The 7-time world barbecue champion wants to see more women behind the grill. She’s got tips to get you—and your teen—over the grates.

By Sarah Wharton
Photo courtesy of Melissa Cookston

“Guys took over cooking outside. Women should get out and play with fire,” says chef and cookbook author Melissa Cookston. “It brings the whole family outside, where a lot of memories are made. And it’s better than having half the family inside.”

She ought to know. Cookston is the “Winningest Women in Barbecue” and the owner of Steak by Melissa in Southaven, Mississippi, and Memphis BBQ Company, with three locations across the South. She’s also the author of two cookbooks: Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room and Smokin’ Hot in the South. She’s currently at work on her third cookbook, which will focus on international flavors. Last year, she was inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame.

Photo courtesy of Melissa Cookston

And this month, Cookston can be found going for her eighth victory at the Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. She made her name at Memphis in May, racking up wins in the whole hog category, and when she clinched her seventh championship in 2017, she did it with a hybrid hog she bred after researching the best characteristics of the animals she’d worked with.

If she wins this year, she will be the only woman to have won the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest Grand Champion Title three times and the only person to have won the whole hog category six times.

Point is, listen up, because she’s got advice you need this summer:

On picking the charcoal

“It’s dependent on what flavor you want and how long you want it to burn. There are really two types of charcoal on the market right now: briquettes and lump. Lump burns longer and hotter and has less ash, so there’ a bit less cleanup. It has a different flavor from briquettes, so it just depends on what you’re looking for.”

On starting the fire

"People think they need lighter fluid. I cringe; I don’t ever use it. I use a charcoal starter. You can also buy little fuel cubes that have no odor and no flavor, which I do use.”

Family Circle likes: Char-Griller Trigger Release Charcoal Starter, which you don’t have to flip over—the coals fall out of a trap door on the bottom; $15.

Photo courtesy of Chargriller

On patience as a weapon

“People want to start grilling too early. Wait until the charcoal is ashy or white to start grilling.”

On cooking with teens

"Teens are very interested in what you’re doing, so the more they’re involved with you cooking, the more confident they’ll be on their own. I always give kids something to do: ‘Hey, flip that burger.’ Then they want to do it by themselves next time. I always involve as many people as possible in the cooking process.”

On showing the grill who’s boss

"Always, always keep a spray bottle nearby to ‘tame the flames.’”

On the one tool you must have

“Use a thermometer. I’ve been in the restaurant business for 36 years, and I still pull a thermometer out to check that perfect temperature.”

Family Circle likes: Weber iGrill 2, which lets you insert probes into multiple items and track their internal temperatures via an app; $100.

Photo courtesy of Weber