How to Stage Pork Butts for BBQ Competitions
Okay, so you've got your pork butt smoked and ready to go. You’ve got your showstopper BBQ sauce and rubs mixed, primed, and prepared to rocket you straight to the top of that podium. And you've got your secret weapon: infinite patience. Why? Because you're about to embark on the next chapter in competition BBQ mastery — staging your pork butt for maximum impact.
Remember, you're not just selling that first bite to the judges. You're selling them the entire package: the feel, the look, the smell, and that singular second when the stars align and their teeth clamp down around beautiful mahogany bark. Sure, you can just slide your competition pork butt into that turn-in box and call it a day, but that's not exactly going to win over any judges. Your job is to make your star performer as strikingly stunning as possible — taste and all. And that's why we pulled our award-studded pal Diva Q in to cover everything you need to know when staging your competition BBQ pork.
What to Know Before You Start
Understand your competition’s rules on garnishes and slice counts
Keep a few large towels you’re willing to lose to retain that moisture
Judges like consistency and perfection, not unique interpretations
The messier your workstation, the cleaner your box interior
The judge can pick any piece in the box that they want to. Your job here is to tell the judge where to bite. Now, keeping up with competition BBQ means staying sharp — and that means practicing just as though you were at an actual BBQ competition. To accomplish this at home, consider inviting some friends over for taste tests: go over the flavor profiles of your meat, the tenderness, and the overall consistency of the meat. Getting on the right wavelength means aiming for consistency. It’s not always easy, but becoming a serious competitor means devoting serious time to the craft — and looking for constructive criticism and accountability.
How to Wrap the Money Muscles
You remember what a money muscle is, right? Thought so. Well, once your smoked pork leaves the cooking chamber, your job is to do whatever it takes to retain every available dripping ounce of moisture in that pork. You’ll soak up whatever flavor has oozed out during the smoking session, then wrap the meat in several layers with specific materials to help keep it from drying out while it rests… and here’s how you’ll do it.
Savor That Flavor
Once the meat is finished cooking, unwrap it all on a clean surface and roll it in the loose juices to soak up a little extra punch of flavor. (Remember those compelling tastes: hot sauce, butter, brown sugar, and so on.) After this, set your first money muscle in the center of a large piece of heavy-duty, food-grade plastic wrap before coating it with your barbecue sauce. By coating the money muscle completely, you’re aiming to set it completely into the bark.
Tightly Wrapped and Steaming
Next, you’ll hot-hold this money muscle over 140°F (and we don’t mean with your bare hands), which is an internal heat that guarantees food safety. Taking your plastic wrap, tightly bind the meat enough to keep it hot — forming almost a seal over it. The steam should form some condensation on the interior, and the plastic-wrapped package shouldn’t leak anything. Once it’s nice and tight, roll it up nicely in aluminum foil. Here’s a pointer: the cut side on the money muscle should be facing up, because you want all that sauce to envelop all the top, where the bark is. Once this is finished, repeat these steps with the other money muscles.
Toweling Down Your Champion
To finish the wrapping process of your money muscles, it’s time to grab a towel — any large towel will do (fair warning, you’ll have to be comfortable with making it a “designated BBQ towel” from this day onward). Form a nice, tight bundle around the foil-wrapped money muscles to keep them incredibly warm while they’re in your cooler. Once you’re done, set the bundle aside. On that note, you’ll want to use a nice, clean cooler that's approximately the same size as your butts and your money muscles, because they're all going to go in there together.
Wrapping the Miscellaneous BBQ Pork
Just because the money muscles are your A-listers doesn’t mean the rest of your competition meat deserves second-class treatment. You’re going to give everything else from those pork butts the same five-star attention, with a slight difference: it’s going to take a little more work this time. Instead of jumping straight into it, you’ll need to study and nitpick your meat before you get straight to wrapping. But we know a few tricks to spare you some effort and precious time.
Save Yourself Some Effort
Now, when it comes to doing competition pork butts, one of the key things to remember is to only concentrate on what you think will go in the box. So, first and foremost, carefully take out the bone. Before setting it aside, check for any meat tucked away underneath that bone; those are some of the best pieces for the box. Now, that center section is great for home use, but you might notice that all the protein strands will be standing straight up — while the meat’s perfectly fine, that’s something that disqualifies it for use in a competition turn-in box.
Preening Your BBQ Pork Butts
Before adding that light layer of BBQ sauce, pull off any remnant fat, then examine the muscle for any dark patches. Judges aren’t crazy about them, so we’ll want to pull those right out. Once you’re satisfied, lightly coat the meat in your competition BBQ sauce before setting the pieces down in your holding pan. Notice how incredible that bark looks! If everything’s been going perfect so far, a delicious mahogany color will encrust the outer edges of your meat.
Let’s call some attention to the section right behind the money muscle on every pork butt. If you break it apart, you're going to notice some really interesting tubes. Tube meat like this is essentially sandwiched between two sections of fat. Cook any meat for 12 hours between two pieces of fat, and you’re going to wind up with some incredibly succulent pork! Pull that tube right out of there and remove any excess fat you find. Take your fingers and gently run them across the top to finish the job, then dab on that BBQ sauce before setting them in the holding pan with the rest.
Wrapping Those Pork Pieces
Once your bowl is loaded up, it’s time to start whisking. Blend this into a nice, consistent mixture before you add in the next big boost: apple juice (in small and manageable doses). This will be coated over the pork. Your target texture is a sticky base that’s not too runny: think sauce, not soup. Your competition pork should be submerged in a nice, delicious slather, not sitting in a puddle of gravy. The biggest factor in how much apple juice you’ll need is whatever you chose for fat content. And it can vary in how long it takes to whisk… but when it’s done, you’ll be standing over a big bowl bursting with flavor.
How to Rest Your Competition Pork
Right now, you’ll have two bundles of wrapped meat: the money muscles and the rest of the pork butts. It’s time to get these into your cooler, which will act as a hot box to securely keep the meat in that appropriate temperature zone for food safety as the meat rests. Seeing as the money muscles are always the priority, ensure that bundle goes in above the other. Let this meat rest for well over an hour before we get started on the home stretch.
Preparing the Competition Turn-In Box
Everything up until now — including injecting, seasoning, smoking, and slathering — comes down to this moment: building the final turn-in box. First, you’ll be taking out your bundle of money muscles and setting them aside, as they're always cut absolutely last. Where you’ll want to put your energy first is on the other bundle: those smoking-hot pork pieces. But before we get into it, you’ll learn that a little slather of sauce can really go a long way.
Prepping Your Preparation Space
When you’re prepping your turn-in box, you really want to make sure that everything stays nice and moist. How? Here’s a simple tip: brush your cutting board with extra BBQ sauce. Any piece that touches it will get another dose of that impactful sauce, which best guarantees that every bite comes out flavorful. To go a step further, double up on that cutting board impact by sprinkling a heaping of whatever BBQ rub you’re using over it, creating layers of scrumptious flavor.
Quickly Pick Those Pork Pieces
Moving through the final sorting means moving fairly quickly, as letting these pieces grow cold is the death of superstar competition BBQ. Now, the best picks (at least, from your “miscellaneous” bundle) will be the biggest bark portions at hand. And don’t be afraid to add a dab of sauce here or there to them, either. You want these staying nice and moist, and the sauce will help get you there. Remember, oxygen is the enemy of any BBQ turn-in box. Move efficiently and move quickly.
Judging What’s Judge-Worthy
On the huge pieces — of which you’ll undoubtedly have several — break those apart with your thumbs to split them between the judges. Chances are, these will be your showstopper selections; why let one judge hog those points from the others? Now, bear in mind in two things. Firstly, you want to split pieces last, as that staves off oxygen from the interior of the meat. Secondly, you want beautiful bark on everything in the box; if splitting a piece takes that bark, set the naked piece aside and keep that for yourself instead.
As you finish sorting through, the texture of some of the meat might have changed. Don’t be afraid to pull any newly sub-par pieces from your turn-in box; there’s no shame in trimming out the rougher pieces. Once you’re done — and you have a great selection of larger pieces and smaller pieces — grab that sheath of foil and cover up your miscellaneous chunks of pork before you get started on the money muscles. That’ll keep things nicely warm and moist as you get to work on the finale.
Slicing the Money Muscle
Time to cut the money muscles! Diva Q likes to lay them down on their side before she cuts them; this enforces stability on the cutting board — and she cannot understate the importance of a super-sharp knife. There are a few things you don’t want to do there: struggle with rough cuts or saw away at the meat. Competition judges demand consistency and perfection, and you’ll have invested a lot of work for nothing if you get to the final lap with dull equipment. No award worth bringing home is won without a sharp knife.
Staging Your BBQ Pork Competition Entry
Once the meat’s sliced and ready for action, it’s time to finally bring everything together. You should already know how many pieces your sanctioning body needs for their turn-in box submissions, and whether you can use garnish. But by this point, you’ve got a hill of beautiful pork, an open and empty turn-in box, and the pivotal last stretch before they call for final submissions.
Making Those First Cuts
Once it’s time to cut, we suggest first removing the end piece. (Everyone loves a good end piece, but you don’t want to risk catching a judge who dislikes a bite that comes off just a little too crispy.) Slice as evenly as possible — and all the way through the meat, to whatever piece count is allowed. (Six? Seven? Eight? Following these rules can make or break any point count.) Once you hit that other end piece, you know what to do. Another big tip here: while you're waiting to section out the other money muscles, always press the sliced ones back together; they’ll stay warmer and much more moist.
What Judges Want
These baseline rules will see you through any BBQ turn-in box.
It’s very important to position everything in a manner aesthetically pleasing to the eye. First impressions are key.
Sharp edges and pristine cuts on your meat pieces will push the points in your favor. Keep that meat neat!
If the opposite side of a piece looks better, don’t be afraid to flip it around if it remains consistent. A little goes a long way.
Have a treasure trove of great money muscle? Consider refining leftovers into sharper chunks. Fill out that box!
With those angles covered, aim for the most tender pieces of pork chunks in the box as possible. Here’s a suggestion from Diva Q: “If I can’t decide which one of two pieces are more tender… I close my eyes and dab them with my fingers! It’s so easy.” Swap out any tougher, rougher pieces as you see fit with the extras left over.
Last Stop for Seasoning
For the final seasoning, dab on a little extra BBQ sauce as needed. Give the pork pieces a healthy spritz of spray to give that last little glistening burst, then add a little more flavor with the BBQ rub. This is your last pinch of BBQ insurance before the turn-in box leaves your hands and goes to the judges; it’ll guarantee your best foot forward with those point cards. As you grow more confident as a competition barbecuer you’ll, of course, fall into a style and rhythm that fits your needs best.
Packing Up Your Masterpiece
Now it’s time to box the pork. So, we always start in different directions — a good baseline might be to form a central diagonal. For this box, Diva Q laid down six beautiful slices of trimmed money muscle with beautiful bark; after flipping around a piece that didn’t meet her standards, she sliced the rest of the money muscle into smaller chunks and fanned them out from either side of the main column, tucked juicy pork pieces into opposing corners, and then gave the entire spread a light dabbing of BBQ sauce. With one last round of room-temperature spray, her work resulted in a varietal box with a great spread of impeccable BBQ meat and a refreshened texture across the whole box.
…And that’s it! Once your box is packed up and carefully presented, you’re done. Simply follow your competition’s rules for turning in the selection, head back to your station, and begin the mop-up process with a crisp drink. Take stock of what you’ve learned and put a pin in it for next time as you soak up your downtime. After all, those point values won’t be coming out for a couple of hours!
For some parting thoughts, we’ll let Diva Q take a crack at how she handles the differing standards across the many regions she competes in. “Here’s the thing: there are so many states, and you've got different pockets of judges in each of those. But I think, what it comes down to is that, if you just cook really good, solid food — and, you don't offend anybody — you're going to have great results. You know, you've got to nail the tenderness. You've gotta nail that wood-fired goodness.”
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