The Gower BBQ Competition 2016

And so, 06:30 Sunday morning, I found myself trekking out to Gower to sit in a gazebo, in the rain, watching my smoker slowly cook meat.

Despite the less than favourable conditions for the competition, and the lonely nature of the experience, it was good fun!  It was the first chance since buying the smoker that I had to really spend some time working with it, watching how it behaved to different circumstances and getting a feel for it. I'm also an introvert who likes to be alone, so sitting in a field with just some music and a BBQ was really quite peaceful.

As well as generally enjoying it, I also learnt a whole tonne of stuff. Both from the practical experience and just generally going through it and advice from fellow competitors (surprisingly, I went into both competitions expecting everyone to be highly secretive about technique and recipes - although I was planning on publishing my recipe and scorecard whatever happened - but found the opposite, everyone I spoke to offered tips and lots of competitors had their ingredients listed on their stalls).

The competition involved three rounds: 1) a rack of pork ribs 2) a half chicken 3) Chef's choice (I went short ribs again)

Given all my practice up until this weekend had been for the chili, and I had used my new smoker a total of three times up until this weekend I had reached the point where I figured there was not too much point going all bells-and-whistles for the competition, so I used supermarket meat rather than better quality meat from a butchers and re-used the same rub and sauce on both the pork and chicken.

The results

I came a more impressive sounding 3rd (so took home a prize!), but with the caveat that there were only three of us competing on the day, so depending on how you look at it, its taking home the bronze, or coming last. (I did however get some pretty positive feedback on the chicken and the beef ribs)

I didn't taste or see the second place entry, but I can say that the winning BBQ was wayyyy ahead of the level I was at! (They also were the most helpful in giving advice and talking through what they did).

I didn't take home the feedback notes, but generally the chicken and beef were well cooked (although in reality the beef was over-cooked, and had more shrinkage than I would have liked, but beef ribs need to be cooked well beyond well-done for the connective tissue to melt, so even though they were cooked to fast, the end result was positive). The pork ribs were overdone (I knew this at time of submission) and everything was a bit too smoked.

An aside: Reasons against chicken

I really don't like slow cooking chicken. Although the judges were very positive about it, I just don't think it makes sense as low'n'slow bbq food, and given the option I wouldn't include it on my menu.  My original plan for the competition was to take two BBQs: my smoker and my Barbeskew (basically a charcoal BBQ with a rotisserie), however, the day before due to travel I failed in my attempts to dismantle it so it would fit into my car. 

So for the competition, I had to suck it up and just cook the thing in the smoker. There are two main reasons I much prefer cooking the chicken on the rotisserie than the smoker:

  1. Chicken, especially the breast meat, is not well suited to slow cooking and gets dried out very easily. It has very little connective tissue in the breast meat as it is a fast twitch muscle (also not helped by the physical properties of a whole chicken, with the breasts the most exposed parts of the meat, and higher up - problems that can be helped by spatchcocking). Just like cooking a traditional roast chicken in an oven, I would cook hot and fast (220 degrees centigrade on a fan oven), to quickly cook without drying out - where as a smoker (especially one that is also cooking other meats) is better at cooking slowly at much lower temperatures.

  2. The lower temperature doesn't crisp up the skin as well as a direct, radiant heat source. The rotisserie lets us cook the chicken over a high radiant heat from the direct coals (whilst of course rotating, to avoid overcooking a single part of the chicken) which very effectively browns the skin.  Again, this problem can be alleviated a little by rolling the bird around on a direct heat above the coals for a short time, but still not as effective. Just look at the skin of the bird below compared to the one I submitted for the competition (the competition chicken also has my BBQ sauce on it, which is contributing to the brown colour, where as the bird below is just a dry rub before cooking and then just beautifully golden skin):

So, what did I learn?

Much like the previous day, I learnt a lot. Some basic things about the smoker, and some about general technique, so in no particular order:

  • The Weber Smokey Mountain is incredibly effective at holding its temperature - As mentioned, this was the first time I had a chance to just sit and watch it, and I did fiddle with the air vents an awful lot, but the take away was that it was pretty simple to get it sitting at a fixed temperature for several hours. With the vents fully open, and using about 1 1/2 chimney-starters worth of coal, the smoker will happily go to 125 degrees centigrade - if you need to ramp it up even higher (for example you want to really blast a chicken), then you need more oxygen. I noticed the previous day that when I opened the lid for more than 30 seconds or so, the coals got flooded with the additional oxygen and usually re-ignited - this is useful to help restore the temperature in the smoker once the lid is back on (as with the lid off for a minute or two you will easily see a drop to something like 70 degrees) - but also highlights the importance of air-supply. If you want to keep the temperature high for a short time, you can open the lid for a few minutes to get that initial flood of oxygen and then leave the coal door open to keep a steady supply of air coming in.  Whilst not that useful in smoking food normally, its interesting to experiment to really get a feel for the kit, and understand the controls.

  • I decided to cook without water in the water pan - having heard that several competitors don't use water, or instead replace it with sand or terracotta (to act much like a pizza stone, to retain heat). It might normally have been a gamble to just change up my setup on the day, but given the minimal experience I had, I figured it didn't matter too much.

    One side affect of not adding the water was it seemed to change the temperature dynamic in the smoker. Normal advice is that (on a hot day) the temperature shown at the top thermometer in the lid can be 10-15 degrees hotter than the bottom grid in the smoker (due to heat rising, and potential effects of sunlight direct on the lid).  However, after a few hours I measured the temperature lower down in the smoker (I inserted an instant read thermometer in the side just above the lower grid) and it was running around 30 degrees hotter than the thermometer at the top (also worth noting that it was a fairly grey and miserable day, so possibly that was cooling the top thermometer).

    I will try this approach again to check the same behaviour, but my theory is this: with the water in, the water pan blocks the direct heat from the coal, so the smoker operates like a normal convection oven, regulating the heat throughout, however, without water (or in theory, sand etc) the metal pan just absorbs and radiates the heat from the coal, so providing a more direct heat source - providing radiant heat from the pan from the bottom as well as the convective heat. If this is the case, then it possibly provides an interesting approach for two zone cooking - the bottom grill running higher with more direct heat, and the top grill operating more like the conventional smoker.

  • One of the pieces of feedback from the judges was that the meat was all too smoked. I knew I shouldn't add too much wood. I had read, start with less. Err on the side of caution. But despite all this, I kept doubting that the wood was smoking enough, so kept adjusting. Something that comes with experience and confidence is the self assurance to not second guess yourself, and not to second guess what you know is right.

  • As I mentioned, the ribs were overdone. Especially the pork ribs. When I went to take them off the BBQ, they were looking a gorgeous colour, and I had a decision to make - do I wrap them in foil and put them back on the BBQ (a la Texas Crutch) or do I foil them and put them in the cooler (a la faux cambro). I opted for back on the BBQ, but as I hadn't really planned this part, I didn't add any liquid to the foil - and disappointingly, when I unwrapped them from the foil, they didn't look as good as when I had wrapped them.  Changes I will make for next time: try out the Texas Crutch approach earlier on in cooking to finish off, or once done just put them in the cooler.  I will also be switching from baby back ribs to spare ribs.  I might also try the texas crutch approach for the beef ribs next time.

Now all I need to do is get in some more practice before next year..
rob hinds Shambolically fumbling my way around the kitchen

The Gower Chili Cook-Off - 2016 - A Retrospective

Last weekend was the weekend that I have been building up to for a few months. It was the Gower Chili Cook-off and the Gower BBQ competition weekend, and I had signed up for both competitions.

The chili cook off was due to take place 12:00 - 16:00 on the Saturday and then the BBQ competition was taking place from Midnight Saturday until 14:30 Sunday afternoon. Despite it raining most of Sunday, and being a fairly miserable day to be sitting on my own in a field in the early hours of a Sunday morning, it was a great weekend. Something that I would whole-heartedly recommend anyone to try (well, the BBQ competition does require the equipment to smoke - or at least low'n'slow cook - some bigger pieces of meat, although that is perfectly possible on a decent kettle bbq).

So lets start at the beginning. The chili cook off.

I had been iterating on my recipe for a couple of months, adjusting each iteration based on feedback and tasting - the outcome of which can be seen here (yes, I did have a spreadsheet for my cooking), any but the version 1 of the chili will make a decent chili, and those quantities will actually produce enough for 3-4 people with rice.  Going into the competition there were still a lot of unknowns, primarily: 1) practice runs had all been in the house using an oven; 2) I had not attempted scaling up to 1 gallon, so was unsure how that would cook/reduce with the increased volumes; 3) I had further adjustments to the final recipe that had not yet been tested.

Anyway, all fears aside I am happy with how it turned out - I knew on submission that it was too runny: I had been a little over-zealous adding additional stock early on, and the smoker just didn't run hot enough to effectively reduce that volume of liquid. But consistency aside, I was pretty happy with the submission in the 4 hours.

Unfortunately, the judges weren't quite as happy (more on that later).  I came 9th out of 12 - which given it was my first run, and all the other chilis I tasted were really good (and a lot of the other competitors had won regional cook-offs in Gower or elsewhere), I was bracing myself for last place.

But despite the less than glowing feedback from the judges, and the fact that we didn't win any of the public vote, I am still sharing it here because: 1) I think it tasted pretty decent; 2)  whilst not getting any of the votes for the "People's Choice" award, several people returned to compliment the chili and to find out more about how it was cooked and how we achieved the taste.

The whats and whys

Rather than writing out the recipe (as that is already written out in the spreadsheet) I thought I would write down the key ingredients and the reasoning behind each one:
  1. Short beef ribs - these are one of the most intensely beef-y cut of the cow. Incredibly deep flavour, a lot of connective tissue and usefully, very cheap! I used them to add a rich meaty flavour to the chili. The ribs need a long time cooking, so it was important (as I discovered first iteration of the chili) that after the first hour on the smoker, it by cut quite small to make sure if was sufficiently cooked in the liquid. Given the volume of liquid being cooked, and the temperature of the smoker, the meat wasn't as soft and melt-in-the-mouth as it could have been.

  2. The chilis - dried Ancho, dried Cascabel, Chipotles and Jalapenos. The Ancho and Cascabel were almost entirely because of availability - but they provide a fruity and nutty flavour - being dried, much like raisins or sun-dried tomatoes, they have a concentrated and more intense flavour. The chipotle was a must have on account of the smokey direction of the chilli (chipotles are smoked jalapenos). The Jalapenos were fresh and were to provide the heat, plus a fresher pepper taste.

  3. The savory base - Given the time constraints to practice the chili, I opted to keep it relatively simple with the flavour base of my chili, and went with the classic oregano, garlic, onion, chili, cumin and coriander mix. I will start to turn this up a notch in preparation for next year, as this is what will really come into its own and shine on being reduced for 4 hours.

  4. Umami - an important part as well, in providing a deep, complex savory flavour and boosting the beefy-ness of the ribs - Standard options here including tomato puree, Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce (although Waitrose has started selling jars of Umami..)

What I learnt

  1. I went into the competition that using proper cuts of beef (rather than ground mince) and smoking the meat before adding to the chili would be a competitive advantage. This was not the case - the judges seemed to not be keen on the smoked element, and as I was later told by an experienced competitor:

    "mince always wins"

  2. The biggest insight into competition chili was tasting the other competitors chili, they were not what I was expecting. They were a lot richer, deeper - in my opinion, sweeter - than I would expect for a chili. In many ways it reminded me of a rich bolognese sauce (obviously with chili ingredients instead, but the way the flavour is boosted by slowly reducing to a thick, intense sauce).  Next time I enter, I will go with mince, and focus on reducing to that thick, intense sauce over the 4 hours.

  3. A further observation I made, in the same vein as above, was that a lot of competitors included pork (pancetta, pork belly, etc) - which is a common approach in bolognese sauce to add flavour and gloss (and gelatin!).

  4. You can start chopping vegetables before the start time! We did discover this before the start time, but unfortunately our organisation was a little shambolic, so our ingredients didn't even turn up until just before the start time!

What the judges said

If you are interested (in the format or content) of what the judges had to say about the submission, here are the feedback forms. Not an awful lot to work with (particularly the "Taste: Odd" comment or the comments about the burnt aroma/taste - which is strange as I can confirm that none of the ingredients were even close to being burnt.. not even charred at the edges, or the fact that more than once the judges made diametrically opposing statements)

As I said, the real insight was tasting the other chillis.

rob hinds Shambolically fumbling my way around the kitchen

BBQ Practice

I haven't posted much for a bit, but as previously mentioned, I have entered a BBQ competition and a Chilli-Cook-Off competition this summer, and the date is fast approaching. 

To be honest, I have not been able to get in as much practice as I would like to - mostly due to the rubbish weather we have had here in the last month.  The problem with low'n'slow is that, well, its slow. You need to be cooking for a good 8 hours, and thats after all the setup and preparing the meats, which means if you are expecting some nice weather at the end of the day, but raining at lunchtime, its not going to work.

I have managed to practice using my smoker I think three times, neither times smoking the full three rounds for the competition, so I suspect that competition will be winging it. I have managed a few iterations of recipe development for the chilli, although all of them have been indoors based, so there is still the unknown of how it turns out being cooked in the smoker outdoors, but lets see.

Anyway, entering these competitions are more bucket-list things, I don't have any expectations of winning, and will be happy if I just manage to deliver something edible within the time.

I will put all the final competition recipes and a bunch of photos up after the event.

rob hinds Shambolically fumbling my way around the kitchen

Excuse #1 - Birthday Cakes!

It has been a while since posting anything here, and part of that reason is that there was a birthday party recently, and I had volunteered to make the cake.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I enjoy making cake, and whilst I hadn't had much success decorating them, it seemed like a chance to practice.

Normally I go for buttercream icing and more fancy looking cakes (which inevitably don't turn out looking fancy), but this time I went for a simpler, 2-D rolled icing cake. If you look at superhero cakes online you will see hundreds of fancy ones, with tiers and incredible the incredible hulk smashing his way out of cakes, but having learnt my lesson not to over-stretch, I went for a simple option.

There really wasn't much to it in the end, it was a simple Victoria Sponge (Nigella Lawson's recipe) with jam and whipped cream in the middle, with pre-made coloured icing that I just rolled and cut to shape. my only tips are these:
  • Rolling on a veneered worktop didn't work out too well, despite dusting well with icing sugar, the icing kept on sticking as I tried to peel it off, and the icing sugar just kept leaving white specks on the icing
  • Instead I rolled it out on baking paper, which worked out well - both for the non-stick-ness, but also it allowed me to pick up the rolled/cut icing to place on the cake. When I started trying to just pick up the rolled icing (the bat sign for example) I found the icing stretched a lot under its own weight, leaving it mis-shapen. Being able to cut out the underlying baking paper and just flip it onto cake made it possible to transfer almost exactly the shape I had cut onto the cake.

Oh, and I also agreed to make individual cupcakes for all party guests, so I still managed to do some buttercream icing too..

rob hinds Shambolically fumbling my way around the kitchen