Learn the (true) art of southern-style barbecue with a Kansas City pro

Hannah Koelmeyer
14 January, 2015

Legendary pitmaster Jim Johnson offers the lowdown on cooking competition-grade southern-style barbecue in your backyard.

Jim Johnson is a man with a serious passion for barbecue. Ask him a question and his responses are expansive and eloquent, spoken with the offhand confidence of someone who could talk for hours on the subject without scratching the surface of his knowledge.

I chatted to Jim and his wife Becky via Skype from their home in Evansville, Indiana. They're due visit to Australia in a few weeks for the Melbourne Barbecue Festival, where Jim will be judging. Americans have been cooking low’n’slow forever. It’s really only in the past few years that the rest of the world has caught on – and now that they have, the global appetite for barbecue is seemingly insatiable.

Jim puts this down simply to television and the internet making it more accessible.  “I mean, you’re a thousand miles away and here we are talking about barbecue.” Jim and Becky teach classes all over the world (with classes upcoming in Australia and Italy), arming locals with all they need to know to produce southern-style fare at home, and generally spreading the good word about barbecue.

Competition cooking

Jim is a Kansas City Barbecue Society master barbecue teacher, and highly successful pitmaster, with 76 Grand Championship wins over a 28-year career. Competition-grade barbecue is a slightly different beast to what you would find at your local joint ­– competition generally allows for pulling out all of the stops, often going to lengths that just wouldn’t be practical (or economically viable) for anyone running a restaurant.

A judge will generally only taste two bites of competition barbecue, “so you have to look at ways of delivering that wow-factor straight away,” says Jim. It’s a matter of using as many flavour enhancers as possible (and we’re not talking about 621 here), while maintaining a perfect balance, with no one ingredient slipping to the fore: “You don’t want to bite into something and think that, oh, that tastes like a whole lot of black pepper.”

“One of the biggest problems that people have is that they want to cook too hot.” 225°F (around 107°C) is the magic number.

Creating a competition-winning flavour profile is about building. First you might marinate your meat for 24 hours, then you’d coat with a dry rub, using mustard to make it stick (the vinegar component of mustard will also help tenderise your meat), smoke for 10 or so hours using fruit wood such as apple or peach for a nice soft, flavoured smoke. Remove halfway through the smoking process to coat with barbecue sauce and another layer of dry rub (Jim uses orange peel in his rubs because citrus opens the tastebuds). Along the way, you might inject your meat with a seasoned brine to maintain the moisture levels within the smoker. Each new addition of flavour is meant to build up the profile, a bit like the layers of colour in an oil painting.  

There are strict rules in competition, so I ask Jim if there is any room for innovation.  “We do have a set of parameters but we’re always looking to improve within those parameters.”He tells me that there is now a real focus on the quality and freshness of ingredients, with teams seeking out organic herbs and establishing relationships with breeders to ensure their meat is first class. 

Which meat?

Jim, like most in the US, favours beef and pork. When we speak, he and Becky are preparing to cook for friends who are coming over to watch a big college National Championship football game, and their menu includes 1-inch centre-cut bone-in pork chops and bone-in rib-eye steaks, with homemade link sausages as an appetiser, and green beans, corn, and pretzel rolls to accompany.

I ask Jim about the scarcity of lamb on American menus.  “Most of the lamb we have here is imported from Australia, so it’s expensive,” he says. He doesn’t have a good reason for why it’s not farmed locally, but the Johnsons do eat lamb occasionally (although mutton is more commonly available). Jim has been known to smoke a lamb shoulder or two in his time, shredding it to serve, like pulled pork.

Jim and Becky are keen to discover what Australian food is all about. Our traditional style of barbecuing is “grilling” to Americans. “You cook some steaks on there, some hamburgers on there, some lamb. That’s what we think of when we think of Australian barbecue.” Becky especially is excited about our lamb.

They also demand to know what grub worms are (supposedly one of  Australia’s top 40 foods). I assure them that they’re unlikely to find grub worms on menus, but that Tim Tams (also on their list) are definitely safe to eat.

Starting out

For the novice barbecue cook not wanting to splash out on specific equipment, Jim suggests that any kettle-shaped unit such as a Weber, is a fine place to start – something with a fire at the bottom, a place to put a water pan and a grill at the top for your meat. The kettle shape allows for convection, keeping the moisture-laden smoke billowing around your meat like a cloud. 

Constant low temperature is key to juicy meat. “One of the biggest problems that people have is that they want to cook too hot.” 225°F (around 107°C) is the magic number. Once you get too hot, your smoke can turn acrid and the meat will dry out and overcook.

Jim’s competition pulled pork

A normal Boston butt [pork shoulder] should weigh approximately 8 pounds (3.6 kg). Trim any excess fat from the exterior of the butt.

Use an oil to coat the butt ­– olive oil, vegetable oil, canola oil, etc. Then put a moderate coating of dry rub all over the butt covering the entire piece of meat.

Put the butt on a smoker at 225°F (107°C).

You will want to smoke this butt for approximately 10 hours. Total time depends on how well you maintain 225°F (107°C). You will want to cook this butt fat-side down.

Smoke the butt approximately 4–5 hours or until it has reached a dark mahogany color but not turning black. Take the butt off the smoker.

Tear a nice long piece of aluminium foil, long enough to cover the entire butt. I also double wrap my butts with foil.

Lay the foil out on the table and transfer the butt from the smoker to the middle of the foil. You will then add another layer of dry rub along with covering the entire top half of the butt with BBQ sauce. The sauce should be thin enough to spread easily and not just puddle up.

Wrap the butt back up in foil and put back on smoker to continue cooking at 225°F (107°C) for another 4–5 hours.

You want an internal temperature of 175°F (80°C). for the meat to pull properly. I personally cook to 180°F (82°C) and the take the butt off the smoker and let it rest with the foil open. This allows the bark to crisp back up instead of being mushy and makes certain the meat will pull free and clear of the blade bone.

Remember the judges like the bark and pink meat, do not give them grey meat. I also pull large enough pieces that will hold flavour and temperature.

Jim Johnson is visiting Australia as part of the Melbourne Barbecue Festival on Sunday 1 February. The festival is free entry and will be held at the Queen Victoria Market. Cooked is offering a chance to win a coveted place in Jim’s (now sold out) barbecue masterclass – just sign up to our newsletter for your chance to win.



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