Born to Barbecue: Charcoal Grilling with Bill Gillespie

Pitmaster Bill Gillespie reveals the secrets to charcoal grilling

By Deb Boucher Stetson | Photography by Ken Goodman

“If you told me in high school that I’d be writing cookbooks, I’d have laughed,” says Bill Gillespie, whose third cookbook, “The Secrets to Great Charcoal Grilling on the Weber” (Page Street Publishing), was released in April. Thanks to his abiding interest in grilling, the Abington resident eventually found his way into the world of competitive barbecue.

Gillespie says he wasn’t even aware of grilling competitions until about 14 years ago. “A couple guys I worked with had done a few backyard events, and they asked me to tag along,” he recalls. “I got fourth place and I was hooked.”

Employed as a design engineer for National Grid, Gillespie is now recognized as a champion pit master. He travels all over the country for competitions with his barbecue team, which includes his wife, Shaune, longtime friend Alan Burke, and Josh Earle, a relatively new team member. In May, the team took part in a competition in Fredericksburg, Virginia, that included about 45 teams. “The first day, we won Grand Champion,” says Gillespie proudly. “This year, the team will compete in 26 to 29 contests, up from 24 last year.”

“A lot of our friends are in the barbecue community now,” says Gillespie, who is often asked for grilling tips. “One of the big things I tell people is to leave [the food] alone and let it cook. Every time you open up the grill or the smoker, you’re losing heat.” Since gas grills aren’t allowed at the competitions Gillespie attends (only wood or charcoal are permitted) he only has one gas grill at home. But he has three charcoal grills and eight smokers. He advises grillers to take it easy on the smoke flavors. “People tend to over smoke their food,” he says.

Becoming a cookbook author happened quite naturally for Gillespie. He was at a 2013 invitational event when he met a fellow competitor who was there with his publisher. “They called me later and asked if I would write a book,” says Gillespie.

The project turned out to be bigger than he expected, in part because of a tight deadline. “Halfway through it I was struggling a little bit,” he recalls, so he reached out to a friend, Tim O’Keefe, who is not only a barbecue judge but also a professional writer. The two pitmasters powered through and in March of 2015 he released his first cookbook, “Secrets to Smoking on the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker and Other Smokers: An Independent Guide With Master Recipes from a BBQ Champion.”

The following year, Gillespie published his second book, “The Smoking Bacon & Hog Cookbook: The Whole Pig and Nothing But the Pig, BBQ Recipes,” also co-authored by O’Keefe. Gillespie dedicated his newest cookbook in memory of dad.

“When I think of grilling, I think of the father and son bond created and life’s lessons to be learned while cooking over a fire,” writes Gillespie. Inside, he details various charcoal cooking techniques and more than 60 recipes with step-by-step instructions and photographs explaining how to prepare competition-worthy barbecue. Here’s a sneak peek at a few dishes guaranteed to impress at your next backyard cookout.

Below information reprinted with permission from “The Secrets to Great Charcoal Grilling on the Weber” by Bill Gillespie, Page Street Publishing Co. 2018.

DIRECT COOKING:

This is what most people think of when it comes to backyard cooking. Direct cooking is a form of high-heat cooking where food is placed directly over red-hot charcoal. It generally works well for thin cuts of meat and similar proteins. One advantage of this method is that food cooks quickly.

Configuring your grill for direct cooking is simple. Light up a charcoal chimney and when the edges of the charcoal at the top of the chimney start to turn gray, dump the hot coals into the grill. Using metal tongs, form an even layer to create a uniform cooking environment. Ideally, you want the cooking grate about six inches above the heat source.

When I use this method, I usually fill the bottom of the grill about two-thirds full of charcoal. You should get 50 to 60 minutes of burn time from one chimney of charcoal.

Something to keep in mind is that direct cooking is prone to flare-ups caused by fat drippings. While the smoldering drippings can create smoke that helps flavor the food, shooting flames can be unwieldy. One way to prevent flare-ups is to keep the lid on the grill. You can also use a different cooking method for fatty meats.

TWO-ZONE COOKING:

Two-zone cooking uses a combination of direct and indirect cooking methods. Basically, you configure the grill so that it has two regions. One half of the grill contains a pile of lit charcoal and acts as a hot zone, while the other half contains no charcoal and acts as a cool zone. With your grill configured this way, you can easily sear meats using direct heat from the hot zone and then move them to the cool zone where they finish cooking from indirect heat. Similarly, you can use this setup to slowly cook meats in the cool zone, and in the final minutes of cooking, finish them off in the hot zone, so the surface becomes slightly charred, crispy and flavorful.


CHICKEN DRUMSTICKS

SERVES: 4
COOK TIME: 21 minutes

Drumsticks are one of my favorite things to cook on the Weber grill. One reason is that they’re versatile—they work with numerous rub or marinade options. Another reason is that drumsticks have a built-in utensil, which makes them fun to eat! I like to cook drumsticks using what I call the seven, three, twenty-one method. You can use this drumstick method anytime you want a quick meal.

12 chicken drumsticks
¼ cup olive oil
3 tbsp Roadtrip Rub (see recipe)
1 piece of hickory smoke wood

Set up your grill for direct cooking (see ab). Remember to lay out the charcoal evenly to prevent hot spots which can burn the food. Either lump charcoal or briquettes are fine for this recipe. Lightly coat the drumsticks with olive oil. Sprinkle the rub all over the drumsticks.

Place the smoke wood on the grill. Put the cooking grate on the grill and let the grate heat up for a few minutes. Using tongs and a paper towel, lightly coat the grill with olive oil. Place the drumsticks on the cooking grate and put the lid on the grill. Cook for 7 minutes.

Remove the lid and rotate each drumstick ⅓ of a turn. Put the lid on the grill and cook for 7 more minutes. Remove the lid, rotate the drumsticks again. Put the lid on the grill and cook for 7 additional minutes. BOOM! You’ve just cooked drumsticks using the 7-3-21 method. Who says cooking on charcoal takes a long time? You just cooked dinner in 21 minutes.


ROADTRIP RUB

YIELD: 1 ½ cups (360 g)

I remember Tim told me he racked up over six thousand miles on a nine-day drive with his friends. Their only goal was to eat brisket in Lockhart, Texas. But what did a couple of crazy guys who love barbecue do? They also made stops in Kansas City, New Orleans and Memphis. Not too long after Tim got back home, he put together a spice rub that draws inspiration from all the places they visited. One of the things I like about this rub is the dark note the turbinado sugar brings and how it has just a hint of burn at the end. You can use this rub on pork and chicken. It’s pretty easy to make. Go ahead and give it a try.

4 tbsp paprika
4 tbsp turbinado brown sugar
1 tbsp sea salt
2 tbsp black pepper
1 tbsp chipotle or cayenne powder
1 tbsp cumin
2 tbsp onion powder
2 tbsp garlic powder
2 tbsp dried basil
2 tbsp dried oregano

Mix all the ingredients together and store in an air-tight container.


GRILLED LOBSTER TAIL

SERVES: 4
COOK TIME: approximately 6–8 minutes

One of the things we New Englanders are known for is seafood, especially lobster; it’s pretty much a staple at any cookout during the summertime. Keeping the flavors simple, like salt, pepper and melted butter will allow you to enjoy the sweet taste of the lobster. I also like grilling lobster tails removed from the shell, because you get a little bit of char on the meat that goes great with the melted butter.

4 lobster tails, 6–8 ounces
4 long wooden skewers
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup melted butter

Set up your grill for direct cooking, this time using lump charcoal (see sidebar). Remember, when spreading the charcoal out in the bottom of the grill, you should have a nice even layer of hot coals. Set your top and bottom vents so you get a dome temperature of approximately 400°F.

The first thing you want to do is remove the lobster meat from the shell. Turn the tail on its back, with the underside facing up, and with a pair of kitchen shears, cut down both sides of the shell, all the way to the end. Gently remove the meat from the shell with your fingers.

Lay out each tail and insert the wooden skewer from one end all the way through to the other side. Using the skewer will prevent the tail from curling up into a ball when cooking.

Season each tail with salt and pepper and place the tails on the cooking grate. Cover and cook over direct heat for 3 to 4 minutes. Flip the tails and cook another 3 to 4 minutes or until you reach an internal temperature of 135°F.

Remove from the grill and serve immediately with the melted butter.

NOTE: Removing the skewer from the tail is fairly easy, hold the tail down with a fork or your hand; with your other hand, grab the end of the skewer, twist until the skewer releases and pull straight out.


PERFECT PORK TENDERLOIN WITH MAPLE CHIPOTLE GLAZE

Yield: 2–3 servings
Cook Time: 18 minutes

How many times have you cooked pork tenderloin and felt like you were eating sawdust? I have your solution right here. Basically, pork tenderloin is the filet mignon of pork. It’s a very lean piece of meat and can dry out very quickly when overcooked, so it needs to be cooked over high heat and it needs to be done fairly quickly. This is a simple recipe with some great flavors, and it will come out perfect each and every time—no more overcooked, dry pork ever again.

½ cup real maple syrup
1 tbsp chipotle powder (if you can’t find chipotle powder use regular chili powder)
1 pork tenderloin, approximately
1–1½ pounds
Salt and pepper to taste

Mix the maple syrup and chipotle powder well and store in the fridge until ready to use.
Set up your grill for two-zone cooking (see sidebar). Remember that you need a hot side and a cool side. You’ll be looking for a dome temperature of 375°F to 400°F. Make the proper vent adjustments to obtain your dome temperature. Either lump charcoal or briquettes are fine for this recipe.

Season the pork tenderloin with salt and pepper on all sides and allow to sit about 20 minutes. At this point the grill should be ready to cook on.

Place the tenderloin on the cooking grate directly over the coals and put the cover on; cook for 7 minutes. Flip the tenderloin and do the same thing for the other side. Do not place it back on the same spot, place it on another hot spot. The reason you don’t want to put it back in the same spot is that the spot where the meat was will have cooled down, and you want all the heat you can get on a fresh, new spot. This will also allow you to get some nice grill marks.
Cook for another 6 minutes. Now take the tenderloin and move it to the other side of the grill (the cool side) where there are no hot coals. With a brush, apply some of the glaze to the tenderloin. Cover and cook 2½ minutes.

Flip the tenderloin and baste again with the glaze. Continue cooking for another 2½ minutes. When the internal temperature reaches about 145°F to 150°F. Remove from the heat and allow to rest about 10 minutes before slicing into ½-inch pieces and serve.

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