Ben Lierman of Indianapolis moved a pan of mushrooms and vegetables from the heat and placed foil-wrapped pork steaks back on to finish cooking.
"You hear that?" he said, referring to the mushrooms and vegetables as the sound they made went from a sizzle to a simmer. "They tell you when you're done cooking."
Lierman stood with Dustin Lynch of Urbana and Jason Ishcomer of Mahomet, three members of Big Papa's BBQ at their tent and grill at the BBQ Cook-off Championships Friday at Legacy Harley-Davidson sanctioned by Kansas City Barbecue Society. With most of their meat for the day's event already turned in, Ishcomer said this event is another chance to show off food they've they've been perfecting for more than five years.
"We entered one contest last year and won with our chicken," he said. "That really kick-started us. We've improved on everything. You just can't do everything the same every time."
For the guys of Big Papa's BBQ, those improvements have come from near constant trial and error tests with ribs, brisket, chicken and much more. For backyard grillers wanting to step up their game, Ishcomer said practice and refining recipes can lead to serious results.
"Cook every day," he said. "You can find all sorts of stuff on the Internet. I probably have 100 cookbooks, but once we started seeing what people could do online, we really had some ideas."
Practice seems to be the main word tossed around many of this weekend's barbecue grillers and smokers as they turn in food for judging.
"We've been doing this for seven years," said Scott Hageman of St. Louis, a member of Smokie Bros. BBQ. "One day, my brother and I started talking about doing this, and we just went for it. We started tweaking recipes, but we didn't really know what we were getting into."
Hageman said he and the team learned about what judges and hungry barbecue fans wanted by watching TV shows, such as "BBQ Pitmasters" and taking classes on how food is judged. Even with help and years of experience under the team's belt, he said sometimes the result of hours of work on the grill can come down to the luck of the draw.
"It's a little bit of luck," Hageman said with a laugh. "You've got to stick with the plan for the day. Have a plan of what you want to do and don't let what's happening or what other people are doing take you from it."
Even for those who've taken home awards, continual practice makes for a superior product. Doc Richardson of Edwardsville and the Q's Your Daddy BBQ team said even in the offseason, he's getting as many opinions on his award-winning pork and brisket as he can.
"Make your neighbors taste what you're making," he said. "Send a plate of ribs next door."
Even at its most competitive, Hageman said one of the most important ways to improve, whether working the competitive circuit or firing up the grill for a family get-together is to talk and exchange recipes.
"People are always willing to help," he said. "That's one of the nice things. They may not want to give you their secrets, but we all know that everyone wants to help everybody be better."