Tess Aldredge took a few short sniffs and then popped entry No. 425 into her mouth, searching for texture and taste before carefully spitting it into a cup.

On an iPad, she tapped out her thoughts on flavor, rating how long it lasted and the how it finished. The sensory and consumer scientist at spice maker McCormick MKC -1.74% & Co. wasn’t sampling wine or cheese, but, rather, cubes of steak—the hearty staple of backyard barbecues that beef lovers say can almost match in complexity a fine Merlot.

“My favorite one I tasted was kind of high in that caramelized fat flavor, so it had a little more fatty mouth feel,” she said. “It had a really nice balance of the lean characteristics and the fatty characteristics. The juiciness really sustained, as well.”

Armed with apple slices and saltines to cleanse her palate between tastes, Ms. Aldredge was one of 10 judges at this month’s American Royal Steak Competition. The Royal has long run the world’s largest barbecue contest, but more recently it branched out into steak and put the focus on the rancher rather than the pit master.