KANSAS CITY, Mo. – During a presentation at the American Association of Meat Processors’ American Convention of Meat Processors and Suppliers’ Exhibition, attendees heard from award-winning American Cured Meat Champions about the factors contributing to their blue-ribbon meats. A session titled “Creating a Best of Show Product,” Gary Bardine, owner of Bardine’s Country Smoke House Inc., Crabtree, Pennsylvania, won the Best of Show in 2015 for his dry-cured bacon entry. “I’d love to tell you there’s a secret formula, but there isn’t,” Bardine said. However, he and other processors shared some of the keys to their winning ways

Bardine’s Top 5 keys to best-of-show bacon include:

1) Tumble the bacon before trimming – “As you tumble it you’re going to beat it up a little bit…put the belly in there as is, cure it and then right before you’re ready to hang it up and smoke it trim it up.” Bardine’s bellies are tumbled for 90 minutes; rest overnight; and retumbled before storing them in plastic bins.

2) Trim the bacon in a uniform shape – “I like a belly two and a half times long as it is wide,” according to Bardine.

3) Sourcing matters – A quality belly supplier is critical to ensure consistent quality. Bardine said his go-to belly supplier is Premium Iowa Pork. He said for companies that don’t slaughter hogs, like his, partnering with a solid supplier is essential.

4) Distilled water – Bardine purchases distilled water to process the company’s bellies. “I think the water is critical,” he said. Among other things, Bardine uses the water to rinse the bellies after trimming.

5) Smoke schedule – The smoke schedule should include a fast dry at 130°F for up to two hours for bellies being entered in a cured meats competition.

Jake Sailer, owner of Sailer’s Food Market & Meat Processor’s Inc., based in Elmwood, Wisconsin, has won best-of-show awards for the company’s smoked beef, hams and pepperoni products. His advice for succeeding includes:

1) Listen – Advice and input from others in the industry is valuable. “It might not seem like something specific to your product, but if you listen to what everyone says when they’re making their products, you’re always going to pick up something,” Sailer said.

2) Learn from scorecards – “If you’re seeing the same comments year after year, try something different. For example, talk to your seasoning supplier,” he said.

3) Be a judge in other contests – “You’ll totally see so many other things and you’ll learn what it is you might change in your product.”

4) Quiet time – Sailer said he takes time to concentrate and prepare before putting product in the smokehouse. “When I do my smoked beef I want no one else around,” he said.

5) Purchasing – Sailer buys inside rounds for cured and smoked beef and rather than targeting Choice grades. “I prefer Select so we don’t get a lot of fat in them and sometimes cow insides,” he said.

Mark Reynolds, owner of Country Meat Shop in Moberly, Missouri, recently won best in class for his round bacon product. His tips include:

  1. Spices – Reynolds says it’s important to know the exact content in every spice packet his company uses. “Every item we have is made from our own custom formula; we don’t use anything that’s not blended for us or that we hand mix.”
  2. Batch sizes – Using consistent sized batches and the same load of product in smokehouses, “so you get the same heat-load transfer, which is why you don’t cook three hams in there when you normally cook 30,” Reynolds said.
  3. No-no – Never use reworked product in contest product or frozen meat in any product, Reynolds advised.
  4. Grinding – Reynolds says using a 1/8 ground initially to enhance particle definition, followed by a 3/16 grind to also prevent product smear.
  5. Vacuum – Reynolds says putting all contest product batter through a vacuum chamber machine to get all the air out of it followed by running the stuffers at slower than normal speed to eliminate as much air as possible.