Every time we talk with Chris Lilly, we learn something new. Guess that’s what happens when you’re chatting up the executive chef for Decatur, Alabama’s Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, a 10-time World BBQ champ, Kingsford University professor and author of Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book. But you don’t need to know all that—all you need is one bite of Lilly’s famous pulled pork shoulder and you’ll realize the guy’s a total pro. Check out his fundamental tips here, then take your knowledge and skills up a few notches below.
“I want to use fire and flame and smoke to the greatest benefit. I’m not a barbecue guy or a grilling guy—I often use a combination of both.”
MADE MAN: First off, what’s new in your world?
CHRIS LILLY: I’m working on the manuscript for a new book that I’m very excited about. It’s coming out one year from now, and it’ll have both grilling and barbecue recipes. It’s taking things to the next level, using fire and smoke to make barbecue the best it can be, without limitations. One hundred recipes, all on an outdoor charcoal grill. Lots of mixed temperature cooking and different techniques, like putting a cast-iron skillet into a bed of charcoal.
MM: This might sound silly, but what’s the difference between grilling and barbecue?
CL: Barbecue is cooking with lower temperature over indirect heat. Grilling is cooking with higher temperature over direct heat. But I want to use fire and flame and smoke to the greatest benefit. I’m not a barbecue guy or a grilling guy—I often use a combination of both.
MM: Last time we talked, you endorsed charcoal grills. What should a guy look for in a top-notch charcoal grill?
CL: The most important thing is to match up your cooking style. Are you a steak and pork chop guy who needs direct heat? Or do you want to do ribs and pork shoulders with indirect heat? Personally, I want versatility. I want options that let me play with the fire. You want to be able to control airflow and temperature. How much oxygen gets to the fire, how much smoke can I let out of the cooker? If there are cracks and crevices and lids that don’t seal good, there are too many ways for air to get to the fire. Stay away from thin-gauge metal. The majority of grills on the market are disposable. In four to five years, you’ll need a new one. Why not get a bit higher quality, and keep it for a lot longer? It’s not all about price, it’s about how well it’s made. The Weber Kettle and WSM have been around a long time because they work, because you can control airflow. And both are very inexpensive.
MM: Once a guy’s got this awesome new grill, what’s your advice for taking care of it?
CL: Don’t leave it out in the weather. Have a patio or garage you pull it under, or cover it. Replacing the cover is better than replacing the grill. Rain and sunshine do the most damage to grills. Take care of it like you would anything else. Scrub it down and clean it regular, and it should last.
MM: Even when it’s not a huge event like Memphis in May, guys are competitive. What’s the number one thing a guy can do to make his meat just a bit better than his best buddy’s?
CL: Make sure all your eggs are not in one basket. You want a two-zone fire—an area where you can cook directly over the coals and an area where you can save things or cook them at lower temperatures. Say you have a big thick pork chop or steak. You’re grilling over hot coals, four minutes to a side. You’re getting nice grill marks. But then inside, it’s beyond rare. A two-zone fire prevents that. I can char my steak perfectly, move it away from fire, close the lid and finish cooking indirectly without overcooking or overcharring the meat. Works with chicken wings and chicken breasts, too. It’s so simple. Rake charcoal to one side of the grill. Then you have one area over direct flame and one area away from it. If you really want to elevate your outdoor prowess, get an internal meat thermometer. Pull your food at the right time—chicken breast, 160 degrees internal temperature, for example—and you won’t end up at the table with dry chicken.
MM: Big Bob’s has an award-winning line of sauces. What’s your secret?
CL: Sauce making is a lot tougher than you would imagine if you start from scratch. So start with a successful sauce, like a KC Masterpiece, then make it your own. I like to go to the jelly aisle at the grocery store and pick out interesting jellies. Apricot preserves, pepper jelly, habañero. Melt those down and add to a particular sauce. That’ll go great with pork. Make a blackberry jalapeño rib, an apricot chicken wing. Coupling fruit and meat is an easy way to impress your friends. And it doesn’t have to be fruit. It can be brown sugar, honey, soy sauce. Let somebody else do some of the work, and it’ll be a lot easier than making it from scratch.
MM: Barbecue seems pretty traditional, but technology is everywhere these days. Are there any new developments changing the way things are done?
CL: Your grills and smokers are getting more high tech. Used to be it was the kettle grill. Now you’ve got so many options. Water belly cookers. Gravity feed charcoal smokers. Cookers with fan and thermostat control. Pellet cookers. All different types of smokers and cookers. But the most important thing is getting to know your equipment. Spending time outside. It’s not about cost. The cookers that make it easy to control temperature, they’re nicer to look at. But barbecue is barbecue. Simple traditions and time-tested recipes float to the top.