Decatur’s Chris Lilly is a big name among barbecue’s elite. The great-grandson-in-law of the famed Alabama barbecue pit-master Big Bob Gibson, Lilly is the executive chef for Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q restaurants, head of the Big Bob Gibson competitive cooking team, the corporate spokesperson for Kingsford charcoal and author of Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ Book.
Lilly’s competition team has won multiple cook-offs and was crowned world champion at the 2011 Memphis in May competition.
Want to perfect your barbecue know-how? Lilly shares some valuable information about preparing Alabama’s most prominent cuisine.
Q: How did you learn your renowned barbecue techniques?
A: I was taught by Jerry Knighton, who started working at Big Bob Gibson’s when he was 15, and he trained directly under Big Bob during the late 1930s, early 1940s.
What is the most valuable lesson you learned from Jerry?
The most important thing I learned from Jerry was patience. When you want to put out fantastic barbecue, you have to know what it is doing when you aren’t even looking at it. Shut it up, forget about it and wait for it to slow-cook.
Do you have some specific tips for at-home barbecuers? For instance, what are some of the biggest mistakes you see and how can they fix them? What are some tips for cooking great barbecue for a large crowd?
1. Be patient, enjoy the whole process. Barbecue is more than the meat off of the grill. It’s the time spent cooking that matters, and enjoying the whole process makes a better barbecue experience.
2. Build a two-zone fire. You do this by pushing the charcoal to one side of the grill, creating a zone for direct heat and a zone for indirect heat. The thick meat goes away from the coals over the indirect heat for a low and slow cook. Thin meat that will be ready to go faster goes over the coals for the direct heat.
3. Hold off on using sweet sauces until after the meat is done cooking. Using sweet sauces during the grilling process will caramelize and burn the sauce.
4. Don’t make the temperature in the grill too hot. They need to install a thermometer with a numerical reading that will help them control the fire. This way, they can transfer any recipe to an outside cooker.
5. Amateurs tend to overcook the meat, making it sandpaper dry. Using an internal meat thermometer and constantly probing the meat will ensure cooking it to just the right temperature. Most competent barbecue books will have an exact temperature listed, which can easily be ensured by an internal meat thermometer.
6. Another common mistake is trying to be creative and make a homemade rub mix and sauce. Beginners should purchase premade ingredients and concentrate on cooking the meat. Perfecting the barbecue first is most important.
7. When I cook for large crowds, I like to use a large cooker and bigger cuts of meat, such as a whole beef brisket, whole chickens and slabs of ribs. When using a larger cooker, it allows for the bigger cuts of meat to be cooked at the same time returning a larger yield for your crowd.
How do you pair all of Big Bob Gibson’s sauces with the different meats?
We learned by experience in competitions. The white sauce, for example, has been a favorite on the chicken since 1925.
The people, definitely. It’s interesting to see people from all over come together, and it is fun to see all of your friends and participate in your favorite hobby together. Oh, yeah — winning is not so bad either!
How would someone get involved in a barbecue competition?
There are typically separate divisions or types of competitions to participate in: professional and backyard. I recommend starting out and practicing in the backyard category. Some competitions such as RiverFest and WhistleStop have multiple categories, including a backyard competition for the amateurs. The backyard category usually has one or two tasks, such as chicken and/or ribs, making it more manageable for a backyard cook.
The views expressed here are those of the author.