Barbecue is the nation’s passion, and it has never been bigger. It is perhaps mankind’s oldest method of cookery. It’s difficult to measure the barbecue industry’s size because it is so many things, but the dollar figure contains many zeros.

Barbecue is slow-cooked brisket, pork shoulder, spare ribs and chicken thighs with bite-through skin. And it is carefully crafted sauce, with blends of vinegar, molasses, ketchup and mustard and profiles ranging from tangy to sweet to sweat-inducing hot. It is rubs containing brown sugar, chili powder and paprika that help form the subtle bark on the first bite and the memorable savory flavor following the last bite.

Barbecue is even quickly cooked burgers and hot dogs on a backyard grill, slowly cooked ribs from a Kansas City rib joint and microwaved pulled pork inside a home in small town, USA.

Barbecue is a festival, a competition and even a TV show. Barbecue is a Southern Pride commercial smoker on a trailer and a Weber Smokey Joe grill from Lowe’s. Barbecue is a hobby for many, a career for many others and a business strategy for meat and poultry processors, foodservice operators and retail outlets.

The experts

Former National Football League defensive end Al “Bubba” Baker used to feast on quarterbacks, earning a reputation for sacking signal callers. But nowadays, Baker focuses on barbecue and has racked up a reputation for offering some of the best fare in Ohio.

Baker, who spent 13 years in the NFL, is proprietor of Bubba’s-Q, a restaurant and catering business in Avon, Ohio, that features traditional Southern-style barbecue cuisine. Baker was named to three Pro Bowls and was also the NFL’s Rookie of the Year in 1978, but football takes a backseat to barbecue.

“My job was to play football, but my passion is barbecue,” the 56-year-old Baker says.

“Barbecue is exploding,” says Dave Anderson, who founded Famous Dave’s, a chain of approximately 200 barbecue restaurants. Anderson says barbecue is more than a food category, such as Chinese or Italian. “Barbecue is an American lifestyle,” he adds.

When Chef Myron Mixon began competing in barbecue competitions in 1996, he never expected to become a celebrity who writes cookbooks and appears on cooking shows, such as “BBQ Pitmasters,” a reality TV series that follows barbecue cooks as they compete for cash and prizes in barbecue cooking competitions.

“Barbecue has become the chic thing,” says Mixon, who also operates Jack’s Old South restaurants in Miami and New York.

Kansas City-based Paul Kirk, known as the Baron of Barbecue, has won more than 475 cooking and barbecue awards, including seven World Championships. Kirk gauges the growth and success of the barbecue industry by the increase of participation in industry events.

When Kirk first participated in the American Royal World Series of Barbecue in 1981, there were 23 teams. Now the event attracts almost 500 teams.

“It’s the world’s largest barbecue contest,” he says.

In 2010, there were 200 barbecue contests sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, the world’s largest organization of barbecue and grilling enthusiasts. In 2012 there were 400 contests.

“And then there are all of the ‘ribber’ events, which attract thousands of people,” Kirk adds. “More communities are holding these festivals than ever before.”

Taste buds

The most popular proteins in barbecue vary from region to region, but Kirk believes the most favored meat in the country for barbecue is pulled pork. Flavor and texture are crucial to tasty pulled pork, he says.

Proper cooking is also important, and temperature shouldn’t exceed 195˚F to 205˚ F, Kirk says. “You don’t want to go much higher than that, or it could become mushy,” he adds.

Mixon says pork ribs are still the most popular meat to barbecue. But beef tri-tips, brisket and beef ribs are becoming preferred. Chicken is still the old standby, especially for those who barbecue in the backyard.

“Some people want to eat pork and some people want to eat beef, but just about everybody wants to eat chicken,” Mixon says.

Anderson also says ribs are still the most popular meat for barbecue.

“People don’t just come up to me and say, ‘I love your barbecue’; they say, ‘I really love your ribs,’”he adds.

Kirk doesn’t expect any new cuts of meat to become popular in barbecue anytime soon, mainly because the same meats are used over and over on the competition circuit. But Mixon wonders if beef shoulders could become popular. Competitors recently barbecued them during a competition on “BBQ Pitmasters.”

Mixon expects more people will start barbecuing turkey, including drumsticks and whole birds. “I think it’s a better-tasting meat than chicken,” he says. “It has more of a savory flavor.”

Anderson says that burnt ends are the “darkest secret in the barbecue world.” They are the crusty corners of a brisket or pork butt that form when the meats are smoked for about 15 hours.

“The meat juices come to the top [during smoking] and congregate and form this crusty bark,” he adds.

In the past, restaurants would cut off the ends and discard them, but Famous Dave’s and many other restaurants have put them on the menu and they have attracted a loyal following.

Bone out

Baker believes he’s on to something big in barbecue. His specialty is the deboned baby back rib, Bad 2D Bone, which his company implemented in 2006.

“This is a process where we remove the bones of a slab of baby back ribs leaving the meat intact,” says Baker, who owns a patent on the technology. “No one else in the world is doing this.”

Baker’s business serves Bad 2D Bone, but his goal is to sell the deboned baby back rib at delis in supermarkets throughout the country. But he knows he needs a reliable co-packer to do it on a large scale.

“We’ve been pursuing co-packers; we want to do it right,” Baker says, noting that deboning technology is manual and labor intensive. “It’s a whole-muscle meat with the bones removed, but it has to look like an actual rib.”

If he can find the right co-packer, Baker believes the product will be successful — one, because of the popularity of barbecue; two, because of the product’s convenience; and three, because it’s not messy and can be eaten with a knife and fork. The fully cooked deboned ribs can be microwaved in their packages. Consumers will also like that they’re not buying a product by the pound and throwing away weight on rib bones.

“That means you can have barbecue on a plate in 15 minutes,” Baker says. “We live in a convenient society.”

The Bad 2D Bone has become Bubba-Q’s top-selling rib, even outpacing baby backs.

“We know we’re on to something,” says Baker, whose restaurant was recently ranked No. 8 on USA Today’s list of the 20 best athlete-owned restaurants. “

The meat matters

The first thing Baker looks for in pork ribs is the color, which he says should be dark pink.

“It’s never brown, and it’s never off-color,” he adds. “The color just jumps out at you.” Raw and cooked meat must also look good, Baker stresses.

“We eat with our eyes,” Baker says, as he opens a smoker full of St. Louis-style spareribs and baby back ribs. “Look at all of the meat on these,” he says, squinting and smiling through the billowing smoke.

Kirk looks for solid exceptional coverage on pork ribs which extends over the bone with marbling and contains no shiners, which are bones sticking through the meat. On brisket, he looks for white, hard fat, which means the meat has been finished on grain and should have excellent marbling. Then Kirk studies the thickness of the flat across the front of the brisket. It should be even across, not starting at 1 inch and then shrink down to one-quarter of an inch.

When Mixon looks at a brisket, he looks at the fat cap, which should be brown, not yellow. It should also have good marbling inside the meat.

“That’s a reason why we cook a lot of Wagyu beef,” Mixon says. “It has a high percentage of fat content inside the meat.”

Mixon wants to see a good reddish-pink color in the lean part of a pork rib, but he also wants to see a good fraction of fat inside the meat.

“Then I know it’s coming from a hog with a lot of fat,” he adds.

A good rib has good marbling, Anderson agrees, noting that he likes his ribs to look like prime steak. Anderson remembers the days when “ribs were all over the board.”

“Some ribs had bow ties, and some had half-moon shapes,” he says. “And some had shiners.”

Anderson is proud that he has always kept high standards. In the early days, Anderson told suppliers what his specs were for ribs and several told him they weren’t interested in his business because his standards were too high.

“But today, it’s almost a badge of honor to say your meat processing plant can maintain Famous Dave’s standards,” he says. “We have one of the highest standards in the industry.”

Baker also has high standards, noting that he only buys meat from established packers and processors, such as Swift, Farmland Foods and Smithfield Foods.

“They know what they’re doing,” Baker says. “They have the capacity to process 65,000 pigs a day. I trust them.”

Baker prefers meaty ribs, and he’s willing to pay for them – about $150 a box, which equals $8 a slab.

“If I start with the best, I find that my chances of succeeding are better,” he says, noting he prefers that finished ribs shine on the outside with an attractive mahogany finish.

Where’s the fat?

Many barbecue experts say packers and processors are producing meat that’s too lean for barbecue.

“Ribs used to have these almost softball-sized bubbles of fat beneath them, which you don’t see today,” Anderson says. “To me, fat is good.”

Mixon believes most meat used for barbecue 50 years ago was better because producers hadn’t begun breeding animals to be leaner, especially pigs.

“When they started taking out the fat content, they started taking out the flavor,” Mixon says. “When you remove the fat content, you remove the moisture in the meat. Flavor and moisture are the two critical things you need to have good barbecue.”

Mixon says suppliers have realized that some of the meat they produce for barbecue is too lean. That’s why Berkshire pork, from the less-lean heritage hog breed, is making a comeback, he adds.

“I think we have better meat today than we did 20 years ago, but I don’t know if it’s better than it was 50 years ago,” Mixon says.

Equipment is also critical to the process. Mixon is impressed that the new smokers are easy to maintain and operate. “The technology makes it easier for the smoke to cook good barbecue, and that’s what it’s all about,” he says. “That’s why more people are getting involved. The whole key to getting more people involved in barbecue is to make it less intimidating.”

Cooking equipment has improved in the past 20 years, Anderson says, citing Southern Pride and Old Hickory pits.

“When I was growing up in Chicago, a lot of people would boil ribs and then bake them,” he says. “But then Southern Pride and Old Hickory came out with pits that you could turn on and leave without having to watch them.”

Quality equipment improvements have helped almost anyone who has a passion for barbecue, Anderson says, noting that the progression has allowed more people to open their own barbecue restaurants.

Retail ready, or not?

Thanks to technology – namely shelf-stable packaging – precooked microwaveable barbecued meat products have gained a following at retail. The Lloyd’s Barbeque Co. line includes baby back ribs, St. Louis-style spareribs, center cut beef ribs and shredded beef brisket. Other brands include Curly’s and Jack Daniel’s.

Anderson says the retail products are decent, “but they’re not the quality products that restaurants offer.” But if people desire the taste of barbecue, these products offer them convenience to quell their cravings, he adds.

“You just heat them in the microwave and within minutes you have a decent pulled pork sandwich or brisket,” he says.

Mixon has never eaten any of the products, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t popular among consumers. People may not want to cook barbecue, but that doesn’t mean they don’t like barbecue, he says. These products give them a chance to eat barbecue without having to cook.

“These products have taken off because of that,” Mixon adds. “These products have made people more aware of barbecue.”

It’s that awareness that keeps pervading the barbecue category, not unlike the smoke from mesquite wood chips permeating a smokehouse full of baby back ribs.