Secrets of the BBQ Gods: Chris Lilly

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By Gwyneth Doland

Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson Barbecue says passion and quality pork are all you need to make great barbecue.

Chris Lilly injects the pork butt while instructing at Kingsford University in Arizona

Since 1992, Chris Lilly has been with Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q Restaurant in Decatur, Alabama, one of the nation’s oldest and most revered barbecue destinations. He is the winner of 10 World BBQ Championships including six Memphis in May World Titles. Along with Dr. BBQ, he is an instructor in BBQ Grand Mastery at the Greenbriar resort, a three day class that took place over three weekends in 2008: June 29-July 2, July 13-16 and August 17-20 ( Lilly was also the co-creator and executive producer of the BBQ Championship Series on the VS network ( The series was presented by Kingsford Charcoal, for whom Lilly is a spokesperson and an instructor at “Kingsford University.” Read about Dave DeWitt’s trip to Kingsford University here.

I caught up with Lilly after the lunch rush at Big Bob Gibson’s. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.

There are probably lots of people who eat at your restaurant or see you at a barbecue competition and think to themselves, “Man, I wish I could do that!” What do you say to those folks when they ask you how to get started in barbecue?
The best thing you can do is make sure you have a love for the art-and barbecue is an art. It’s something that you do and you really like. I do it during the week and I do it on the weekends as a hobby. I would encourage people to try out as many barbecue regions as possible, not only the main four-North Carolina, Memphis, Texas and Kansas City, but also Kentucky and North Alabama, the regions caught between the big ones that have developed niches. And they should visit some of the festivals around the country. They will not find a shortage of events. When I say visit, I mean don’t just go there to eat, go to learn and talk to some of the pitmasters. Ask to go in the back and see what they cook on. Do that at restaurants, too, not just at event. If the people in other restaurants are anything like myself they love to barbecue, talk about barbecue and educate others about barbecue.

So if I came in to your restaurant and asked to see the pit, you’d show me?
Absolutely. But it really depends on who’s there, if there’s a manager who feels comfortable. There are a lot of people who will ask to see the pit just to probe and try to get some secrets.

Yeah, that’s what I was thinking. Barbecue people can be pretty secretive.
There are a lot of secrets in barbecue. But I’ll tell you this: I can give you my recipe on how to cook a world championship pork shoulder and it would be difficult for you to duplicate that recipe. And I don’t say that to make myself sound great or to demean your skills, I say that knowing that at Big Bob Gibson, I’m sitting on 80 years of experience in barbecue. It is not something you can learn overnight.

Is there anything you keep secret, say one particular part of your technique or a couple of ingredients in your rub?
Not necessarily. I’ve done some classes in the past and when I do the classes, I give up the goods! People come expecting to learn something and it’s not fair to them if you hold back secrets. Now, I have my own line of dry rubs and sauces and I’m not going to divulge what’s in the bottle, but you can buy those products and duplicate what I do.

So would you…
I will tell you one thing: In competition, since 1996, I’ve used nothing but Kingsford charcoal and pignut hickory.

Oh, OK. So, wait, pignut hickory?
Pignut seems to have a smooth, mellow hickory flavor.

So you use a blend of charcoal and wood chunks in competition. Is that what you do at the restaurant?
No, we use all hickory at the restaurant, that’s something that Big Bob started in 1925 and I’m not gonna be the one to change it!

How did you get started in barbecue?
That’s an interesting question! I met my wife in college, and my wife just happened to be the great-granddaughter of Big Bob Gibson. I’ve always been a foodie, but it was through her that I really got involved. I was definitely not going to college to cook barbecue!

What did you study?
I double majored in marketing and finance. [After graduation] I got a job in Franklin, Tenn., in pharmaceutical sales. Then Don, my wife’s father, he always wanted to open another restaurant in Decatur, but he never had anyone to run it. So he decided to build one and offered me a job. I tell you it was the best decision I ever made. They were so supportive of me coming in and learning. When I first started I didn’t feel comfortable just coming in and joining management. I insisted on coming in with the pit guys at 6 a.m. I spent years coming in at 6 a.m. and actually cooking the barbecue. I don’t feel comfortable telling people what to do unless I do it myself.

So what’s it like breaking in a new guy at the pit? I mean, what are some of the things you try to impress on them?
Well it’s a lot like talking to people who are new to barbecue in general. The most important thing I tell them is: First, learn how to cook barbecue before you start experimenting with flavorings. People jump in, they do a dry rub, they’ll inject, brine and  marinade and come up with a complete mess. Keep it simple and learn the art of how to cook barbecue, how to get moisture and tenderness from your pork butt, how to cook a rib so that it’s tender and not overdone, falling off the bone.

Let me ask you a question that’s been on my mind lately. How important is the quality of the meat in barbecue? Does it matter that much if you start with great meat? Or does it matter not at all because any old cut will taste good if you cook it for 11 hours?
That is a very, very good question. First, you’ve got to keep in mind what barbecue is. It’s typically taking the largest or worst cuts of meat and by cooking them at a low temp for a long period of time, achieving the best possible results. The cheapest cuts usually have the worst marbling, but when I’m cooking for competition I hand select everything I cook based on marbling and color. Without a doubt, the quality of meat you start with will affect your end product, but…

Is what you do with it more important?
Yeah, your cooking style and technique is more important. Take Kobe beef, or American wagyu beef. If I take a brisket with that high concentration of marbling, I’m going to cook it hotter and faster.

Yeah. The type of meat you start with dictates your cooking technique. The only way you know that is by cooking. There’s no substitute for getting in there and doing it.

That’s interesting because it seems like majority of pork available today is just terrible!
Pork has got to the point now where it is so lean and has so little marbling that it’s hard to put out a fantastic product. Now you almost have to start looking for a smaller, niche company that can provide meat that is has a higher level of marbling. Pork today, I should say commodity pork today is almost to the point where you can’t do much with it.

I’m gonna call you back and just talk about meat next time!
You should!

Chris Lilly’s Tips for the Beginning Smoker

  • Most barbecue involves a long cooking process, and most people today have grills and aren’t set up to do barbecue. You can do this in a kettle grill by building a two-zone fire. You’ll be cooking over indirect heat, with your fire on one side and the meat on the other.
  • Make sure you have a charcoal chimney on-hand and pre-lit. That way you can add hot coals to the fire. Adding hot coals will keep your fire from smothering.
  • Also, humidity within the cooking chamber is important. Keep the lid shut. The more you open it the more moisture you lose. You want to trap that moisture in the cooking chamber.
  • The best humidity is natural humidity from the meat, but when necessary, you can add a water pan or a drip pan. Add water to the drip pan, a combination of water and fruit juices and dry rubs. Stay away from straight fruit juices because they caramelize and then burn in the pan.

Barbecue Beef Short Ribs

This “low and slow” entrée recipe is highlighted with an intense beef au jus. These juices are created from beef drippings, a dry rub seasoning, and a rich stock. Mixed with a KC Masterpiece® selection, a signature drizzle is created to top off the dish.

10 beef short ribs (individual ribs)

For the dry rub:

3 teaspoons salt and 4 teaspoons black pepper
2 teaspoon dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons oregano
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 1/2 teaspoons thyme leaves
1 teaspoon ground ginger

For the stock:
1 cup beef stock
3 tablespoons soy sauce
4 teaspoons minced shallots
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

With a sharp knife, trim the top layer of fat from the rib if needed. Score the top of each rib by cutting grooves (1/4-inch deep) perpendicular to the rib bone, every 1/2 inch. These cuts will provide more surface area for the flavorful rub.

In a small bowl, mix together the dry rub ingredients. Apply a generous coat of dry rub to all sides of each rib.

Build a charcoal fire on one side of the grill, such that the coals are situated on only one side of the grill, leaving the other side empty. This will create an area for lower temperature, indirect cooking away from the coals.

Place the beef ribs on the grill (bone side down) away from the coals and cook with indirect heat (approximately 275 degrees F) for 1 1/2 hours, or until internal temperature of beef reaches 160 degrees F.

Remove the ribs from the grill and place them in the center of a doubled sheet of aluminum foil with meat side facing down. Pour the stock mixture over the ribs and wrap them tightly in foil, trapping liquid inside. Return the foil pack to the grill for 1 hour, or until the internal temperature of the beef reaches 200 degrees F.

Remove the foil package from the grill and let the beef rest in the foil for 15 minutes before removing. Slice each rib to the bone at scored cuts. Reserve some au jus to drizzle over beef or to season side dishes, such as mashed potatoes.

Yield: 5 servings
Heat Scale: Mild

Grilled Pork Chops with Apple-Cranberry Glaze

This can be made with either bone-in pork chops or boneless pork loin cut about 1-inch thick. The apple cider brine will ensure chops will not dry out when grilled over hot charcoal. The fruity sweet glaze, made from apple sauce, cranberry sauce and maple syrup, is a perfect compliment to the brined pork. For a lower calorie entrée, try the chops without the sweet sauce.

6 (1-inch thick) bone-in pork chops or boneless loin chops

For the brine:
2 cups water
2 cups apple cider
2 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
1/2 tablespoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
6 allspice berries
1/2 bay leaf

For the sauce:
2 tablespoons spicy brown mustard
1/2 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup cranberry sauce
1/2 cup apple sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/16 teaspoon red pepper

In a large bowl, mix together the brine ingredient and stir well. Place the pork chops in the brine and refrigerate for 12-24 hours.

In a small pan over medium heat, combine the sauce ingredients and mix well. Heat until the mixture just reaches a simmer, then remove it from the heat. Reserve 1/2 cup of sauce for plating.

Build a charcoal fire for direct grilling. Grill the chops directly over coals (approximately 450 degrees F) for 8 minutes on each side. During the last 3 minutes of cooking, baste both sides of the chops well with sauce. The internal temperature of chops should reach 150 to 155 degrees F. prior to removing from grill.

Drizzle reserve sauce over chops when serving, or serve warm on the side.

Yield: 6 servings
Heat Scale: Mild

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