Legendary Pitmaster Chris Lilly Shares His Grilling Secrets - Exclusive Interview

We may receive a commission on purchases made from links.

Chris Lilly is barbecue royalty. Since 1992, he's been manning the pits at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, the legendary Decatur, Alabama barbecue joint that started selling smoked meat all the way back in 1925. Big Bob Gibson is famous for its mayonnaise and vinegar-based Alabama white barbecue sauce, but Lilly expanded the restaurant's repertoire by helping to develop an award-winning red barbecue sauce to go with the classic white.

In addition to his work at the restaurant, Lilly has also taken his skills on the road as the leader of the Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q Championship Cooking Team. He has been incredibly successful in that capacity, winning 17 World Barbecue Championships and earning himself a place in the Barbecue Hall of Fame (via Charleston Wine and Food). He's also, fittingly, a spokesperson for Kingsford Charcoal.

During a recent interview (which doubled as a cooking demonstration), Lilly shared with us some of his go-to recipes and expert techniques that have made him a superstar in the world of barbecue. If you want to improve your summer grilling game, read on to learn some of Chris Lilly's live-fire cooking wisdom.

The best cuts of meat to grill for all skill levels

If you're just starting out with grilling, do you have any cuts of meat that you would recommend for a novice?

I tell you, if you're first starting out, definitely you can do the hamburgers and hot dogs and steaks and grilled chicken breasts and everything. But let me give you a little trick for a novice. What I would highly recommend is getting an internal meat thermometer. A digital, instant-read, internal meat thermometer takes all the guessing out of it. So I know when I cook my chicken breasts, I bring them up to an internal temperature of 165 F. My pork chops, 145 F. I make sure my burgers are done at 165 F.

So the smaller cuts, you can start as a novice. Once you start getting a feel for the grill, I would suggest a whole chicken or maybe a whole slab of ribs. And then if you really are getting confident, you want to go with a whole pork butt, maybe a whole beef brisket, something like that.

Are there any cuts of meat that you think are underrated for grilling?

Oh, gosh. Some of the more underrated cuts are your thin cuts of steak, like a flank steak or a skirt steak on beef. Also, on pork, you can grab some great pork loin and feed the entire family for a relatively inexpensive price and cook the whole loin roast on the grill. That is absolutely delicious as well. And chicken is so cost-effective to feed the entire family. I've got a whole chicken here, and that's one way to get the most bang for your buck. Buy a whole chicken, do the butchering yourself, and get that great flavor of the charcoal grill.

How to properly set up a charcoal fire

How do you set up a fire for grilling versus smoking at home?

That's a great question. I'm a charcoal guy, so I love Kingsford Charcoal, which gives me great versatility. And the way I set up a versatile fire is I create a two-zone fire. I push all of my Kingsford to one side of the grill, so I've got an area where get that direct char, live-fire flavor. And then on the other side of the grill, I have no charcoal, so it gives me an area where I can actually push food to the side and cook at a lower temperature for a long period of time. Let me tell you, any recipe you can do indoors in your oven cooking at 300, 350 F, you can actually do outdoors with more flavor. So remember that.

Temperature control is one of the things that beginner grillers struggle with. How do you regulate the heat of a fire?

Really good question. It's all about airflow when you're maintaining a charcoal grill's temperature. Remember, the more airflow in, the more airflow out. The more oxygen that gets to the fire, the hotter the temperature. If you open the vent wide open, you're going to run hot. To maintain a lower, steady temperature, you want to control the airflow and cut the airflow down. So little airflow means a lower temperature. A lot of airflow means a hot grill, ripping and ready to go and sear things super hot.

How to choose seasonings and avoid grilling common mistakes

How do you prepare meat for the grill? Do you have any go-to seasonings?

Oh, gosh. A lot of times you want to just keep it simple for the grill, especially if you're a beginner. I'd rather tell you to learn how to cook and maintain that steady temperature and get that perfect char and that perfect doneness with your charcoal, and then worry about all your seasonings later. You don't need to say, "Oh, I'm going to mix up this fancy dry rub or fancy marinade."

I've got a really simple recipe for you today, a little live-fire chicken that is just seasoned with a little salt and black pepper, but the real flavor comes with the baste, and we baste it during the cooking process. And we'll go over that.

Are there any common mistakes that you see people make with a grill or a smoker?

Some of the most common mistakes that I see go back to internal temperature. People tend to overcook things to make sure they're done. And again, that's where your internal meat thermometer comes into play. You can definitely erase a lot of the mistakes by having one of these. And it tells you instantly when your food needs to come off the grill.

Also, don't forget that two-zone fire. It gives you so much versatility. Say I'm outside grilling hamburgers or grilling steaks, and I've got the charcoal fire over the entire grill. My steaks are getting really, really perfectly charred on the outside, but they're just not done inside. What am I going to do? Now, if I have a two-zone fire, I can move the steaks over to the opposite side of the grill, off the fire, cover it with the lid, and finish it out with the lid closed. That'll get those steaks perfectly done on the inside and the outside, and the outside will not burn.

The best sides, drinks, and vegetarian options for the grill

What are your favorite sides and beverage pairings when you're doing a grilled meal?

Really, my protein and what I'm cooking dictate what side dishes I do. For a chicken, I've got this great recipe right here with grilled corn and black beans with fire-roasted onions and jalapenos. Corn is always great with chicken. Can't go wrong outdoors with baked beans and potato salad and stuff. I love a grilled potato salad over my charcoal, as well. So yeah, you can go a lot of different areas, but protein dictates that. As far as beverages, gosh, it's hard to beat a cold beer when you're out around the charcoal grill, enjoying life with your friends and family. But I love a cold beverage while I'm grilling.

So we know you're a master of grilling meat, but for people who might not eat meat, do you have any wisdom or thoughts about grilling and smoking vegetarian items?

Oh, absolutely. I love a grilled, charred portobello mushroom cap. What I love to do is mix up half balsamic vinegar, half Worcestershire sauce, and reduce that until it actually becomes a syrup. Then I'll take a portobello mushroom and I'll put it directly over the hot charcoal grill. And I really want to char that mushroom cap up. And then I want to shift the mushroom over to indirect heat. And then I'll take diced tomatoes and onions and basil and maybe a little garlic, and fill that mushroom cap up over indirect heat.

I love to take a little mozzarella cheese, flatten it down so I've got a nice little disc, put it over the mushroom cap, and then let that cook over indirect heat until that mozzarella cheese gets golden and brown and starts bubbling. Then I want to take the reduction of the balsamic vinegar and Worcestershire and drizzle it over the top of that beautiful portobello mushroom. I love to serve that portobello on an arugula salad and drizzle more of the dressing on top of it. Absolutely phenomenal.

Chris Lilly explains different kinds of barbecue sauce

You helped develop the red sauce for Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q. What are the secrets to a good red barbecue sauce?

Gosh, man, there are so many different ways to go when you talk about red barbecue sauces, whether you go sort of Carolina-style with a vinegar-based barbecue sauce with ketchup or tomato sauce mixed in with that, a little Worcestershire, lemon juice, cayenne, black pepper. Or you can do a traditional sweet barbecue sauce, maybe a Kansas City-style where you've got a lot more cumin and chili powder and a lot more seasonings and it's a little bit richer, thicker, and sweeter, where you've got the molasses and brown sugar.

When you're talking traditional barbecue sauce, you want your tomato base. And that can come as ketchup or tomato paste or crushed tomatoes or anything like that. You've got to have your sweet: brown sugar, maple syrup, molasses, things like that. That gives that depth to the barbecue sauce. And then you've got to have your seasonings: garlic, onion, chili powder, paprika, the list goes on and on. So yeah, you've got a lot of options there.

Can you speak to what makes white barbecue sauce special?

White barbecue sauce is very special. Now, that particular recipe originated with my wife's great-grandfather who started our restaurant, Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, back in 1925 here in Decatur, Alabama. And we've been doing it ever since. There are so many versions out there, but it's a vinegar-based sauce. It's vinegar, it's mayonnaise, it's lemon juice, black pepper, and salt. Some people do sugar and cayenne pepper, and the ingredients go on; horseradish, potentially. But that's the base for white barbecue sauce.

How to cook for a big crowd without stressing out

In the summer grilling season, people might be cooking for a larger group of people than they're used to. Do you have any tips for prepping for a big event without getting overwhelmed?

Oh gosh, absolutely. You want to do as much pre-prep as you can. Even on shoots like this, you want to have some stuff done ahead of time, especially side dishes. Side dishes are great to cook ahead of time, so you don't split your focus during game day when you're tailgating or when you're hanging out with your family and friends. You want to concentrate on the food as little as possible because you really are there just to have a good time.

As many grilled side dishes as you can do ahead of time, whether it's this char-grilled corn and black bean recipe, or the grilled potato salad recipe that we talked about, will help out a lot. I love to do side dishes on the grill. I love to make an entire day of grilling. My friend, if you ever come over to my house during football season, that tailgate lasts all day, even if it's a night game. So I'm out there grilling, having fun with my cold beverages around the charcoal grill, just enjoying life. So get your sides done ahead of time. Pick your proteins last minute, char those up piping hot for your guests, and just enjoy life.

How Chris Lilly prepares live-fire chicken

You have this great chicken recipe set up. Can you walk us through how that goes?

For this live-fire chicken recipe, I start with a whole butterflied chicken. I want to salt the belly, flip it over. Then I want to take a knife, and I want to score the meat and the skin so I get plenty of flavor penetration all the way through to the bone. Once that's done, add a little more salt, black pepper, and a little olive oil. Now that chicken is ready for the grill.

You want to use the two-zone fire we talked about. We've got the Kingsford Charcoal on one side of the grill and we've got the void on the other side. You start by cooking the chicken on the hot side of the grill. I want crisp chicken skin, all that true, live-fire flavor directly over the Kingsford Charcoal. After that, we want to move it to indirect heat. We want to put it in a 10-inch by 10-inch pan away from the coals. Now, we're going to baste it with a little butter, a little soy sauce, brown sugar, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, and two ingredients that I absolutely love that I get in the international section of my grocery store: sambal oelek and a little Korean chili paste.

That chicken is going to stay over indirect heat, about 300 F, for about an hour and 15 minutes. I'm going to baste twice during the cooking process, about every 30 minutes until that chicken is perfectly done.

Chris Lilly's breaks down his char-grilled corn recipe

To pair with the chicken, you can make some char-grilled corn and black beans with some roasted garlic, jalapenos, and onions. It starts with two cans of drained black beans that I put in my cast iron skillet. Then, we actually do two ears of corn directly over the charcoal fire for about six minutes until they get nice and crisp. Once that corn is ready to go, here's a little kitchen hack that I absolutely love: I put a cup upside down in my cast iron skillet, and I balance the ear of corn on the cup. Then I take a knife, and I just carve the corn directly into the pan that I'm actually going to utilize, so there's no mess on the kitchen floor. There's no mess on the cutting board. I actually use the cup as the cutting board.

To season the corn and beans, I roast jalapenos, onions, and garlic on a sheet pan on the grill for about 30 minutes, then mince them. I add my minced onions, jalapenos, and garlic to the skillet with my corn and beans, and add a little cilantro on top of that. I finish it with a little salt and some cotija cheese. And last but not least, a little dressing. The dressing is two parts mayonnaise, one part sour cream. And I just want to do a little drizzle over the top.

Those both look great. What's the advantage of butterflying the chicken?

The advantage of butterflying the chicken is that it gives me surface area to get more flavor. Sometimes when you've got a whole chicken, it's very difficult to get the flavor all the way through to the bone. By butterflying and making those scores in the chicken meat, all of that beautiful flavor I'm getting from the Korean chili paste and the sambal oelek in that beautiful baste actually gets down into the crevices and seasons the meat all the way through so you've got a rich flavor.

For the recipe for live-fire chicken, as well as many other grilling recipes and tips, visit Kingsford Charcoal's website.

To taste Chris Lilly's cooking, you can go to Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q, which also ships meat and sauce nationally. His books, "Big Bob Gibson's BBQ Book" and "Fire and Smoke," are available on Amazon.