Photo: Anna Knott

Charlie McKenna of Lillie's Q: A backyard smoker since a tender young age. 

Charlie McKenna has been backyard grilling since he was a kid growing up in Greenville, South Carolina. Today the owner and chef of Lillie's Q (1856 W. North Ave., 773-772-5500) in Bucktown, McKenna shared his secrets for small-scale cueing, just in time for this weekend's extended holiday.

To convert your charcoal grill into a smoker, build a fire on one side of the grill and put the meat on the other. Likewise, to convert your gas grill into a smoker, light one side of the grill and put the meat on the other. If you want to impart more smoke flavor, use hardwood chips (fruitwoods or nut woods). You’ll need to soak the wood chips in water for a minimum of two hours, though overnight is best. Place the soaked wood chips in a stainless steel container. Put the container directly on the coals of your charcoal grill or directly on top of the burner under the bottom grate of your gas grill. It’s all safe—provided you monitor your grill-turned-smoker.

McKenna says to put your meat into a cold smoker. Ribs take about five hours in the smoker, including the time it takes for the smoker to heat to 225 degrees. Chicken breasts and thighs take about two and a half hours. For pork shoulder, figure on an hour per pound.


How to smoke baby back ribs

Prepare about 1/2 slab per person
Cook time: 5 hours

1. Remove the silver skin from the back of the ribs with an oyster knife or the back of a spoon.
2. Rub both sides of the ribs with French’s yellow mustard.
3. Sprinkle—don’t rub—the dry rub over the ribs until they are heavily coated front and back.
4. Put the ribs into the smoker and let them smoke for two hours, as the temperature rises to 225 degrees. Maintain that temperature for the rest of the cooking.
5. Wrap the ribs twice with aluminum foil, and put them back in the smoker for two more hours.
6. Unwrap the ribs, and put them back in the smoker for another hour.
7. During the last hour, mop the ribs with the barbecue sauce every 15 minutes.
8. Remove the ribs from the smoker.
9. Eat and enjoy.



1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup sweet paprika
2 Tbsp. chili powder
1 1/2 Tbsp. garlic powder
1 Tbsp. onion powder
2 Tbsp. kosher salt
1/4 cup coarse ground black pepper
1 tsp. cayenne pepper

1. Whisk together all ingredients in a medium mixing bowl; use your fingers to break up any clumps of brown sugar.
2. Store in a sealed airtight container away from heat and light.



2 cups apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup ketchup
2 Tbsp. sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. ground white pepper
1 Tbsp. red pepper flakes

1. Mix together all ingredients in a medium pot, and bring to a simmer for three minutes.
2. Allow sauce to cool to room temperature. Use during the smoking process and serve at the table.