grill. Same thing with barbecue. Go into town and find that guy who's been doing it for 30 years. He serves it up on a brown paper sack with some cole slaw to the side, chips, drink, and you're out of there.
Now, you're a carnivore—
Yes, sir, yes, I am. [Laughs]
But the number of U.S. vegetarians, about 11 million, has almost quadrupled over the past decade. Can the same flavor intensity be applied to imitation meats, made from things like soy or veggie patties?
Yeah, well, I've never tried any of those fake meats. But I wouldn't see why not. It's got the same texture and the same qualities as meat. I don't know about flavor profiles but I know the texture profiles. It would definitely work. I've seen some of those fake hamburgers that grill up nice and look great.
Sauces, I have heard, are key. Impart some sauce wisdom.
Any sauce you buy, I would add honey and brown sugar, unless you get one that's already sweet. Here's a recipe: take one cup hickory sauce, one cup of honey, and a cup of brown sugar. Then take a half stick of butter and mix it all with one cup vinegar-based barbeque sauce. That'll give it a little bite. Heat it all up until your butter gets creamy. You're ready to rock and roll.