It’s summertime once again and that means neighborhoods across the South are filled with the smoky aroma of backyard barbeque grills. Amateur pitmasters from Biloxi to Nashville break out their BBQ tool sets and dust off their secret recipes of spices and elixirs for everything from rib eye steaks to pork shoulders.

For some, the annual ritual of cooking over open flame is rewarded with the joy of perfectly cooked barbeque and the envy of your neighbors. For others, the grill presents a potential minefield of flame-ups and failures.

To prevent some of the most common problems backyard cooks encounter, we reached out to Executive Chef and Co-Owner of Pig & Pint, Grant Hutcheson, for some answers. The award-winning chef shared some pitmaster wisdom with us in hopes of making your next slab of ribs memorable. “The biggest mistake that most cooks make is they don’t control the temperature throughout the cooking process, and they either end up with burned, dry meat or food that is cooked on the outside but undercooked in the center,” Hutcheson says. “The best investment a backyard cook can make is to get a temperature controller accessory that can be added to their grill or barbeque pit. Some models can get pricey, but they do such a good job of maintaining the correct temperature, I think they’re worth the investment. The controllers they sell now even allow you to monitor the temperature with your smart phone. You can’t really beat that,” he says.

When it comes to fueling your flame, most pitmasters agree that if you plan to use charcoal for grilling, you should opt for natural charcoal instead of the briquettes, and stay away from lighter fluid altogether. “You shouldn’t ever use lighter fluid for cooking barbeque,” Hutcheson says. “I can always tell when someone has used lighter fluid to start their fire because it never really burns off, and you can taste it on the meat. Nobody wants to taste fuel on their food.” 

According to Hutcheson, most competition cooks use wood instead of charcoal to feed their fire. “I prefer wood over charcoal because it gives the meat a better flavor, and you can use different woods to change the flavor profile. Cherry wood is probably my favorite, but I also use apple and other fruit woods in my cooking.” The primary challenge in using wood for backyard cooking is locating a local source for fruit woods. Hutcheson has tried the bagged wood blocks from local grocery and hardware stores, but found the wood was too dry. “I have a hard time maintaining the quality of flame and smoke I need if the wood is too dry. It really needs to have a little moisture in it to work well.”

The pitmaster mantra of “low and slow” isn’t lost on Hutcheson, and he shared this advice when it comes to cooking large cuts like brisket and pork shoulder. “You really can’t rush a big cut of meat. We cook our pork shoulders for 12 hours and keep it pretty simple. We just coat everything really well with our dry rub and let it cook slowly at a low temp.” For barbeque hopefuls, he suggests cooking the meat with indirect heat through most of the cooking process and then wrapping it with foil in the last couple of hours to keep it from drying out. “You don’t want to mask the flavor of the meat with really strong sauces or marinades, either. Just keep it simple with a rub and maybe use a spray bottle with a little apple cider vinegar or something like that to moisten it as needed.”