The 6 Weirdest Rules in Professional BBQ

For starters, don’t sculpt your meat. Seriously.

By James Oliver Cury


No matter how tender and juicy your pork ribs are, you’ll never win a world-class barbecue contest if you don’t know the rules. Over the weekend, I spent a full day in a Tennessee classroom learning the do’s and don’ts of professional ‘cue competitions as set down in the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) regulation book—which is given to every certified judge. And on Saturday I got the chance to apply my new skills, feasting on approximately 40 portions of chicken, pork, and beef at the Jack Daniel’s World Invitational Barbeque Championship in Lynchburg (population 6,362).

Over the years, competitors have learned what stands out—and thus wins trophies—so many of the entries look alike. Ribs tend to be highly glazed and supremely uniform in shape and color. The chicken does not resemble chicken. There are no obvious wings or legs or breasts; only mounds of meat (“cupcake chicken”), perfectly arranged in numbered boxes. And the sauces tend to look like ketchup, sometimes browner, sometimes thicker, with strong pepper flavoring.

If you see an infraction during the competition, you better call over your table captain immediately. In training sessions, they insert at least one rule-breaker—illegal garnish!—to test novice judges. As for scoring: There is no perfect 10. The scale goes from 2 (inedible) to 9 (excellent). Submissions get a 1 if they’re disqualified for any reason.

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Below, the seven oddest carnivorous sins.

1. About Garnishes
No red-leaf lettuce. Or kale. Or endive. Yes to fresh green lettuce, curly parsley, flat leaf parsley and/or cilantro. Nobody knows exactly why.

2. About Sauces
No “pooling” of sauce in the corner of the submission box. Puddles, presumably, are gloppy and the chances of double-dipping are high. Sauce belongs on the meat.

3. About Ribs
Every piece must contain a bone. Love McRibs? Too bad.

4. About Presentation
There is no sculpting of meat into swans, bowling balls, angels, or any other shape. No sculpting whatsoever. No “foreign objects” either. It’s a little vague as stated, and sounds vaguely medical, but this means you cannot leave toothpicks, skewers, or aluminum foil in the samples provided for judges.

5. About Technique
Parboiling, sous-vide, and/or deep-frying competition meat is forbidden. Then again, it’s highly unlikely that someone would attempt to serve fried chicken at a barbecue event and these are serious pros; every team needs to have won a state championship or one of the premiere barbecue competitions (Memphis in May, American Royal Open or Houston World’s Championship Bar-B-Que).

6. About Portions
Servings must be cut all the way through. If two ribs, for example, stick together and there aren’t enough for all the judges, then one judge must score 1s for taste and texture. Can you imagine being that judge? No portion for you AND you have to be the guy who delivers the low score. Such are the demands of professional BBQ judges.


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photos: Ed Rode/Jack Daniel Distillery