Behind the Scenes of Competition Barbecue with Champion Pitmaster Shannon Turner | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Behind the Scenes of Competition Barbecue with Champion Pitmaster Shannon Turner 

Shannon Turner

Photo by Caitlin Penna

Shannon Turner

The incoming text from Shannon Turner reads, "We are in spot 29—2 or 3 from the start of the big rigs. We have a Raptor."

I walk down Salem Street, which has been blocked off for Apex's annual Peak City Pig Fest, a Kansas City Barbeque Society-sanctioned competition. Behind The Promenade I spy a row of RVs, including one emblazoned with the word "Raptor."

When I see the smoker set up next to it, I know I'm in the right place. Turner introduces herself, and after she sees me gawking at the equipment, explains that it's a stick smoker that weighs twelve hundred pounds. I see why the RV—and smoker's trailer in tow—are necessary. Plus, competition barbecue, which requires monitoring the smoker's temperature overnight, takes Turner all over the East Coast, so it makes sense she'd sleep in something that could pass for a tour bus.

Turner and her husband Brian make up the competition barbecue team Muttley Crew BBQ, named after their five dogs. Technically, anyone with a cooker that cooks meat low and slow can call themselves a pitmaster. But there's more to being a pitmaster than throwing a rack of ribs on the grill.

"[The pitmaster] is the person who's a leader," Turner explains. "It's the person who makes the major decisions, the person deciding which meat goes into the box to go in front of the judges."

In competition barbecue, teams submit entries for four categories: chicken, pork ribs, pork, and beef brisket. The pitmaster must be able to cook several kinds of meat at once using multiple techniques, control the smoker's temperature (Turner's is between 275 and 300 degrees), and make the food taste and look as good as possible.

"This is a whole new ball game. We use brines, we use rubs, we use injections. We have [gadgets] to monitor the temperature," Turner says. "I don't know how much butter we go through; it's a lot."

Turner starts by filling the smoker's fuel box with charcoal and then continuously feeds in wood—first hickory, to imbue pork butt and brisket with a strong smoky flavor, then applewood, which imparts a mild, fruity smoke flavor to chicken and ribs.

Even the sauces aren't the typical bottled variety. Turner orders several pro-grade sauces—which are richer and glossier—and combines them into her signature sauce, heavy on the tomato with a vinegar kicker.

Once the meat has cooked, Turner tastes, inspects, and selects samples to deliver to the judges. Every half-hour within a two-hour block, competitors have a ten-minute window to turn in meat using an insulated box.

KCBS-certified judges critique barbecue based on presentation, taste, and tenderness. For chicken, Turner adds rubs and sauces to give drumsticks a sweet-heat flavor, but she's careful not to mask the flavor of the meat. And the chicken can't look too juicy, lest the judges think it's undercooked.

For ribs, Turner looks for a "clean bite," so the meat must easily pull away from the bone but not come off completely.

For pork, Turner slices or chops meat from "the money muscle"­—nicknamed for its reputation for winning competitions and prize money—then adds a finishing rub or sauce.

For brisket, Turner decides whether she wants to turn in burnt ends or slices; perfectly tender slices drape over her finger without breaking. To boost its visual appeal, she'll add black pepper, a finishing rub, or drippings.

Cooking award-winning barbecue takes practice. Muttley Crew has participated in over a hundred competitions, but the Turners didn't win their first Grand Championship until last year, around their seventy-fifth effort. Then they won two more, along with a few Grand Reserve Championships (second place overall), and placed in individual categories in multiple contests. These results helped qualify Turner for the 2017 Cowboy Charcoal Fire & Ice championship, which crowns the best female pitmaster among the ten highest-ranking KCBS female-led teams.

To determine the winner, fifty percent of competitors' scores come from a KCBS contest in which the pitmasters cook with their teams, while the other fifty percent come from a separate contest between the women (Turner recruited her sister to help).

Turner presented a luxe take on steak and potatoes—grilled Wagyu filet mignon topped with a blue-cheese-garlic-chive compound butter, served with grilled asparagus and Hasselback potatoes drizzled with red pepper jelly. Along with Muttley Crew's solid performance, the dish crowned Turner the 2017 Fire & Ice Champion.

The necessity of gender-specific competitions is oft-debated, and I wonder what Turner thinks about it in the context of competition barbecue. Turner credits contests like Fire & Ice for bringing awareness to the fact that female pitmasters exist.

"Before, you may have walked through a contest and not realized that that woman is a pitmaster. Because typically, they're not all-women teams. You might have some, but for the most part, it's men and women."

Turner insists that regardless of the designated pitmaster's gender, competition barbecue is a team sport. But when Muttley Crew places in a competition, she's more likely to hear her husband's name called. Because she's a woman, people still don't assume that she's a pitmaster.

"I think people may assume, right or wrong, that if you're first starting out and you're a woman pitmaster, they'll go, 'Ohhh, we'll see how this works out,'" Turner says. "There's a lot of strong women out there who can really work a pit and get some good food turned in and they're winning contests. And those women are getting that respect."

Though Muttley Crew didn't win the Grand Championship at Peak City Pig Fest, Turner was happy to place second in chicken, third in ribs, and sixth overall out of forty-four teams.

Come Monday morning, when Turner returns to her day job, she's her office MVP. By the time she walks in, her coworkers have already placed dibs on leftovers.


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