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If you ever get the chance, go to a barbecue competition and watch the pitmasters at work.

As you observe the majority of the competitors, you will see a common thread of disposition and personality type at work. You will find the pitmasters calm, focused, determined, engaged, and immersed in their craft.

There is little loss of movement, and for the most part, a serene and composed atmosphere pervades over the competition grounds. Over many smoking efforts and trial and error, these competitors have learned that chaos and turmoil will not win competitions.

Below is a list of common endeavors and characteristics backyard pitmasters can learn from competition barbecuers to win at their own barbecue pursuits.

1. Organization sets the tempo for the day 

When you watch a competition pitmaster at work, you will immediately notice one vital aspect. They are very organized.

Everything is in its place and within easy reach. Organization is important for maximum efficiency (read: lack of chaos and turmoil). Follow the example of these pitmasters: set your smoker in the shade or have an umbrella, and have a table to work on near your smoker.

Then, gather all your tools and necessities and place them on your work table. The list should include your chimney, tongs, spatula, grill brush, spray bottle, aluminum drip pan, meat thermometer, bowl for soaking your wood chunks, lump charcoal, wood chunks for smoking, and anything else you would like to add to make your smoking life easier.

Don’t forget to have a hose nearby to douse any unexpected mishaps.

2. Have a game plan and stick to it

After organization, what is the second most important aspect to efficiency and productivity?

Competition pitmasters always have a game plan! When are we going to start the fire? When does the meat go on? What time are we shooting for to pull the meat off?

What is my job? What is your job? Where’s the wood? You forgot to bring it? (It happens!)

After your own barbecue efforts and trial and error, you will start to develop and formulate a barbecue strategy and game plan that works for you.

It’s best to stick to that game plan. If you follow a step-by-step, written-down game plan that works best for you, you can minimize (or completely remove) the stress and chaos. So be organized, have a written checklist of your game plan, chill, and stay calm.

3. “Be like a duck; stay calm on the surface but paddle like heck underneath!”

Competition pitmasters stay focused, have patience, and allow the smoke to do its work. Unlike grilling, you can’t hurry up the smoking process. With smoking, you can’t turn up the gas on the grill or throw more charcoal on the fire.

The secret to great tasting smoked meats is allowing the time for the offset smoke to gradually flow over the meat.

If the recipe says it will take 4 hours to smoke that 7-pound, 2 bone-in prime rib, then it will take 4 hours. You can’t change that. So settle in, have a cold beverage, enjoy the smoking process, stay calm, focused, and patient, but paddle like heck!

4. Practice, Practice, Practice

Did I mention practice? And take notes.

Competition pitmasters are meticulous and dedicated to practicing their barbecuing as much as possible and experimenting with new or improved techniques at home.

And a serious competitor will carry a notebook around with them to take notes on temperature, time, equipment needs, types of wood to use, sauce improvements, and the list goes on and on.

You can do the same each time you barbecue by practicing what you know already, trying and learning new techniques, observing the changes, good and bad, and taking notes.

This way when you fire up your barbecue the next time, you have a written record of your past efforts to lean on and learn from.

5. The correct size of the fire and how much smoke

This is an important skill to watch and learn from competition pitmasters. They have learned to manage their fire and, thus, the amount of smoke correctly.

The tendency is to have too big of a fire, creating a ton of heat and producing a ton of smoke at the same time. This is unnecessary.

When you get the chance to observe a competition pitmaster, you will notice that his fire is small and always under control. When he adds wood to the fire, it is only in small increments and small chunks.

You are not creating a bonfire or a campfire here. So controlling a minimum fire and creating moderate smoke is the key to successfully smoked and fabulous tasting meat.

6. Checking on the meat

DON’T DO IT! Don’t lift the lid to look at the meat. Your meat is doing just fine, bathing in the luscious smoke you worked so hard to create.

Every time you open your smoker, the temperature plummets, the smoke escapes, and it takes too much time to bring it back to temperature. A seasoned barbecue competitor knows in his mind’s eye what the meat looks like at any given time. He doesn’t peak. Neither should you.

7. Maintaining the temperature

Competitive pitmasters usually have two types of meat to smoke that take a very long time: pork and brisket. These can take anywhere from 12 hours up to 18 hours. So, maintaining a constant temperature is very critical.

Allowing your temperature to rise too much will “cook” and not smoke your meat, and allowing the temperature to drop too much will slow down the smoke intensity and smoking time considerably. So learn from the competition pitmasters and manage your firebox to maintain a constant temperature as much as possible by controlling the fire.

Don’t add too much fuel at one time, thus increasing the temperature, and don’t allow the fire to burn too low or, heaven forbid, burn out completely. It’s a very fine line between heat, smoke, and time. Learning this is a process of trial and error, but we have our barbecue competitors to look up to, learn from, and emulate.

8. Be sure to have fun

This could be the most important lesson to learn from a competitive pitmaster. These guys are very serious about their task, as it often can mean an increase (or decrease) in their livelihoods.

But as you walk through the barbecue competition grounds, you will notice one thing in particular: everybody seems to be having a good time. Yes, they look tired, and like they’re lacking in much-needed sleep, but there is also an atmosphere of contentment, accomplishment, camaraderie, and enjoyment, with ample grins all around.

Let’s learn from them, and let this be us! Creating good barbecue takes time, effort, and focus, but enjoying the process, having fun, and tasting the rewards of your hard-earned efforts makes it all worthwhile. So enjoy the process and your well-deserved accomplishments.

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About Keith Morrison

Chef Keith has been a cook, restaurateur, and food writer for nearly 50 years. Since graduating of culinary school, Keith has completed classes at the world famous Le Cordon Bleu Paris, and has been a chef, manager, owner, consultant and recipe developer for dozens of restaurants and catering companies.

One of Keith's many cooking loves is BBQ in general and the Offset Smoker in particular. Keith has participated in competition BBQ for many years.

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