Sunny Anderson Shares What's New On BBQ Brawl Season 4 And Her Best Barbecue Tips - Exclusive Interview

Thanks to Bobby Flay, Sunny Anderson wants to clear the air. Why did Flay call her "fabulous and unpredictable" in the lead-up to "BBQ Brawl" Season 4, in which the celebrated home chef takes both Flay and the unquestionably formidable Anne Burrell? Anderson told Tasting Table, "What's to be predicted? I'm going to verbally tear Bobby a new one every chance I get. I'm a team player, so I'm going to make my team the best I can. I'm going to promote happiness, enjoy as much as possible. These are all predictable things. " Yes, she got on Flay's case about his description. We'll spill that juice later.

Anderson, granted, is not an Iron Chef like Flay or Burrell, but if you've watched her on "The Kitchen," "Chopped," or "Beat Bobby Flay," you won't underestimate her. For at least two reasons, this season is going to be one for the books. First, Anderson foreshadowed, "I don't know if they're going to put it on, or if Food Network's practice and standards are going to say 'we can't have this happen.' But the 'brawl' in 'BBQ Brawl'– it went down." Second, we'll all benefit from Anderson's wealth of BBQ knowledge, which the Food Network star shares with us in this exclusive interview.

The tool Sunny Anderson is shipping across country after BBQ Brawl

We're looking forward to the new season of "BBQ Brawl." What is the number one thing you learned about California-style barbecue while filming the show?

I learned about a barbecuing or grilling apparatus that they use out there called the Santa Maria Grill. I've never heard of it before. I like eating, I like grilling. The first time you think that you know everything about cooking or grilling is the last time. There's so many things to learn. It was not only learning about it, but then learning how to use it immediately, because it was one of the pieces of equipment that we had to use for the competition. I know you're probably familiar with a Santa Maria Grill, but anyone taking a look at it for the first time will say to themselves, if they like grilling, "I got to get one of those."

What's so special about it for you?

What I really loved about it is how huge it was. If you're having a gathering, you can literally do everything on one Santa Maria. It provides separation, so you could do something on one side and something on the other, and not feel like anything is going to be cooking together ... If you [use] fire in a charcoal or a wood grill, and you put the grate down, that's where it's going to be. What I really love about the Santa Maria is the ability to crank it up and down, so that you can regulate the amount of flame and heat or smoke that gets on whatever you're cooking above it.

Sunny Anderson talks breakable BBQ taboos and rubs

What's your favorite kind of wood to grill with, or charcoal?

I like the mesquite. They had some cherry wood there that was really fun and gave a nice smoky flavor. Briquettes — I'm really basic, I'll take the self-lighting ones ...  I usually play around with liquid smoke, which I know for a lot of grillers is taboo, but in a pinch, it's really good, especially if you have a gas grill, which I also have.

Talk to me more about that taboo of using liquid smoke. What does it do to the meat, for you?

If you use it right, and you don't need a lot, it's like the sesame oil of grilling. You just need a little bit. A little goes a long way. I'll use it in a marinade or in a sauce, and I usually isolate it to when I'm doing something on my gas grill, because it can impart that smoky flavor, and make it feel like you did it over charcoal or some wood briquettes or pellets. Some of the people that make grilling their career and their lives, they look at liquid smoke down their noses a bit, but I wouldn't know why there's a stigma because I don't feel the stigma ... Listen, if it's in the grocery store, someone's buying it.

You love a rub for its flavor and ability to give ribs a nice crust. Were you inspired by any particular rubs this season on "BBQ Brawl"?

I do know that there were some rubs made and some dustings made for things where they use an ingredient that I did not have in my rub repertoire before that is now in my rub repertoire, and it is white vinegar powder. I never heard of it, didn't think it existed, but it makes so much sense, and you can get it in a powder form. It's great to add to seasoning blends when you want something tangy and zippy instead of ... lemon zest or some lime zest. White vinegar powder really puts that punch in there that you need.

Mac & cheese on the grill is easy, just ask Sunny Anderson

Were there any other techniques, sauces, or side dishes that really stood out to you this season?

There's definitely a contestant whose meat is flawless the whole time. It was a joy to watch this contestant, because I felt, "Wow, they really know what they're doing." There's an art to barbecuing, and when it comes to sides and things like that, there were some really fun sides that were made on the grill. At one point, I made some macaroni and cheese on the grill that got really good notes. People forget the grill is an oven. It's just outside, and it's an open-air oven if you choose, but you can get the same temperatures on a grill that you can in an oven. The benefit of the grill is that you can sear because you've got that bottom flame.

Talk us through making mac and cheese on the grill. What do you have to do differently — if anything — and does it give you a more smoky flavor?

The most important thing is, if you're treating your grill like an oven, you're going to be putting things over the indirect heat. I used the Santa Maria, because it was so huge, it could actually hold the huge pans that we were using, those reusable aluminum pans. If you want the smoky flavor to be imparted inside the mac, it's just cooking it uncovered for some time, and then covering it up, so everything can melt and distribute and cook properly.

You use Pepper Jack in your mac and cheese to make it a little bit more spicy. Are there any other ingredients you use to give a kick to your mac and cheese? 

When you mentioned Pepper Jack, that means you definitely know my bare-bottom mac and cheese that I grew up with, with the Pepper Jack and the Colby and the Cheddar Jack blend and my mom's mix of cheeses. I add my own things, some sour cream, and I love to add grated onion. A lot of times, when I make different mac and cheeses, I'll have fun with the flavor, if you will. Sometimes, I'll add in things like gochujang, and make it a little bit funky. You can add into it some sriracha or any kind of chili garlic paste is fun ... Chipotle peppers in adobo, you can chop those up and add them to the mac and cheese.

BBQ these meats more, per Sunny Anderson

After filming this season, what's one underrated cut of meat that we should be barbecuing more?

London broil [and] the brisket. Thin cuts of meat, even the flank steak .... we talk about it a lot, but people don't grill it, because they're afraid of ruining it and you can overcook it. If you don't slice it right, it's not going to be tender. Some of those cuts of beef are undercooked or underutilized at the grill. [Also,] a whole chicken — people need to be grilling whole chickens. You know what I mean ... Throw it on a can of beer, you could do beer can chicken, or you could rotisserie it on the grill, or you could spatchcock it and butterfly it.

You like to marinate a flank steak in a chimichurri green sauce. Is there a mistake that people commonly make with steak marinades? What's the key to getting that right?

It's a balance. One of the biggest things people do wrong is a whole lot of acidity without the alkalinity, and the acidity can "cook," but not cook to eat, but change the texture of the meat. In any marinade, there's a balance of acids — so it's like vinegar or citrus or something like that — and then your alkaline — which would be oils and creams or milks. Sometimes, one ingredient can bring both. Buttermilk can bring the alkalinity and the acidity. It depends. Wiping off the marinade is important, and then cooking meat and proteins when it's room temperature, not when it's cold, so everything has the proper time to cook thoroughly. Over-marinating, which people don't realize can actually happen, is one of the biggest mistakes people can make.

How to save over-grilled meat, per Sunny Anderson

How do you tell when something is over-marinated?

You can tell something's over-marinated usually by looking at the color of the meat, and even the texture of the meat. If it's beef and it's over-marinated, the edges start to gray or whiten, and the same for chicken. Chicken gets hard and tough and rigid, the rigidity of it all. Same thing with beef. You can over-marinate.

You were talking about people staying away from flank steak because they're thinner cuts of meat. That said, how can you save an over-grilled steak?

The best way you can save it is chop it really, really, really thin into little bits, and you can toss it into a tomato sauce, or you can toss it with a cheese sauce and make it part of a cheese dip, kind of like sausage in a cheese dip. Incorporate it into things, but chop it down small so you can surround it with moisture, because it's probably dry, as a whole. If you chop it down small and toss it with something that's moist, it can fool you ... or it could just be something that you add, like you could get out a can of beans and you could chop it down small and add it to the can of beans or something.

Bobby Flay still hasn't cooked for Sunny Anderson

You have amply professed your love for Bobby Flay and his cooking, and have also talked about wanting to him to invite you over for dinner. Having now filmed "BBQ Brawl" in California with him, have you finally got your home-cooked Bobby Flay meal?

No, I sure haven't. He's going to invite me to dinner forever, and I'm never going to go ... First of all, I should never have to invite myself over. Other people will stand around me, and they will talk and brag about dinners that they had at this place. I'm like, "That's so rude, Bobby. Invite me or don't talk about it around me." My thing now is that I'm not going because they've made it so public. If I ever did go to his place for dinner, we need to make that public. It needs to be seen. People need to see me go to Bobby's place and eat in Bobby's kitchen. I told him, if I do this, I'm going to show up with cameras, and he said no. I told him, I think it's because he doesn't want the "gotcha" moment of being seen without his makeup on.

This reminds me of Gordon Ramsay and Bobby Flay's constant threats to face off in a cook-off, which has never happened for us.

Listen, if it does happen, we need to see that too. Rest assured, Bobby will take Gordon down, 100%. All we see is Gordon telling people their food is trash and demonstrating one little skill. Bobby gets out on that stage and he does "Beat Bobby Flay" time and time again. [There are] hundreds of episodes of him never even tasting something before, being told what it is, getting in the kitchen, and winning ... Good luck, Gordon. He's the one that started that chatter. He's crazy. We've literally seen Bobby for years compete, not yell at other people competing, but actually compete. 

All right. That's my hate for Gordon Ramsay, and it's not really hate. Gordon, I love you. I've watched you for a long time. You're a genius, but you're not going to win against Bobby Flay.

You're in for a surprise, this season of BBQ Brawl according to Sunny Anderson

In promoting this season, Bobby Flay calls you "fabulous and unpredictable." How are you unpredictable this season?

We all know I'm not unpredictable. Bobby's a jerk. I told him that. I said, "Bobby, you could have said anything else." Fabulous? Unpredictable? First of all, that has nothing to do with cooking. Give me a cooking comment. Give me anything that says there's a daring home cook about to go up against two Iron Chefs. "Daring" would've worked. I would've taken that, but fabulous and unpredictable? I'm very predictable. What's to be predicted? I'm going to verbally tear Bobby a new one every chance I get. 

I'm a team player, so I'm going to make my team the best I can. I'm going to promote happiness, enjoy as much as possible. These are all predictable things. I'm going to wear sneakers. I'm not going to run, because I'm lazy. All predictable. I'm going to wear different wigs. I have a big mouth. I'm going to yell. These things are predictable. I don't know why he would say unpredictable. I don't understand. This lets you know, he doesn't know what to say about me. We're not real friends.

Or maybe he's just good at the PR circuit.

How dare he? Immediately when I saw the article, I texted him, I said, "Unpredictable, Bobby? Seriously?" I'll take the "fabulous," though. Bobby knows better. Bobby knows that this is going to be a season like no other, because some things happen, and I don't know what's going to make it. All I know is that there's some things that happened that have never happened before on previous seasons. I don't know if they're going to put it on, or if Food Network's practice and standards are going to say "we can't have this happen." But the "brawl" in "BBQ Brawl"– it went down.

Wow. Now you've given us a reason to watch!

It's not a joke. It went down. Actually, if things are removed that I think should be there, I'm going to be like, "Really? You guys should have totally let America see that."

Sunny Anderson's best BBQ sauce tips

You recommend brushing ribs with BBQ sauce right before they're done. Why is that important? 

The reason why you do it at the end is, any sooner, those sugars will burn and caramelize too quickly. You put it on at the end, though, because you want it to actually be a part of whatever you're grilling ... When you put them on, say, 10 to 15 minutes before you're done, the heat of the grill still will allow some of the moisture to evaporate from the sauce, and allows it to thicken a little bit, and then actually stick. 

We say "stick-to-your-ribs" sauce. That's what's going to really happen, and it will caramelize slightly and thicken onto the actual ribs. You can rub, take it off, and then serve [it] with a little side of sauce or something like that as a dip. Rubbing it on beforehand intensifies the flavor and makes sure that it sticks to the ribs.

Can you give us some ingredients that could elevate or perk up a store-bought barbecue sauce?

Crushed pineapples in a can. A spoonful of gochujang – stir it in. Some jalapeño jelly.

As per your own wisdom, no barbecue is complete without a potato salad. Some of your favorite ingredients to add are hot Hungarian paprika or adobo sauce. What separates a good potato salad from a really great potato salad?

Two things: Properly cooked potatoes, and crispy, crispy bacon.

Properly cooked potatoes. What do you mean by that?

Two things. One, people should start roasting their potatoes for potato salads, because it intensifies the flavor of the potato. [The] texture is different, I really like it. If you're boiling, you can go sometimes too far, and you're tossing your potato salad and you're watching it fall apart. Or, you can go not far enough, and it's too toothsome. 

A lot of times, people will do the fork test, but I do a toothpick test. A fork [will] mutilate ...  [There's] also the typical things, like the balance of the sauce, there should be some acidity in there. I do a good stone-ground mustard in the mayo base — if it's a mayo-based potato salad. When we're talking about from good to great, it's the potatoes, and there's got to be something crunchy. It's supposed to be the bacon. 

Sunny Anderson gives us the key to having fun with bacon on a grill

Your love for bacon is well known. What is your number one tip for cooking bacon on the grill?

Put it on a non-stick pan. I do love a good brush. You can brush it with a mixture of brown sugar, some Worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke, [and] some red chili flakes. That's the number one tip. If you're going to put bacon on the grill, don't just put bacon on the grill, do something fun with it.

Recently on The Gram, you posted a mix of bell peppers, hot peppers, and onions. Is that your favorite veggie side to grill?

Yeah, peppers and onion season is everything, because it goes everywhere. I don't usually put anything on them other than olive oil, and then throughout the week, after I've done with the first initial use, I'll figure out whatever I'm going to do with them. Usually, just salt, pepper, some Italian seasoning, and olive oil, and I'll grill those up. Later on throughout the week, if I make a steak, I'll serve it on the side. If I scramble some eggs, I'll put it on the side in the morning with the refried beans or whatever. I love pepper and onions on the grill.

If you're grilling pepper and onions, are you grilling them at the same heat intensity as you are your meat, or are you adjusting that?

It depends on how soon I want to eat, if I want to stand over the grill and tend, or if I want to walk away. If I want to walk away, I put them over the indirect heat ... maybe 350, 375, and I'll come back like every five to eight minutes and move it around. You can get some char on them if you're using an aluminum pan or a non-stick pan. 

If I'm trying to get in and get out, I'll put them over the direct heat with a high flame and stand right there and let them sit for a minute or two, then move them around, sit for a minute or two, move it around, and get the char color like that. If I have something that takes about 20 minutes on the grill, like maybe some chicken or something like that, then I'll do indirect [heat] with the peppers and onions.

Follow Sunny Anderson, Bobby Flay, and Anne Burrell on Season 4 of "BBQ Brawl," which premieres tonight at 9:00 p.m. ET on Food Network. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.