Food Styling Tips for Competition BBQ

Food Styling Tips for

The topic of this article may be a little confusing. Barbeque is well-known as one of the messier food types out there to eat. Just walk into any BBQ joint wearing a white shirt and watch the grins and expressions on the staff’s faces. However, when we’re talking competition BBQ, food styling becomes vitally important. With this in mind, here are some Food Styling Tips for Competition BBQ.

Symmetry is King

It’s a well-worn trope that people eat first with their eyes, and this is also true of competition BBQ. The hand-in box is opened, and judges make appearance assessments. And, it’s also been scientifically proven that when judging the attractiveness of other people, our brains automatically associate symmetry with beauty. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Symmetry is the first of our Food Styling Tips for Competition BBQ.

So what do we mean by Symmetry? Essentially, we’re talking about visual balance. When preparing your hand-in box, imagine a cross through the middle. Make sure there is an even amount of meat of the left and right sides, and the top and bottom of the box. One practical tip is to grab your smartphone and take an overhead photo of your box. This will give you a great perspective from which to judge the symmetry.

Don’t Overcrowd the Box

In competitions run by the Australasian Barbecue Alliance, competitors are required to submit 6 serves minimum in their hand-in boxes. The keyword here is minimum. In our Western society, we’ve been conditioned to expect generous-sized food portions. As such, if you put more than the minimum number of serves in the box, the judges will feel that you’ve been generous and that you are ‘taking care’ of them. But it is possible to overdo it.

While it is important to be generous, overcrowding the box will work against you. If you’ve put too much in, the box will look too messy or busy and you’ll lose precious presentation points. My general rule of thumb is to add an extra 33%. So if I’m doing a pork rib hand-in box, I’ll put 8 in instead of 6.

And don’t worry about wastage – the event officials will clean up what’s left!

Make sure it Shines

The next tip is to make sure the protein shines in your hand-in box. You absolutely do not want to hand in meats that look dry. Fortunately, there is an easy fix to this. You need to ‘Paint’ the mieat in the box. You can use some of the rendered fat, sauce, or jus from the cook. This will not only make your protein shiny and stop it looking dry, but also will help prevent the meat from looking grey which can happen as meat sits over time.

One more tip here is to be careful not to have any sauce pool anywhere on the protein or in the box. Remember Tip #1: Symmetry is King!

Prep your Parsley well

Love it or hate it, on the Australian competition circuit, parsley is here to stay. Despite the painstaking work that goes into creating a bed of parsley, there are several reasons why parsley beds are great.

Firstly, plain boxes will be too messy. You’ll get pools of juices, and sauces in the bottom of the box. No food stylist would ever want to see this. Secondly, parsley, especially curly parsley can be trimmed down to make beautiful, even beds. The beds need to be even to create a level platform on which to place the proteins. Remember, it’s all about balance and symmetry. Parsley also hides sauce drips really well: the sauce will drizzle down between the leaves of the parsley and effectively ‘disappear’.

At this point I want to briefly discuss kale. Kale is an approved alternative to parsley, however from a food stylist’s point of view, it doesn’t do as good a job as parsley. This is because it is very difficult to create a level bed using kale. Some people are concerned that the hot meat will wilt the kale, releasing an unpleasant odour. This is highly unlikely as after it’s resting period, your meat should not be anywhere near hot enough to ‘cook’ the kale.

Important Tools for Styling BBQ

No article on food styling would be complete without a list of important tools. Far and away, the most important of these is a pair of chef’s tweezers. They are quite long and thin, almost like chopsticks. They are essential for picking up specks or straightening parsley: while we want bark around the outside of the protein, we don’t want little bits of it appearing on the face of our proteins. Next is a good, sharp knife which is essential for cutting clean lines.

Naturally, as we’re using our hands, we need to be wearing gloves. However, it’s a great idea to have multiple sets ready to go, or even put on two or three pairs at a time. Also, it’s a great idea to have someone standing by with a roll of paper towels – you never know when you’re going to have a mess to clean up.

By now you can see the importance of applying some food styling techniques to your Competition BBQ. Your attention to detail and symmetry will be constantly improving, and your hand-in boxes will get better and better every time. One final tip: evenness is the key to any hand-in box. It needs to be square, equal, balanced and well-placed.

Aussie Readers – Get Your Tweezers Now

These are affiliate links to Amazon – I’ll make a small commission if you make a purchase via these links, at no extra cost to you!

U.S. Readers – Get Your Tweezers Now

These are affiliate links to Amazon – I’ll make a small commission if you make a purchase via these links, at no extra cost to you!

All these tips and so much more came from my interview with Adam from Primal Iron BBQ, for Season Two of the Smoking Hot Confessions Podcast. You can catch the full episode on:

Smoking Hot Confessions

Apple Podcasts



iHeart Radio



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