Smoking the Competition

The HamTown Smokers pursue barbecue with skill, science, and passion. 

Joshua Shook checks the color of a smoked boneless pork butt.

Photography by Perfecta Visuals

As 9:42 a.m. flashes on the huge digital countdown clock at the Stills and Grills barbecue competition in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, a timer in Joshua Shook’s pocket goes off. Another one has been insistently beeping on a nearby counter for several minutes. Joshua and his wife, Heidi, jump from one smoker heaving with fire and smoke to another, slamming a pork butt that’s been wrapped in foil back on the fire, testing a rack of ribs for tenderness, and peeking in on a massive hunk of Australian beef brisket. “This is when it gets a little stressful,” Joshua says, the sweat streaking down his cheeks. “It’s a game of minutes with four players in the game.”

Judge-ready smoked pork shoulder and ribs. 

The HamTown Smokers, named for their hometown of Smithfield, competed in their first event, working out of a cramped borrowed trailer with four makeshift 55-gallon barrel smokers. Joshua remembers thinking, “This is not for us: too detailed, too stressful, too rushed.” 

But the challenge of cooking four categories of meat—pulled pork, ribs, chicken, and beef brisket—to the exacting standards of the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) kept them coming back weekend after weekend. After all, they’re both scientists. She has a degree in food and animal science from Oklahoma State University, where she met Joshua and he earned his Ph.D. in food science. He also has a bachelor’s in animal and dairy science and a master’s in animal science with a specialty in meat science and muscle biology, both from the University of Georgia.

The real draw though is their shared love of competition. Joshua competed in both high school baseball and football. “I don’t take losing well,” he says. “Some people consider it a character flaw. I don’t.” 

Heidi interjects, “I grew up in 4-H and FFA, raising, showing, and judging livestock in Delaware. We’re both very dominant personalities.” 

They each admit to being type-A personalities. “At the office [Smithfield Foods], it works out great,” Joshua says. “At home, we have to work extra hard at understanding each other.” And on the barbecue circuit, they are smoking the competition together.

In February of their first year on the KCBS circuit, Joshua and Heidi, both in their mid-30s, became Grand Champions at the Brasstown Valley BBQ Throwdown in Georgia, taking first place over 30 other teams—many of them veterans who had been competing for years. Suddenly the HamTown Smokers were serious contenders, qualified to compete in the granddaddy of all barbecue cook-offs, the American Royal Invitational, which takes place in Kansas City, Missouri, every September. 

Prize-winning barbecue is evaluated blind by a panel of local judges who have completed an exhaustive KCBS course. During their meat-and-eat instruction, judges learn how to assign a numeric grade, one to nine, based on three criteria—appearance, taste, and tenderness—each of which is carefully defined during their instruction. For instance, smoked chicken is sometimes pink or reddish around the bone, even if it’s totally cooked. Judges are told to blot the meat with a paper napkin; if the napkin comes away bloody, the barbecue is instantly disqualified. By KCBS standards, pulled pork should absolutely not melt in your mouth. Pooled sauce is a huge no-no, as are elaborate garnishes. (Most contestants use a simple bed of kale.) 

Chicken thighs arranged on a bed of kale for the judges’ presentation.

Much earlier in the day, Joshua fired up his smokers with B&B Charcoal. Then, with a glint in his eye like, well, a mad scientist, he used a hypodermic needle to inject marinades into a slab of pork. “Here’s where the science comes in,” he says. 

“These marinades are made up of functional ingredients that will provide a flavorful and juicy experience.” Salt is a perfect example of a functional ingredient. Using a salt brine actually changes a meat’s protein structure, reducing its toughness and creating gaps that fill with water, which makes the meat juicier and more flavorful. For total consistency, Shook always uses the same brand of bottled water and reconstitutes fruit juices from dried powders. “To me, it’s 50-50 science and skill. The science is understanding what to do, when, and why,” he says. 

Heidi critiques smoked chicken thighs.

When is an all-important skill. Competition ribs, according to KCBS’s exacting standards, should not be fall-off-the-bone tender like those at most restaurants. Instead, the judges are instructed to require the slightest toothsome tug before the meat leaves the bone. Easy to say, hard to do. “There’s five to 10 minutes between when they’ll meet the Kansas City standard and when they’ll fall off the bone,” Joshua says.

Ribs are a good example of the many steps involved in producing prize-winning barbecue. The night before, Joshua had injected the ribs with a concoction of fruit juice and other flavoring agents. In the morning, he dusted them with a panoply of seasonings and sugar, which require a precise period of absorption. Finally, around 7:45 a.m., he put them on the smoker. Think of the smoking period as baking. When the ribs reached a certain point that only an experienced pitmaster would recognize, Joshua removes them and lets them rest. Then he paints them with butter and even more spices, wraps them tightly in foil, and puts them back on the smoker. “Everything is better with butter,” Joshua says. Finally, in those last nerve-wracking minutes between tooth-tugging tender and mushy, Joshua pokes and probes and even tastes them sizzling from the grill in his quest for perfection. Can you say obsessive?

Perhaps it comes with the territory; Joshua is a certified culinary scientist—and a manager in research and development at Smithfield Foods, which provides the Shooks with pork and leases them their trailer. Heidi works as a business manager there. And Joshua cooking while she enjoys the food is a long-standing tradition; on one of their first dates, Joshua cooked salmon with couscous and asparagus for her. “I said, ‘I’m going to marry that man one day,’ and, sure enough, eight years later, here we are,” she says.

The Shook family with their Stills and Grills trophies.

“We” often includes the Shooks’ two children, Brynleigh, 5, and Wager, 3. On this sunny day they’re gleefully galloping around the fairground on a pair of broomstick horses under the supervision of Heidi’s mom, Bonnie Binder, who has driven over from nearby Morganton, North Carolina. The barbecue circuit, Heidi says, gives the family a chance to visit with their relatives, who are scattered all over the place. Joshua’s parents got to spend time with their grandchildren—and see their son take first place—at the Brasstown Valley Throwdown. “It has brought our family closer together,” Heidi says.

Family has also played a role in their style of cooking barbecue. Unlike low-and-slow traditionalists, such as Richmond’s celebrity pitmaster Tuffy Stone, Joshua and Heidi don’t smoke their brisket for up to 20 hours at 200 degrees. Instead, they’ve adopted a newer technique known as Hot’n’Fast using a Gateway Drum Smoker. Hot’n’Fast has revolutionized competition barbecue—hot being 300 to 400 degrees and fast being five to six hours for brisket, three for ribs. “With two kids, we need sleep and can’t be getting up at 2 or 3 in the morning,” Joshua says.

Hot’n’Fast—and better cooking through science—seems to be working for them. “It’s all about control and technique,” Joshua says. The HamTown Smokers placed a creditable fourth at the Stills and Grills competition in May, and they’ve taken a third-place win since then. “There are days when we don’t understand what happened and what went wrong,” Joshua says. “But that’s the scientist in us, trying to figure it all out, and that’s what keeps us coming back.” Facebook.com/HamTownSmokers 


Competition-style Spareribs

3 ⅓ cups high-quality apple juice, cold

½ cup Pork Prod Pork Injection

4 racks pork ribs, such as Smithfield St. Louis-style spareribs (8 to 10 pounds total weight)

salt

pepper

garlic seasoning, such as Little Louie’s Garlic Salt

with Black Pepper

sweet pork rub, such as Sweet Money rub

spicy pork rub, such as Simply Marvelous

BBQ Spicy Apple rub

2 cups vinegar-based barbecue sauce, such as

Blues Hog Tennessee Red sauce

1 cup dark brown sugar

2 sticks butter, halved lengthwise

barbecue sauce of choice (We recommend the Blues Hog line.)

Note: Select ribs that are uniform in thickness from end to end so they cook evenly. Look for marbling between the bones; fine specks of fat within the lean are desirable. All recommended spices, rubs, and sauces are available at BigPoppaSmokers.com.

Tools:

disposable syringes with 12- or 16-gauge needles

(available at farm supply stores)

charcoal smoker or grill

lump charcoal, such as B&B Charcoal

barkless fruit wood, such as apple, cherry, or peach

grill and meat thermometers

cooler

basting brush

Preparing the ribs: 

Blend or whisk together 2 cups of the apple juice with the Pork Prod until well dissolved. Refrigerate overnight. Trim away any thick fat on the lean (meat) side of the ribs. To remove the membrane over the bones, use a dull knife to peel up a corner of the membrane, grasp the membrane with a dry paper towel, and pull. Then, starting at the end of the bones, inject 10 to 15 milliliters of the apple juice mixture between each bone, pulling it out as you work to disperse the mix evenly. The needle will generally only penetrate halfway through the meat, so flip the ribs over and repeat the injections from the bottom side. Wrap the ribs tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

The following day, 1 to 2 hours prior to cooking, lay the ribs out and dry them with paper towels. On the bone side, sprinkle a very light layer of salt, pepper, and garlic seasoning. Then, sprinkle with a medium layer of sweet rub and a very light layer of spicy rub. Allow the rubs to sweat into the meat for 30 to 45 minutes; do not rub the seasonings into the meat. Once the rub appears to be very wet and mostly dissolved, flip the ribs, repeat the layers of spices, and allow the rubs to sweat into the meat for another 30 to 45 minutes. (Note: The total sweat time will be 60 to 90 minutes, which also allows the meat to come to room temperature, creating less thermal shock when it goes onto the smoker and a quicker cooking time.)

Cooking the ribs: 

Start the charcoal grill or smoker. Once it is up to temperature (250 to 275 degrees), add a few chunks of fruit wood and smoke the ribs for 1 ½ to 2 hours, or until the meat is a mahogany brownish-red color (not dark brown or black). Remove the ribs and place each rack meat-side up on a double layer of foil (you will wrap each rack separately). On each rack, pour ½ cup vinegar-based sauce and sprinkle with ¼ cup dark brown sugar. Place ½ stick butter at the base of each rack, not on top of the meat, and pour 1/3 cup of apple juice over the butter. Seal the foil of each packet tightly so the liquid doesn’t leak, and place the ribs back on the smoker. After 45 minutes, start checking for doneness. Depending on your desired level of tenderness (pull off the bone vs. fall off the bone), the internal temperature between the bones will range from 205 to 210 degrees. To test for doneness, hold the rack in the middle; if it just starts to bend, it’s pull off the bone. If you can twist the ribs, they’re fall off the bone. Leave the cooked ribs in the foil, wrap them in an old towel, and set them aside to rest; an old cooler works well (leave the lid slightly cracked to vent the heat so the ribs don’t continue cooking). Let the ribs rest at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours. Don’t let the fire go out in the smoker.

Prior to serving, remove the ribs from the foil; discard foil. Use a brush to apply your favorite barbecue sauce to both sides. Place the ribs back into the smoker at 250 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the sauce becomes tacky and just starts to dry (do not burn the sauce). Remove the ribs from the smoker and let them cool enough to handle. Slice between the bones using a very sharp knife or an electric knife. Serves 8

Tip: Testing for Doneness 

When probing the meat with a thermometer, the meat should be as firm as a room-temperature stick of butter. If you don’t know what that feels like, leave a stick of butter out overnight and then probe it the next day.


This article originally appeared in our Smoke + Salt 2019 issue.

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