6 Tips for Competing in Your First BBQ Competition

6 Tips for Competing in Your First BBQ Competition

Nothing can fully prepare you for your first BBQ competition. Any cooking competition is tough, but it’s even tougher when you’re dealing with the unpredictability of fire.


Local BBQ enthusiast Sam Pargeter and his five friends recently participated in their first BBQ competition and smashed it. As six amateur grillers with no more professional catering experience between them than one ex-pub pizza chef, their result was quite incredible. So, we thought we’d share their success and their tips for other competition first-timers.


The competition took place at American SpeedFest, a UK celebration of American cars, food, and culture. Over two days, they competed in six rounds that featured four proteins, with 16 judges assessing their dishes for appearance, taste and technique. The verdict: they came in second place for their beef, third for their chicken, and fifth place overall. No mean feat for their first competition, especially when they were up against some of the best teams in the country.


We spoke to Sam, who headed up the team, about what went well and what could have gone better. Here’s what they learned:

1. Simple is Best

The main thing that judges are looking for is a perfectly cooked centrepiece. Keeping it simple, not overcomplicating the dishes with too many elements, and concentrating on the quality of the meat are the most important things. The sides are much less important than the centrepiece — but never put something forward that you’re not happy with; it’s better to leave it behind.


2. Plan, Plan, Plan

They expected the competition to be a relaxing couple of days spent by the BBQ, beer in hand, but it was quite the opposite. With so many dishes to work on, and needing to present them collectively as a platter, thorough time-stamped planning was essential to make things go smoothly.


One thing the team wished they did differently was to prepare rubs and sauces ahead of the day. It would have freed up a lot of precious time that could have been better spent elsewhere during the competition.


3. Consistency is Key

One of the biggest saviours of the day, they realised, was having equipment like the Signals and Billows to let them know everything that was going on inside the BBQ without having to open it. Lifting the lid is often associated with heat loss, but in fact, it adds fuel to the fire, making the temperature shoot up.


Recovering from an increase in pit temperature can take a significant amount of time, especially when you’re racing against the clock, so monitoring your temperatures and keeping that lid closed is a must.



4. Be Adaptable

Grilling is an unpredictable sport; you never know what might happen. The team came up against some trouble when they realised their beef cheeks had gone in too late and weren’t going to be ready to go into their birria tacos in time. Luckily, they realised they could steal a beef short rib from one of their other dishes instead, saving the day.



It wasn’t an outcome they could have pre-planned for, but how they responded mattered, because it was this that ensured they still bagged second place. A much better tactic, however, is cooking the meat earlier than neccessary. Letting your meat rest is critical. And, if stored correctly, will stay warm for a long time. If they had their beef cheeks wrapped and ready to go, they wouldn’t have needed to pinch a rib from their other dish.


5. Strategise Your Space

The two days were long, tiring and hectic. Something you will really appreciate is having a well-thought-out space that functions well and is set up for every scenario. One of the things the team wasn’t prepared for was needing shelter. Another was not having tall enough tables which quickly became uncomfortable on their backs. They also wished they had prepared a washing-up station to make cleaning up more organised.


Thankfully, these things didn’t impact their result, but they can really make a difference to stress-levels and comfort, allowing for a smoother and more enjoyable competition experience.


6. Cook to Temperature

It goes without saying that Thermapen thermometers were heavily involved in every cook. One event over the competition highlighted precisely why cooking to temperature is essential. The team cooked four beef short ribs — all were roughly the same size, starting temperature, and cooked on the same grill. Yet two reached temperature an incredible four hours earlier than the others.


Without thermometers like the Smoke and Signals, the ribs would have been tough. Even the Thermapen plays an essential role in low and slow cooks like ribs, being the perfect tool to check the tenderness. BBQ lovers often use the Thermapen to see if dishes “probe like butter”.


The Takeaway:


A simple, well-strategised, and consistent plan was the biggest secret to the team’s success. Prioritise meat quality over all else, but make sure to think about your pairings and presentation as a whole, too. Plan thoroughly, but be prepared to think fast when things inevitably don’t go to plan. Don’t forget to make your set-up comfortable and organised to help things go more smoothly.


And as always, make sure to have reliable thermometers on hand to keep track of everything. As long as you know your temperatures, you know when your food is perfect. Alongside the Signals, Smoke and DOT, the Thermapen ONE was involved in every dish. Even for low and slow meats, the Thermapen is the perfect tool for checking the tenderness. “Probes like butter” might not specifically appear on the list of judges' requirements, but it’s definitely what they’re looking for.


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