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To Me It Tastes Like...

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Posted by Gordon Hubbell on May 25, 2011 at 03:02:50:

To Me It Tastes Like . . .



Gordon Hubbell



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 second of the series.


Have you noticed that there are absolutely no KCBS rules or guidelines about taste? Some exist for the other two attributes (appearance and tenderness) but not for this one. If they did, they’d be virtually impossible to deal with. Taste is the one factor that really can’t be defined. Defining it would be like trying to describe a color to a person who has never been able to see. As judges, we are totally on our own for this one and always will be. So, we owe it to the cooks to understand how to do it, even though guidelines and standards cannot be provided.


Taste 101

Years ago, in some high school science class I learned that what we sense with our taste buds is some combination of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It doesn’t matter if it is barbeque, pasta, ice cream, beer, or a tuna salad sandwich. What we perceive with our taste sense is a very complex sensory brain response. And, since we certainly don’t think alike, it makes perfect sense that we don’t taste alike, either!

There’s been a lot of research since I was in that high school class back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Some authorities on the subject now say there’s a fifth taste “category” that the Japanese culture has understood for some time: Umami (pronounced oo-mommy). This one doesn’t have an English word that perfectly fits it (thus the use of the Japanese term). Basically, this taste category is “savory and meaty”. Uh-oh, that really rings a bell when we’re talking barbeque!

Umami, if you go along with the concept, “combines” with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It is enhanced or brought more to the forefront of our taste sensation by a natural compound in some foods called glutamate. A high glutamate food is usually a high protein food. Makes sense when we’re talking barbequed meat, doesn’t it? This isn’t quite the same thing as the infamous Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), though.

MSG is a chemical compound designed to enhance certain flavors (often sauces, condiments, meat and fried vegetables) if added to them. It also tenderizes meat. And, as we all know, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Monosodium Glutamate in normal amounts doesn’t affect most people negatively. Some folks are, reportedly, sensitive to even small amounts of it. Although I’ve read that most Chinese cuisine no longer includes high MSG levels, “Chinese Food Syndrome” will forever be with us as a label for food that induced unintended side effects, particularly headaches. So, even if no MSG is included in our barbeque rub, sauce, mop or injection there will still be the naturally occurring glutamate coming from the meat. That’s a good thing and our goal should be to use it properly.

Individual Taste

With the above taste basics as a given (they apply to everyone) it now logically follows that there are potentially billions of flavor component combinations that we might sense. The problem is that we don’t all sense them the same way and, even worse, we have some that we as individuals like better than others. That’s because the “wiring” between our taste buds and our brains is different for every individual and, worse again, will change with age and other factors of human life.

The sense of smell, wherein we benefit from our olfactory system, also has a significant impact on our sense of taste. The two (olfactory system and taste buds) are not directly linked in our body’s hookups, but they do work in tandem for our brains. Basically, we’re conditioned from birth to associate pleasant aromas with pleasant tastes and this is almost always true. There are a few things that don’t have inherently pleasant aromas that taste good to at least some of us (I think parmesan cheese smells horrible but I love it on pasta) so we sometimes adapt. The linkage between the two is never clearer than when you’re experiencing a nasty head cold. Nothing tastes good because the nose isn’t working and its ability to augment our taste sensation is shut down, making almost everything taste bland. When the cold goes away, our “normal” sense of taste returns.

Children are programmed by nature to be highly sensitive in the taste bud-brain connection. Some theorize this is designed to protect them from eating something bad if we adults aren’t around to grab it away. This is why we might say that, as we age, our taste becomes more “sophisticated”. Actually, it mellows a bit and de-programs us from avoidance of some flavors. That’s why many children tend to be picky eaters. They don’t tolerate what their “immature” taste senses tell them is potentially bad. However -- it’s that individual thing again – some kids will be picky eaters just for the fun of it (and that’s another article, I think). For KCBS competition, judges must be at least sixteen and the assumption is that we’re dealing with “adult” taste.

A small percentage of the human population (authorities disagree on both the number and exact definition) are sometimes called “supertasters”. They have a significantly increased number of a particular type of taste bud and are extremely sensitive to some flavors. Women and persons of Asian and African descent are much more likely to be supertasters. For some, this is a paying talent!

A guy I went to school with (back in those dinosaur-plagued days) was one of these people but I didn’t know it until I ran into him by chance many years later. Naturally, as we caught up on the events in each other’s lives we covered our work and careers. His career? Tea Taster! He made a very satisfying and comfortable living working for a regional tea and coffee company, helping them keep their current blends “on target” and develop new ones. The fact is he probably wouldn’t have made any better barbeque judge than you or I, but I think being able to earn a living by tasting things is nifty!


Balance beats Unbalance

There’s an old adage in competition barbeque that I think makes perfect sense, “offend nobody”. It describes a flavor goal that means great taste for a multitude of tasters. To hit the goal, an entry first has to have balance.

For an example of unbalance, I’ll use one of my own personal flavor preferences because I know them well: I adore hot, spicy food that makes my face turn red, that causes beads of sweat to pop out on my brow, and that induces my eyes to water like I’m crying. Bring it on! In this respect I am a minority among the tasting population. Lots of other people may share my hot food taste but, collectively we aren’t most of the population. However, when I cook barbeque just for me, you can bet it will be on the high side of “tingly”.

On those rare occasions when we get something hot at the judges’ table, I get a kick out of looking around at my fellow judges to assess their reactions. I’m loving it, of course, so I’ve got a big bite that I’m savoring. Most of the other judges will draw back a bit. Some may even spit it out. After the scorecards are in, many will complain that their “taste buds are numb” and they can’t taste anything now except the heat from that entry. Crackers and water are now the favorite “flavors” at the table. That’s what always happens and that is why competitive judging is so interesting! Fact: That hot entry is not likely to find a table of judges that all like hot food and, even if it does, it may not score highly because we shouldn’t judge to our own taste preferences. It violated the “offend nobody” rule and a couple of others coming up.

The opposite of my hot example above is the one that really doesn’t taste much like anything. Fortunately, this type of entry is even rarer than a hot one in most barbeque contests, but it still shows up from time to time, perhaps because the cooks were being too timid in their approach. I tasted a brisket entry like this not long ago. As I recall, it looked pretty good and the tenderness was acceptable but a good word for it was “blah”. I scored this one down in taste (as did the rest of the table it turned out) because there was nothing to excite the taste sense. It wasn’t salty, bitter, sweet, sour, or even umami. It was nothing. The effect on my palate was like eating boiled beef with no seasoning at all. It wasn’t exactly offensive – but it sure wasn’t exciting, either.

Somewhere between these two extremes, and a bunch of others, lies that almost indescribable barbeque nirvana that I call balance. It is rarely exactly the same thing twice but it can best be described as getting it right: The salt, the sour, the sweet, the bitter and the umami. Just enough of each in the method of cooking and the spicing (rub, injection, sauce, mop) to produce something that is interesting, complex, enjoyable, savory, exciting, and tasty without being too much of any one or even two things. Fact: If this was easy, we wouldn’t have barbeque contests!

And the winner is . . .

Wait a minute. . . In order to understand what is likely to win and let the cooks take a walk I must introduce another concept that ties into balance. That concept is “universality”. Really, this one sort of adds on to balance and means that all the work that went into getting an interesting, complex, enjoyable, savory, exciting and tasty result must regularly please a significantly large portion of the population! It just got harder, didn’t it?

Major food companies know what I’m talking about and live and die by the concept. Other than in specialty food areas (e.g. hot sauce, sour kraut, cured cheese, etc.) that deliberately appeal to a very specific taste extreme, the road to sales and profit is mass appeal. Example: McDonalds has built a fast food empire on producing broadly appealing food, consistently. They can and do introduce new concepts, but only after exhaustive testing to make certain they have a high potential to sell. Overseas, they adjust flavors, textures and appearance to better appeal to the expectations and desires of the area (my McDonalds hamburger in New Zealand had beets on it, for instance).

The very same thing applies to winning a barbeque competition but the scale is smaller. Instead of a fully equipped food lab and trained tasting panels of “supertasters”, barbeque contestants have trial and error and the school of hard knocks! Sometimes, a cook can accidentally hit just the right thing, but more often than not he or she has spent a great deal of time monitoring ingredients and responses (like contest scores) and making adjustments until the numbers crept up into the consistent 8’s and 9’s necessary to win.

I call this relationship between balance and universality THE ZONE. The best barbeque teams and cooks have mastered how to get into it, and often. You can “see” it when any given team consistently gets high scores and especially when they make the leadership lists for any competitive circuit. To do this they have to be far above average in appearance and tenderness too, but taste carries the heaviest weighting factor in KCBS scoring (2.2858). So, if the flavor isn’t there, it is next to impossible to win on appearance and tenderness alone.

Another way I “see” the zone is, occasionally, from the judging perspective. It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then there’ll be an entry that, for lack of a better way to describe it, “lights” up judges when we taste it. One bite, and the moment the taste buds first grasp it and fire their signals to the brain, everything jives. I’ve literally seen judges smile when this happens and I’ve experienced it, too. It is very easy to give a 9 to these rarities (but I sometimes give 9’s to really good tasting entries that don’t necessarily “light me up” too).

What it all means

For Judges:

It is impossible to write out what “good taste” is in a contest entry. The more experience you have as a judge the more familiar you’ll be with it, but defining it won’t help you much – words are poor tools in this case. It is better, I think, to prepare ones taste sensation for judging as follows:

1. Remember that what you like isn’t what you’re looking for. It is okay to like sweet or hot or sour or any other attribute, but what you are looking for is really appeal (whether it is your favorite or not, does the entry taste good?).

2. Keep a broad perspective and an open mind. Try to taste “blind”. There’s a strong link between our eyes and our taste buds, also. An entry that you’ve scored lower on appearance might very well have dynamite flavor!

3. If you can, develop a broad range of flavor acceptance. Appreciate, for instance, a spicy vinegar-based sauce when it has contributed to balance and universality, even if your preference is for tomato-based sauces.

4. Practice communication. When you get an entry that doesn’t have balance, universality and that clearly isn’t in THE ZONE for you, grab a comment card and tell the cooks why, as specifically as you can. I completed one not long ago on an entry that really needed some work. It said, “Your ribs were good looking but all I could taste was smoke and it overpowered the flavor of everything else.” Short and to the point is what many cooks are looking for. They don’t have to agree with you but they deserve to know what you think, particularly if you’re scoring down significantly.

For Cooks:

1. Don’t fall for what a professional statistician would call a sampling error – just because your family says you cook the best pork butt in the world doesn’t mean you do in the eyes of the rest of the world.

2. Pay attention to your scores and your scoring trends over time if you want to be one of those consistent winners. It takes a lot of work and attention to get to the top scores and to stay there.

3. Don’t cook what tastes good to you – cook what will taste good to lots of judges!

4. Don’t obsess over your bad scores. Any cook and any judge can have a bad day and just because this week’s scores on something you think was spectacular weren’t as high as last week’s scores doesn’t mean it is your fault or the judges’. Focus on your good scores and keep at it until you’re getting mostly 8’s and 9’s. The payoff will come.


There’s an old adage that says, “There’s no accounting for taste” and it is especially true in competition barbeque. If we could account for it then there might be something like a musical score that would put into symbols what language cannot adequately cover. Then, you could just go out and buy it and always win.

Even if we could “score” taste like music, it changes! Taste patterns and preferences will vary with geographic region, judges’ ages and experience levels, and even “trendiness” of ingredients and cooking styles. So, what wins here and now might not place highly tomorrow and elsewhere.

When it comes right down to it, we have barbeque contests because there are taste differences and we are obsessed with what might be “best”. You’ve got to love that fact as much as you love barbeque!

To read the first article from Gordon go to the comments section of The BBQ Forum

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 second 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.

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