Criteria of 'Cue

Todd Coleman

Kansas City Barbecue Society representatives train judges—at one-day classes held around the country—to objectively assess the meat's preparation. Rating of the contests' four main types of meat—pork ribs, pork shoulder, beef brisket, and chicken—is on a scale of one to nine, in the following three categories:

Appearance

A winning rib looks like the one at top right: neatly sliced, with compact meat and no excess sauce. Chicken may be presented with or without skin. Pork shoulder can be sliced, chopped, or pulled, as can brisket. Pooled sauce and prohibited garnishes (red leaf lettuce, anything in the cabbage family) are grounds for disqualification.

Taste

In the case of ribs, the sauce, spice rub, and smoke shouldn't overpower the meat. A perfectly cooked rib, like the one at bottom right, will retain its porky flavor. The same goes for all the meats: Seasonings that are too sweet, fruity, or spicy tend to score lower.

Tenderness

A rib like the one pictured on the bottom center will yield to the bite but won't fall apart. Fall-apart ribs are overcooked; tough ones are under-cooked. Pulled pork should be tender, not mushy, and the presence of flavorful outer skin usually results in high scores. In the chicken category, most competitors cook thighs because they don't easily dry out. Properly cooked brisket maintains a firm, moist texture without falling apart.