These Southern Pitmasters Reveal Their Go-To Grilling Tips, Just in Time for Tailgating Season


Because everyone knows a tailgate is only as good as what you’ve got in the smoker and on the grill. 

tailgating party

As you know, we take tailgating very seriously here at Southern Living—so who better to advise you on this year’s festivities than a couple of seasoned professionals? Award-winning pitmasters and grill experts Tay Nelson of Bobby's BBQ & Seasoning in South Carolina and Matthew Statham of SAW's BBQ in Alabama know a thing or two about creating plates to impress. 

Here are some of their tips for making the best at-home barbecue for your tailgate this side of the Mississippi River.

Keep it simple when cooking in bulk 

Whether you’ve invited many people to your tailgate, or you’re hosting an intimate group of friends who can put away pounds—consider simple (and affordable) cuts for a party. Chicken parts and pork butts are perfect for occasions like this one: The price point is reasonable, and the meats are somewhat forgiving if a minor misstep occurs. Tay mentions that it’s best to start out with choice-cut pieces of meat. Select cuts often take more finesse, and the expense of prime level meats can be prohibitive. 

Grilling Steak

Find the right tools

Tay hates to see people poke their meat with a fork to test for doneness, because it leads to moisture loss—tongs are a better way to go. And as far as hosting a tailgate goes, it just helps you look like you mean business. Matthew suggests you use unwaxed butcher paper instead of aluminum foil; it helps maintain the moisture in the meat while letting it breathe, so you end up with a texture that is more like pulled pork and less like pot roast. 

The magic is in the mayo

If you want perfectly browned steak and chicken with too-good-to-be-true sear marks—make Duke’s Mayo the secret weapon in your marinade. Coating your protein with mayo will help your cuts brown quickly (useful for thinner cuts or meats like chicken, which can cook through before a sear can develop). Additionally, if you mix Duke’s Mayo with sweeter marinades or sauces—such as barbecue sauce—you’ll keep the sugars in the sauce from burning before the meat is done, thanks to the mayo’s high-fat content. And unlike other mayonnaise, Duke’s Mayo has no added sugar to compete with the sugar in the sauces. 

Use the good stuff

What better excuse to get fancy than wanting to impress your guests at this tailgate? For example, avoid using items like pre-ground pepper, which loses the oils that are found in freshly ground peppercorns. According to Matthew, a major taste difference has been shown in a side-by-side comparison. Tay insists that Duke’s Mayo is the only mayonnaise allowed in his home, as it’s the staple of his family’s coleslaw recipe—a perfect accompaniment to a platter of grilled meats.  

Hit the right flavor notes

When creating a rub, Matthew recommends hitting his four elements of taste: salty, sweet, spicy, and savory. Every recipe that he experiments with has these components, and home cooks can adjust the various levels to their liking. Don’t like much heat? Don’t add as many peppers. Want to ramp up the sweetness? Add a little more sugar to the spice mix. There is no right or wrong way to do it!

Focus your timing 

Any experienced tailgating host knows that some of the most important steps in grilling happen before your guests arrive and the tailgate gets underway. For example, do trim your brisket while it’s cold, but give it some time to get closer to room temperature before adding it to the grill or smoker, to make sure it cooks evenly. 

Temperature matters

Tay refuses to declare meat done when it “looks” done or feels firm to the touch—he insists on taking its temperature. To him a good digital thermometer is worth its weight in gold, and he doesn’t cook without one. Matthew agrees: If you’re not hitting certain temperatures, the meat won’t have the “pull” that you want when shredding pulled pork. 


Don’t forget the Alabama white sauce 

Consider this white sauce the MVP of any tailgate. The foundation of the white sauce found in most Alabama barbecue restaurants is mayo, vinegar, and black pepper—anything else that gets added to the mix is up to the chef. 

At SAW, they add their vinegar-based red barbecue sauce as an element of this recipe. When making SAW’s signature white barbecue sauce, Matthew uses Duke’s Mayonnaise because of its helpful no-added-sugar characteristic, since sugar can throw off the nuanced flavor the restaurant’s white sauce is known for. The result is a bold, tasty sauce that complements SAW’s smoked chicken and turkey. Don’t have time to whip up your own Alabama white sauce? Duke’s has a ready-made version to save you some time! 

Do take your time and enjoy yourself

While these are a lot of serious tips for serious grillers, the most important thing to know if you’re playing resident pitmaster at your tailgate is that the goal isn’t how fast you can get the food to the table. Fold the grilling process into your day, have a brew while watching your meats on the grill, enjoy your favorite playlist, and just shoot the breeze with your guests while you get your work done. 
The rule is low and slow; building layers of flavor on meat takes time. Rushing through the process can lead to dry, overcooked meat or burned, inedible offerings. And that is what we call a party foul. 

Try your hand at your own spread of grilled favorites with a little help from Duke’s Mayo

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