Summer is almost here. Are you ready? And by “ready” we mean, “prepared to fire up the range and blow everyone away with your ridiculous meat heating skills?” Just in case you aren’t, we hit up a true expert, Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q pitmaster Chris Lilly, for advice. Dude is a 10-time World BBQ champ, Kingsford spokesperson and author of Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book. Read, learn and grill like a pro.
MADE MAN: What’s the main thing to keep in mind when choosing among charcoal, gas and electric grills?
CHRIS LILLY: It makes very little difference whether you light your charcoal with gas or electricity, ha ha. In all seriousness, flavor and convenience work inversely. Electric is the most convenient and least flavorful. Gas is in the middle on both convenience and flavor. Charcoal is the least convenient, but it gives meat a smoky flavor you just can’t get with gas or electric. I definitely fall on the charcoal side.
For the perfect burger, it all starts with quality beef. Get a butcher to grind up short ribs and brisket and make your own specialty ground beef blend.
MM: What’s your best tip for a smooth lighting experience?
CL: I still use the old-fashioned charcoal chimney. It’s not inconvenient, because I light the chimney, go inside and do all my food prep while the charcoal lights. So it’s really no time wasted. I tend to steer clear of lighter fluid, which can interfere with flavor. If you do use lighter fluid, don’t overuse it. Give the coals a quick spray and immediately light them. Then let it burn down, and when the coals start to gray over, you are ready to go.
MM: What’s the most underrated grilling tool?
CL: A second spatula. I use a firm spatula for picking up and shifting large cuts, briskets and pork butts. If you do a lot of fish and vegetables, a smaller spatula works great. It gives you more control, and you can get under the fish without tearing it. It should still be metal, just a flimsier metal for more dainty grilling items. A finesse spatula.
MM: What’s the biggest mistake the average griller makes, and how can he correct it?
CL: Overcooking. Whether it’s pork or chicken or beef, there’s nothing worse than dried-out meat. You lose so much moisture and flavor overcooking. Get an internal meat thermometer. You don’t want to do a whole lot of poking in steaks and chops and chicken, but it’s worse to leave it on the grill too long. When you check the temperature, press the meat with your finger and get a feel for what the different temperatures feel like. That’ll give you something to fall back on the next time you grill. It’s a feel thing for me mostly now.
Lilly’s pulled pork sandwich tastes even better than it looks. Trust us, we’ve tried it.
MM: As tempting as it is to get fancy, everyone respects a guy who can produce quality burgers every time. What’s the best way to do that?
CL: For the perfect burger, it all starts with quality beef. You have a lot more choices now. There are different breeds of cattle, feeding regimens, specialty ground blends. Go to a higher-end store and experiment with different cuts. Get a butcher to grind up short ribs and brisket and make your own specialty ground beef blend. When grilling, keep it simple. Put the burgers on a direct charcoal flame, and when they start to bleed moisture from the center, it’s time to flip. Flip one time. Then when it’s ready, get it off the grill. The more you poke and prod and smash the worse you make it.
MM: Your pulled pork shoulder is legendary. We won’t ask for the recipe, but what’s the key to doing pulled pork right?
CL: Don’t try to do too much. Start simple. Learn to cook it first. Be patient and know when to pull the meat off. Do it by feel and an internal meat thermometer. The standard is 195 degrees or above. Don’t mask the natural flavor. It’ll be a catastrophe. Too many people try it all at once. Don’t worry about marinades and injections. Start with a little salt and pepper and garlic. Once you’ve mastered that, you can really experiment with flavor profile.
MM: Any parting words of wisdom?
CL: I’ll quote from Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book: “The greatness of a pitmaster is directly proportional to the size of his ash pile.” The more you cook, the more you learn, the better you’ll be on the outdoor grill. So just get out there and cook.