I feel the first thing that I must do here is reiterate that I am not a competition expert, I have never won a Grand or Reserve Championship in a contest. That being said, I do feel that I am able to comment on the basics for turn-in boxes for KCBS contests. I have done extensive research and continually strive to expand my knowledge on the topic. Building a decent box takes practice and patience. I again stress the importance of taking a class from a proven Champion and or hooking up with a team that has been on the circuit for a while to get some hands on training. Even after taking one or both of these suggested paths, you still should practice on your own before laying down cash money in the form of an entrance fee.
What I plan to do here is give you the basics of box building, as I know it. You can then take this information along with your other accumulated knowledge and move forward. I am not going to spend time here pretending that I can predict which way that the judges want to see each meat that you turn in. Whether you should slice, shred, or pull your pork. Chicken, breasts or thighs. These decisions should made by you and your teammates before it is time to make the box. I will explain what I feel constitutes a decent looking box and you can go from there.
For practice, get a stack of the containers used in a contest. The boxes themselves will be discussed later in this article. They are available at restaurant supply stores or you could ask your local carry out shop if they use a similar box and offer to buy a few from them. After assembling the box, they can be cleaned, washed and used again. After all, we are just practicing here.
Before you construct your first box, I think there are a couple of things that you should know. The total score given to each competitor consists of three categories, appearance, taste, and tenderness. Scores by each judge are given in whole numbers between 9 & 1. The scores for each category are weighted. Appearance scores are multiplied by 0.5714, thus making it the least weighted of the three. This fact does not diminish the importance of constructing the best box possible. In effect, appearance is not quite 1/3 of your score, but it is very important. My thinking here is, you may not be able to cook as good as the next guy, but there is absolutely no reason why your box can’t be as good or better than his. With almost a third of the points up for grabs here, lets work to get the best-looking box that we can.
Appearance is the first of three criteria used by the judges to evaluate your turn-in. The table Captain opens the box, then, presents it to the table of six judges that will evaluate your product. The Captain will hold the box open, walk it along in front of the judges, and allow all six to take a look. The judges will then mark their cards with the score for appearance. This is done before anything is removed from the box to be tasted. Once each judge records the appearance score, the next step begins. The judge cannot go back and change a score once recorded.
Each judge will first score all the samples for appearance of the meat. The turn-in containers will then be passed around the table and each judge will place a sample from each of the containers in the appropriate box on the judging mat.
The contest organizer provides the container. It is approximately 9”x 9” in size and is made of styrofoam. It is hinged in the back and has a self clipping fastener in the front. Be sure to identity the top and bottom before you do anything. The boxes are given out at the cooks meeting. There is a number attached to the box. A number should be on each box that has been provided for each category that you will enter. The number should be the same for each of your boxes, do not remove this number or let it become lost. The judges will need it to identify the box you hand in as yours. That is, of course, providing you WANT the judges to know what box is yours!
Entries will be submitted in an approved KCBS numbered container, provided by the contest organizer. The number must be on top of the container at turn-in. The container shall not be marked in anyway so as to make the container unique or identifiable. Aluminum foil, toothpicks, skewers, foreign material, and/or stuffing is prohibited in the container. (Marked entries will receive a one (1) in all criteria from all Judges).
Box building begins before you even arrive at the contest site. You must decide if you will use a garnish in your box and if so, which will it be. Your choices for garnish are limited by KCBS rules.
Garnish is optional. If used, it is limited to chopped, sliced, shredded or whole leaves of fresh green lettuce, curly parsley, flat leaf parsley and/or cilantro. Kale, endive, red tipped lettuce, lettuce cores and other vegetation are prohibited. (Improper garnish shall receive a score of one (1) on Appearance).
When practicing, try different types of greens. See which ones you prefer to work with, what looks better with your product. What looks good to YOU. Go onto the internet and look at boxes that others have prepared. See what methods they have used and what the end product looks like. Once you have an idea of how you want your box to look, you can move on to building the box.
If you are going to use a garnish, it’s a good idea to pick it up before you arrive at the contest venue. While shopping for your garnish, try and pick the best looking you can find. Don’t be afraid to ask the produce man to take a look in the back to see if there is anything fresher available. I would suggest getting a little more than you think you will need in the event that some is lost or damaged before it is used.
Once you leave the store, care must be taken in the transportation of the material. If it is hot, a cooler is a good idea to have on hand already loaded with ice. Nothing wilts greens faster than hot humid summer air. After the greens are placed into the cooler, be sure to check on them from time to time. Both to make sure you have enough ice, and also to make sure they are not drowning in ice water.
Keep a check on the material throughout the weekend to be sure when you go into the cooler to use the garnish that it looks similar to the product you picked up in the store. It is my personal opinion that garnish improves the look of the box, but again, it is optional.
While the use of garnish is sometimes a hot topic among BBQ cooks, one thing that most will agree on, if you are going to use garnish, it is a good idea to prepare your boxes ahead of time. Start early enough that you can take your time and do a thorough job. Wash the greens first. Then be sure to dry them so you do not get a build up of water inside the box. Separate the greens so you can see what you have to work with.
As you begin to place the greens in the box try and visualize what the box will look like when the meat is added. Remember, the garnish is meant to accent your turn-in product, do not let the greens over power the box. In other words, don’t over do it. Another thing to keep in mind at this time is balance. Try and balance the look of the garnish from top to bottom, side to side. Work to get all of the edges looking similar so that the eye is not pulled to one edge or the other.
Too much garnish, or lumped too much to one side, in my opinion pulls the eye away from your product. This can be avoided by trying to BALANCE the garnish. Think of it as a framing of your product.
Once you have the garnish in place, spread a wet paper towel over the greens, close the lid and place the box gently back into the cooler until needed. Again, make sure to stay away from any standing ice water in the bottom of the cooler. Prepare all of the boxes that you will need. Any unused greens should be placed into their original wrappings then returned to the cooler. Do not throw them away.
Now that you have the boxes ready to go, you can sit back and relax….yea right! A few more things to keep in mind before you actually start to place your goods into the boxes
Meat shall not be sculptured, branded or presented in a way to make it identifiable. Rosettes of meat slices are not allowed. (Violations of this rule will be scored a one (1) on all criteria by all six judges.)
Sauce is optional. If used, it shall be applied directly to the meat and not be pooled or puddled in the container. No side sauce containers will be permitted in the turn-in container. Chunky sauce will be allowed. Chunks are to be no larger than a fine dice. Sauce violations shall receive a score of one (1) on Appearance.
To sauce or not to sauce. This is another hot topic of discussion. It is a decision that should be made well in advance of turn-in morning. If you decide to sauce, make sure that you do not overdo it as to create puddling or pooling. Both of which will get you a score of one. Here, number one is not good.
Be sure to stay away from any presentation or preparation of your product that could be construed as marking. As mentioned above. Use common sense and keep in mind what the boxes look like you have examined on the internet. Again, it is not a good idea to try something that is experimental at your first contest.
One of the most important items that I will stress here is to be sure that you have met the criteria for serving portions for the product that you are going to put into your box. Below is the wording from the KCBS judges manual.
Each contestant must submit at least six (6) separated and identifiable (visible) portions of meat in a container. Chicken, pork and brisket may be submitted chopped, pulled, sliced, or diced as the cook sees fit, as long as there is enough for six (6) judges. Ribs shall be turned in bone-in. Judges may not cut, slice, or shake apart to separate pieces. If there is not enough meat for each judge to sample, the shorted judge(s) will score a one (1) on all criteria, and the judges having samples will change the Appearance score to one (1).
The short explanation here is each judge must be able to remove enough for a sample from the box without struggling to separate individual pieces. If you turn in shredded, pulled or chopped, be sure you have enough for six people to get a sample. Again, this is simple, yet seems to occur somewhat frequently. Don’t let it happen to you.
The first thing you must do is select what will be placed into the box. Look at the selection of meat you have cooked. Try and select the best looking pieces, don’t forget to taste them as well. Once you have determined what tastes and looks best, you can begin to think about getting the product into your box. If you haven’t already, put on your latex gloves before handling the meat.
If you are doing chicken pieces, try and pick six similar in size if possible. For ribs, it is a good idea to select six ribs from the same rack. The same with slices of brisket or pork, uniformity is what you should be after.
When the time comes in the contest to begin to load the boxes, you should already have an idea from your practice sessions of how you want the product to look. One slight variable here is the final size of the individual pieces to be placed into the box. This will be the most important factor when deciding how much to place into your box.
I like to have a clean area in which to arrange the items you are going to place. Look at each piece and arrange them, on the work surface, as you would place them into the box. Your box is still in the cooler and this way as you change and arrange the food you are not messing up your carefully placed garnish. Try to arrange the items to be balanced and pleasing to the eye. You do not want to draw attention to any one spot. Remember, this is the judges first look at your entry. I think its human nature whether a judge will admit it or not, if something looks “good”, it has a much better chance of tasting good. (again, my opinion)
Once you have the items arranged on the work area as you would place them in your box, remove a box from the cooler and place it on a clean surface next to your work area. Open the lid away from you so that you know the top and bottom of the box. Carefully transfer the items from the work surface to the box, arranging them just as they were on the table.
Now that the items are loaded in the box they way you want them, stand back and look the entire scene over. You may need to cut a few small pieces of your left over garnish to use as fillers. Carefully fill in any area that may be distracting in order to achieve a more balanced look to the box.
Look at the product in the box, does it appear straight, level, orderly? All factors, that in my opinion can be distracting to the judges. Sometimes you can use additional garnish inserted underneath a piece of meat in order to raise it up to make it level with the others. Remember, nothing but the product and the garnish can be in the box.
After everything is where you want it, it is time to concentrate on the appearance of the meat. Are there any fingerprints or smudges in the sauce? Look for garnish stuck to a piece of meat that may be out of place. Does your product look moist enough? Will the judges be anxious to grab a piece?
Use a small sauce brush to take out any blemishes in the sauce that resulted from the movement into the box. Just be sure that you do not leave brush marks or even worse, bristles behind. If your meat looks dry, perhaps a brush of thinned out sauce or a spritz of apple juice.
Once you are completely satisfied with the look of the meat, move you eyes outward and examine the garnish. Look again for uniformity. Check to see if you have left any smudges of sauce on the leaves. Use a paper towel to dab off any sauce you might find where it does not belong. Look the sides and lid of the box over, checking for sauce spots.
Here it’s a good idea to have a team mate or two take a look. What do they think? Do they see anything that needs attention? Maybe they will pick up a smudge that you missed, or a brush mark, the more eyes the better.
Now is a good time to take a picture of the box. Take more than one so you will have something you can use. Stand over the box and shoot down, getting as close as possible. These photos will be very helpful to you after the contest is over when you evaluate your overall performance. They are also helpful to determine if you would like to make changes.
If you are satisfied and if there is time, close the lid and walk away for a minute. Checking to make sure the garnish does not obstruct the closing of the box. Walk back and open the box for a fresh look, once you are sure, close her up and head to the judges table.
Be very careful during the transportation to the judges table. If there are large crowds at the contest, you may want to have someone walk ahead of the person carrying the box to act as a blocker and assure that no one walks into your precious cargo. Preparation, precaution and planning cannot be stressed enough here. Good luck and most importantly, have fun!