You can smell the smoke the moment you land at Reno-Tahoe International Airport.
Every Labor Day weekend, the small town of Sparks, Nevada hosts what’s often called the Masters Tournament of barbecue rib competitions. And that smoke? It gets measurably thicker as you make the five-mile trip from the airport to Victorian Square.
Joining a typical turnout of 500,000 people, who collectively consume more than 100 tons of pork ribs, I’ll soon be returning for my 10th year as a judge at the double-blind Nugget Rib Cookoff which USA Today has dubbed the nation’s “Best BBQ Festival.”
In preparation for this important assignment, I sat down with decorated Tucson pit master Brandi Romero as she shared her strategy for wowing judges at similar competitions.
Romero was a multiple award-winning fixture on the local and national barbecue competition circuit for several years before her food truck hit the streets in 2016. The community response was overwhelming, and the kind of affirmation she needed to open a restaurant two years later, Kiss of Smoke BBQ & Catering, at 663 S. Plumer Avenue.
Rib competitions typically include three scoring categories – appearance, texture, and taste. Appearance is key, since we all eat with our eyes, particularly when you’re staring down a righteous rack of ribs.
“The work that’s required to produce a great appearance begins long before you rub the ribs and put them into the smoker,” said Romero. “There are many fine details in the way a rack of ribs is trimmed that makes it competition-worthy.”
One of her trimming secrets is to round the corners near the bones so the meat will more efficiently pull back towards the center of the rack as it’s smoked. This technique results in that classic glamour image with the ends of the bones protruding slightly from the meat.
A beautiful color is also central to scoring big appearance points, and Romero aims for a deep mahogany that requires dedicated doses of paprika and brown sugar in her rub.
Nailing the texture category is all about that delicate balance of time and heat. Smoking ribs too long will make the meat fall off the bone. While this is the preferred style of ribs at many restaurants, it will put you at risk in competition.
“Judges want ribs to have a bit of a pull when they bite into them,” she said, “and we do this best when working with meatier racks. We want judges to experience a slight crispness from the exterior crust, then that gentle pull, followed by a melt-in-your-mouth tenderness.”
If you score big on appearance and texture in competition but come up short on taste, you’ll go home without hardware. The flavors must work together in a way that impresses judges after just one bite, which is all your ribs generally get from each judge.
“We want a balance of flavors in one bite, so we apply a very thin layer of rub that combines notes of sweet, salt, and heat with the smoke,” she said. “We also use a blend of pecan, cherry, and apple wood which allows for a slower smoke without becoming overpowering.”
I’ll be reflecting on my conversation with Romero while performing my judicial duties in smoky Sparks. And I know where to go the moment I return home.
While Kiss of Smoke is open every Wednesday – Saturday from 7:00 am – 6:00 pm, their ribs are only available on Fridays. So follow the fragrance to S. Plumer Avenue and E. 17th Street and save me a seat!
Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at email@example.com. Russell is also the publisher of OnTheMenuLive.com as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show on KVOI 1030 AM.