There is a secret ingredient for really good barbecue. The kind that wins competitions. The kind that is hard to replicate in a restaurant.
Good, competition-worthy barbecue is special. No small amount of effort goes into it. A mother might—might—fuss more over a newborn. She might also get more sleep.
It is difficult to smoke meat commercially with the same level of quality as a competition. Good barbecue takes time, a luxury many restaurants can’t afford, says Lowell Wilhite, 68, a certified master judge with the Kansas City Barbeque Society, or KCBS for short.
“You gotta put some love into it to make it good,” he says. “You gotta do it with care and love or else don’t bother with it.”
Originally from Jefferson City, Missouri, Wilhite is a retired IT project manager who has lived in Omaha since the early 1970s. He worked for 22 years at Mutual of Omaha before joining First Data, then closed out his career as a project consultant for firms like eBay, PayPal, and Ralph Lauren.
He has been deeply involved in the Omaha barbecue scene for nearly as long, joining the Greater Omaha Barbeque Society shortly after its founding. He went on to serve as a board member, president, and treasurer.
In 1998, Wilhite qualified as a certified barbecue judge, and in 2013 qualified as a master certified judge for KCBS, the world’s largest and most widely known barbecue organization. Certification requires specific training and practical experience as a cook and competitor. He knows firsthand how difficult it can be to make magic with the notoriously persnickety brisket.
“I learned that it’s a lot of work and a lot of money,” Wilhite says. “It’s a lot easier to judge,” he adds with a laugh.
Equipment, time, and resources are certainly important, but elevating decent barbecue into something special requires more.
What else—if not love—can compel someone to spend 12-14 hours carefully stoking and maintaining a slow and low burn of hot smoke? Missing pre-dawn sleep in the darkest hours to nurture dimly lit embers that couldn’t warm a cup of coffee? All for what? Smoke-flavored meat?
No matter how mouth-watering, tender, and delicious it may be, properly cooked barbecue isn’t as forgiving as grilling burgers and brats. There’s a reason most people order pizza for the big-game
Cooking a brisket? That takes time and next-level patience.
“I have cooked a brisket in eight hours…but I don’t like to do it that fast,” Wilhite says.
As for sauce? Don’t go there.
Wilhite has judged 51 KCBS-sanctioned competitions over the years, and the quickest way to the wrong side of one of his pet peeves is spending undue focus on sauce. The meat is supposed to be the star—sauce is an afterthought.
The most common mistake he sees is a lack of patience. Patience is the key virtue for barbecuing, which is not to be mistaken for grilling.
Grilling involves searing heat directly applied to steaks and burgers for quick—and delicious—cooking. Barbecue, however, is about taking the toughest cuts of meat and turning them into morsels of joy with low heat and excruciatingly long cooking times.
In fact, barbecue often means indirect heat, where the heat from wood smoke simultaneously flavors and gently cooks the meat to divine tenderness. Ideal temperatures range between 200- and 250-degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, cooking ribs, a pork shoulder, or a brisket is an all-day affair—or all night if noon is the targeted feast time.
“225 is the minimum I cook at,” Wilhite says. “At 225 you’re safe. That’s low and slow enough.”
There are many good resources for the curious and those looking to raise their outdoor cooking game with the art of low and slow, including specialized stores and websites. They offer gear, equipment, and expertise.
Even better, attend a barbecue competition. Most cooks and judges enjoy chatting up folks who want to learn, Wilhite says.
There are worse ways to spend a weekend.
“What’s better than sitting around, smelling barbecue smoke, and drinking beer?” he says. “It can’t be all bad.”
Visit gobs.org for more information.
This article first appeared in the June 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.