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It Appears To Me...

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Posted by Gordon Hubbell on May 04, 2011 at 17:38:05:

Note from Ray Basso:  This is the beginning of a new project for the BBQ forum.  Below you you will see an article written by Gordon Hubbell about judging KCBS contests.  This is the first in a series of articles written by a variety of people about subjects that should be of interest to people who frequent the BBQ forum.  They will cover the whole range of topics and will appear in the form of opinions, editorials, short stories, etc.  They will be written by a group of writers who normally post messages to The BBQ Forum.  It is hoped that these articles will be published here on the BBQ forum each Wednesday.  If anyone is interested in writing pieces for this project please contact me using the general contact form at the top of the BBQ forum.  I hope you enjoy reading these articles I think it's going be a lot of fun.  Please feel free to reply respectfully, to these articles in the normal manner on The BBQ Forum.


It Appears To Me ....


Gordon Hubbell "HUB"



In the interest of better judging and to promote improved understanding of the judging function through discussion and sharing of experience, I am going to address Appearance, Taste, and Tenderness – the three KCBS judging criteria – in a series of articles. This is the first of the series.


At a KCBS contest, our first judging “ritual” is to judge appearance, and at a typical contest, appearance judging goes pretty quickly. Not long ago, I was seated next to a judge who uttered, “Now we can get to the real judging” once the Table Captain had completed the appearance passes of the entries. The depth and intent of her comment didn’t really hit me until I was driving back home that evening and for whatever reason it came back to me with a thud. I think she may have a problem – one that’s easy to develop and also easy to fix. Appearance, in spite of having the lowest weight in official score calculations, requires and deserves practiced attention from judges!

One interesting yet challenging thing about KCBS judging is that standards are provided, yet there is still room for abundant creativity. The rules stop at a determined level of strictness and there is deliberate intent not to regulate entries too tightly. This is especially true with appearance judging. A pass through the rules really shows nothing about how an entry should appear esthetically (rules only address marking and how some meats react to smoke). The other “specifics” concern garnish, and even that is optional. As a result, many things are possible and trends develop based on what has done well in the past. I’m a cook too, and to put it mildly, “word does get around”.

If one follows any or many of the various online barbeque forms, there are frequent posts that include pictures of recent or practice entries from a cook, asking any willing judges viewing it to give an appearance rating. I often do if there’s something constructive I can add. The pictures aren’t as good as the real thing, of course, but they can tell a lot about the cook’s effort. The one thing to be careful about here is color since cameras, posting methods and even individual computer displays can really skew it. I comment only on general lightness or darkness, not exact color.

At the judging table, the Table Captain opens and presents each box in such a way that each judge gets an individual look. Most judges nod or otherwise indicate that they’ve had their time with the entry. Usually, it is only a few seconds per judge. Once the box is closed it doesn’t come back around for appearance judging except upon the ruling of the Contest Rep (in the event of a violation, usually). As judges, we have to form an opinion in a hurry, and that opinion needs to have some reasoning behind it. “That’s pretty” doesn’t really cut it for scoring.

Based on what I’ve seen at recent contests, here are some comments on current trends in barbeque appearance esthetics – those “how it looks” things that aren’t covered by a standard or rule – and some of what we judges have to sort out in order reach a scoring decision. If you are a judge feel free to agree or disagree. I’m not trying to start any kind of debate, but rather to promote a discussion that will induce some thought. If you are a contestant, this might help you understand what we judges perceive in those white boxes and provide a bit of insight on how and why we do what we do. Appearance judging is both critical and difficult.

This Pork entry shows some of the trends common to competition entries today: Uniformity, Color, Gloss and Artistry.

(Photo courtesy


Trend Number One: Uniformity

Most often observable in chicken and ribs categories, there is a definite trend toward trying to get six or seven clones in a box. Even when the meat isn’t shaped (e.g. “muffin tin” for chicken thighs), most cooks are giving a lot more effort to choosing pieces that match or are very close. I think this practice forces the eye of the judge to be less focused on any one piece and more on the concept of the overall presentation and that’s not a bad thing. At a recent contest I saw some “memorable” ribs because one of the six ribs included in the box was noticeably larger than the others and might have come from a different rack (one can only speculate as to why – my guess is that the team over-sampled their best rack and got caught one shy of a full box).


Trend Number Two: Shiny

Call it glazed or spritzed or glossed or polished, there is definitely more meat (of all four types) showing up with a sheen on it these days. It can be a rather striking effect I think, but I’m always hopeful that cooks don’t do it at the expense of over-saucing. (That shine, of course, can be created several different ways.) A concern of mine is that sauce is optional, and when properly done “dry” style (especially for ribs) can be excellent (and ribs can be “dry/un-sauced” even if they are shiny). If cooks think that judges expect to get shiny food, then that’s mostly what we’ll get.


Trend Number Three: Red

This may go along with recent sauce trends but I’m not writing about taste in this article. No matter, I think cooks are producing more meat with red or reddish coloring of all hues. Color is very important – a food’s color highly influences what our taste buds will say about it. Red and barbeque seem to go hand-in-hand. As a color it is considered at least warm and sometimes even hot. My concern with this trend is that judges have to work harder to keep the concepts of appearance and flavor separate. It’s not impossible, but the relationship between color and flavor will always have some influence on brain processes.


Trend Number Four: Artistry

More teams are spending more time on the basic arrangement of the greenery (yes, it’s optional but it is almost always there), the shape of the meat pieces, slices, chunks or whatever, and the way it all looks in the box. This is always a little risky because following turn-in, that box can get jostled, messing up some or all of the artistry. Nonetheless, most boxes nowadays have received at least some TLC from somebody who was charged with “prettifying” the overall presentation. I try to look at the impact of the box as a picture in a camera viewfinder. I appreciate artistry and try to account for it in my scoring but way, way back in my mind I’m always thinking, “Isn’t this a meat contest”?


Not a Trend: The Smoke Ring

Based on quite a few comments I’ve seen online, there seems to be at least some misunderstanding about this tricky chemical reaction. I won’t dwell on it but I’ll include a statement here to clarify that a smoke ring is in no way a requirement and, in fact, in the judges’ instructions we are specifically reminded to ignore it. Yes, it shows up sometimes and is particularly noticeable on a brisket slice (sometimes on pork slices depending on how cut, and even on a rib occasionally). However, my personal experience as a cook has taught me that it is fickle, sometimes appearing and sometimes not, sometimes heavy and sometimes light. Anyway, it can be artificially created by using TenderQuick™ or some other preservatives, so it is to be ignored in judging.


The Old Sauce On The Lid Bugaboo

This BBQ “urban legend” just won’t die and it should. No matter how carefully built and handled, some sauce will wind up on a turn-in box lid well beyond the control of the cooking team. Judges and Table Captains should know this is no big deal. Some folks get very excited over it and shouldn’t.


What It All Means

Each of the trends above helps to create a “norm” or an expectation of what will be presented to the judges’ eyes. It is this expectation that is of concern because it can and does become a de facto standard: A common practice that can get in the way of the desired open-minded judging. After all, an entry that is composed of meat pieces with varying shapes, different coloring, a matte finish, or with odd piece placement and/or greenery (as long as that greenery is on the approved list) is not necessarily an unworthy one in terms of appearance. Uh-oh, this kind of thing requires some thinking outside the box (pun intended)!

What, then, is bad appearance? There’s not much in the way of standards on that, either. For starters I’d go with charred, obviously burned entries and then cite qualifications for burnt ends (often a great piece of brisket), “bark”, and grill marks (which can be quite attractive). On the other end of the scale, of course, is something obviously raw (and there are standards for dealing with raw or undercooked chicken). Past and between those two extremes, judges, it comes down to our perceptions and palates.

When I first began judging I had a tendency to discount the importance of the appearance score somewhat because it gets the lowest weighting of the three judging criteria (.5714). However, after gaining a little experience, I had a blinding flash of the obvious (BFO!) that cooks have to go for maximums in all three judging criteria – they can’t ignore it so neither can I as a judge. Cooks that take a walk at award time cannot usually get there by taste and tenderness alone. It takes lots of 8’s and 9’s to get into the top echelons and that means 8’s and 9’s in appearance, too.

At the last contest I judged I made it a point to pay extra attention and give extra focus during the appearance judging. I monitored my own scoring to see if I sensed any correlation between entries that I’d given 8’s or 9’s for appearance and my later scores for taste and tenderness. And, in every instance but one, there was a relationship (only one chicken entry was “all show and no go” in my opinion – turned out to be the table’s opinion, too). Arguably, I may have a limited sample here since mine was the only set of scores I could observe but I know the underlying effort was worth it even if it was only my behavior under scrutiny.

Will trends change? Absolutely! What is very trendy today can slide into oblivion next season or with the development of new products and technology and especially if somebody tries something different and succeeds with it. Who knows, there might even be esthetic appearance standards some day to go along with those rules about marking and the proper types of garnish. When and if that happens I promise to account for them properly in my judging approach and attitude. But for now, my judging has to be broad enough to embrace a lot of creativity in appearance and specific enough (without the help of rigid standards or over-reliance on trends) to reward good looks.


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