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Falling Off The Bone

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Posted by Gordon Hubbell on June 29, 2011 at 03:01:16:

. . . Falling Off The Bone


Gordon Hubbell


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

Trained judges and experienced cooks know that the title of this article describes an overcooked rib. But, popular restaurants and scads of backyard barbequers love what I’ve come to call “Rib Soup”. Are they wrong?

Not really. For example, folks like their steaks cooked anywhere from almost raw to nearly burned and it is a matter of personal preference. So, unless you’re cooking for competition, there are no rules or guidelines. If your gathering of friends and family really appreciates mushy meat let ‘em have it. But, in my experience anyway, if you feed those same folks a properly done rib you’ll most often change their minds. Here we go with the final chapter in those competition standards again – if mushy ribs were our standard, rib cooking would be a much easier effort. Fortunately, it isn’t, so we judges and cooks face a formidable challenge to our talents and discernment.

KCBS (and most other sanctioning bodies) address the factor of tenderness or texture very gingerly and generally in terms of spelling things out, providing limited guidelines toward a target and allowing leeway in the approach. Thus, when we judge the tenderness of an entry we are given direction but not perfection. Like the other judging parameters, Appearance and Taste, our own experience, perceptions and expectations will come into play.

Just as with the other attributes, tenderness is very hard to put into words and sometimes hard to isolate. Sure, there are extremes – if you can’t even chew it, it’s tough and if it puddles into a meaty pool with no texture at all, it’s overdone. But, descriptions need amplification if they are to be of value and meat types will vary in terms of what any “norm” might be. So, studying and thinking about what we’re looking for in more precise terms has value and can improve our judging performance.

“Mouth Feel” – Some Elements of Tenderness

The foods we tend to like the most give us pleasant sensations when we chew and swallow them. Almost everyone loves crunchy potato chips, smooth ice cream, gummy taffy and creamy gravy. These sensations may be single and simple or combine together to be a more complex experience. They join up with the flavor of the food to give both a chemical reaction (our taste buds at work) and a physical reaction (the feelings to our teeth and tongues).

Certain attributes of well cooked barbeque can be at least semi-scientifically explained in terms of mouth feel. Try these:

Cohesiveness – the way a piece of food holds together before the pressure of our teeth cut it.

Density – the “lightness or heaviness” we perceive in a morsel.

Dryness (or its opposite, Moisture) – the relative contribution of the food to the “wetness” necessary to chew and swallow it.

Grain – the tongue’s sensation of feeling small particles of the food.

Roughness – the texture of the food’s touch on the teeth and tongue (smooth is opposite, of course)

Uniformity – The evenness of the bite experience.

But we don’t stop to think about these things, either individually or collectively, as we eat. We just know what we like. Thus, mouth feel as we contemplate a contest entry is a lot more about meeting our expectations than it is meeting a set of scientific definitions. So, here’s a recap of what those expectations might be by meat category . . .



Some days, based on what I read in the various barbeque forums where I participate, I think this category is all about skin and blood! Take the napkin test for underdone chicken. It works and it is valuable. However it only occasionally comes into play because experienced cooks know when their chicken is done. More important to creating discussion, there’s that skin thing. “If presented with skin on you should at least taste the skin” is what judges are instructed to do. Let the fight begin! Please note that there is no requirement for either crisp or “bite-through” skin (skin quality isn’t stipulated) but that cooks go to great lengths to provide it. Why? It isn’t so much a tenderness thing as a convenience factor. A judge who pulls off the whole skin in one bite, or who has to fight with a chunk of bird to get that taste, is not apt to be as favorably impressed as one who gets a bite-sized piece, conveniently, as he samples the entry. Judges should really appreciate good skin when they encounter it, even though it isn’t an official requirement!


Chicken is a meat of many potential characteristics. The breast meat, when prepared some ways, is very low fat and appeals to health consciousness. However, that white meat will turn dry and stringy if even slightly overcooked. Chicken wings (white meat in the opinion of most) have become one of the most popular appetizers lately thanks to the Buffalo Wing fad and I love ‘em but the meat-to-bone ratio is low and maybe that’s why they don’t show up often in turn-in boxes. Legs have some very tasty meat but also have tendons and connective tissue that is difficult to remove while still preserving a good appearance.

Winning the popularity contest is the thigh. It has an incidence of natural fat that makes it forgiving of overcooking and (a relatively new appearance fad) it can be shaped fairly easily. The “forgiving” nature of the thigh meat is, I think, the driving reason why thighs are the most commonly used chicken piece for contests. It doesn’t turn to mush easily and retains its characteristic flavor over a reasonable spectrum of cooking times and methods.

The most likely expectations for chicken to score highly in tenderness would be:

Moist but done completely through

Skin (if included) can be tasted conveniently

Tender enough to create an easy, clean bite pattern but not mushy



This is the only meat category with a more or less specific “perfection” in our judging instructions. The Judges’ Meeting CD says, “. . . the area of the meat where the bite is taken should be pulled cleanly from the bone with very little effort. The exposed bone of a well cooked rib will often dry immediately.” The instructions go on to state, “Ribs should be moist, flavorful and possess good texture.” And “When a rib is overcooked most or all of the meat comes off the bone when sampled. Additionally the meat of an overcooked rib has a tendency to be mushy and have a poor texture.” No other category gets this close to a relatively complete description concerning tenderness or texture.

Still, I sometimes find myself staring at what I consider to be a pretty darned good contest rib and wondering if I’m looking for exactly the right qualifications to grant the 8 or 9 that I want to give it. In reality, there are what I’d call degrees of tenderness, texture and doneness that, while hard to describe in words, become second nature to an experienced judge’s perceptions. I find that my ideal rib tends to almost “snap” away from the bone, but not until I take a bite. Then, I like the texture to be chewable without needing a lot of chewing. In other words, the bite is both meat-like and tender. “Mushy” to me, is when there really is no texture at all – like an M&M candy, the bite melts in my mouth.

A reasonable set of expectations for high-scoring rib tenderness might be:

Meat can be pulled cleanly from the bone but does not fall off by itself

Done through but still moist

Require a moderate amount of chewing, but not too soft



Again from our instructions on the Judges’ meeting CD: “Pork shoulder or Boston butt should be very tender. It should pull apart with very little effort, be moist and have good texture. . . With these types of entry checking for proper cooking is important. Pork can be easily overcooked to achieve maximum tenderness, which in turn makes the final product mushy. Mushy meat dissolves in your mouth with very little effort when chewing.”

Do we judges have a tendency to pay a lot more attention to the taste of this meat than to its tenderness? I think that’s highly possible, since I don’t recall ever encountering any that was what I’d call very tough. What I tend to look for is at least some evidence of meat texture – I’d call that evidence of “stringiness” or meat “grain” without being tough to separate if I try to cleave the piece with my fingers. I like to feel the meat resist a little when I bite into it.

Mushiness, as a quality in pork butts is pretty subtle, I think, since “very tender” is the stated goal. Where’s the line? I’d say if you don’t have to chew it at all, well maybe that’s the point where it starts to be mush. If you can push it against your cheek or gum with your tongue and then swallow without chewing – that’s definitely mushy.

So, expectations for excellent Pork tenderness might be:

Very tender but still has meaty texture

Pulls apart easily

Requires some chewing – not “melt in your mouth”




The KCBS Judges’ Instructions for brisket include “A well cooked brisket, when the slice is picked up and pulled should have some resistance and yet come apart without crumbling. As with pork, the meat should maintain a desirable texture.” Just about all judges use the pull test on brisket slices and it is a pretty good gauge of tenderness. Experienced cooks also know to adjust the thickness of their slices accordingly – thinning or thickening them as necessary to produce the best “pull”. Every now and then, this becomes comical.

Do you remember those big, long black springs that used to be attached to wooden screen doors? Their job was to pull the screen door closed and keep it tightly closed to deter the entry into the house of any errant flies. Usually, they made a pretty good “bang” while doing their job, too. Well, I’ve encountered a few brisket slices that could substitute well for that old spring. Now, that’s tough! Undercooked brisket will always be “springy” like this. When you can’t “pull” it, it’s a pretty good bet you can’t chew it easily, either!

Moisture is another factor that adds to the mouth feel of brisket. Be it tender or not, a dry brisket (usually one that has either not been injected properly to assure moistness after cooking or that has been cooked in a very dry environment with little additional moisture from a mop or absorbed internal fat) doesn’t produce a pleasant chewing sensation. Cooks compensate for brisket’s fast moisture loss by spraying their slices with a little mist of water or light broth and/or adding a very thin coat of sauce. I’ve tasted some dry brisket that actually had excellent tenderness – it was just less than perfect because there was insufficient moisture to complement the tenderness and the two go hand-in-hand.

Expectations for excellent brisket should be:

Pass the “Pull Test” (neither crumble nor be a “spring”)

Present a chewable mouth feel

Have sufficient moisture to make chewing pleasant

Wrapping Up

Tenderness is almost as subjective as taste in our judging decisions. In some ways the two “T” attributes are a bit interlinked, especially when it comes to any added moisture. The extremes, “tough” and “mushy” are fairly easy to spot, too. Most of what lands on our judging plates will be somewhere in the middle and need our skilled sorting out to reveal the best in competition barbeque. But, that process is why we’re here and why the best judges will always seek to better understand both how to define the attributes and how to apply the standards.

The great early American novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter was known for his dark, puritan prose. However, he certainly warmed up on brisket when he said, “The corned beef is exquisitely done, and as tender as a young lady's heart....”

Note: Special thanks to Dawn Endrijaitis, KCBS Contest Sanctioning Coordinator, for supplying a copy of the Judges’ Instructions CD as quoted herein.



To read the first and second articles 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. This is part of 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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