Barbecues belong to summer. There’s nothing like the scent of sizzling burgers wafting through the backyard to get you in the mood for beach days, garden parties, and lazing in the hammock. Barbecues are laid back and convenient, with little clean-up and ample opportunities for socializing. What’s not to love?
In this summer grill guide we’ve covered all the basics: set-up, locations, sauces and rubs, top recipes, side dishes and summery drinks, plus tips from the pros on how to make the best, most delicious (and easy) summer barbecue ever!
All About Grilling
Ready to fire up the grill? Let’s start with the basics. First, some terms: ‘grilling’ means indirect heat; that is, meat generally cooked over an open fire for a very long time over low heat. Humans have been cooking this way since the cave man days. An American specialty, “barbecue” is really anything smothered in sauce cooked over a gas grill, fire pit or charcoal briquettes. Other countries that excel in BBQ are Korea, Mongolia and Argentina with its renowned asado.
The first historical reference to the term “barbecue” likely dates to the Spaniards, who landed in the Caribbean and dubbed the locals’ slow-cooking-over-wood-coal technique barbacoa, according to TIME magazine.
What’s a traditional barbecue side? Corn bread. And in the American South, fried okra and sweet potatoes. Barbecue styles vary regionally—from tomato-based sauce over tender pulled pork and dry-rub ribs to whole pigs soaked in vinegar and mesquite-infused brisket. One thing that doesn’t vary is various communities’ ardent passion for, and allegiance to, their hometown barbecue.
You wouldn’t want to show up for the dance without your party shoes and, similarly, you don’t want to fire up the barbecue without all the key tools, utensils, and get-up. Save a copy of our comprehensive checklist for the perfect barbecue to keep on hand as your handy reference guide.
A few musts for backyard barbecuers include:
- a veggie or fish basket
- a grill brush (not metal, which can break off and be ingested) to clean the grate
- a barbecue brush (silicone is best)
- sturdy oven mitts made for the grill
- a spunky apron for the grill master!
- some long-handled barbecue spatulas and tongs
- the grill (obviously!)—choose between gas, charcoal, or try the outdoor fire pit
- a platter for your grill ingredients
- skewers for kebabs
- a barbecue cover to keep the rust off.
Top Tips for Grilling
- Always clean the grill well before you begin. Don’t skip this step, folks.
- Grease the grill
- Use charcoal if you want that quintessential smoky flavor, says English star chef Jamie Oliver. (Lump charcoal, or charred wood, is best and better for the environment because it burns cleaner.) Add hickory and oak wood chips to the charcoal for delicious fish and pork; and apple or cherry wood for meats. And use a grill with a lid to seal in moisture, regulate temperature and lock in flavor.
- Don’t let pesky insects ruin your barbecue. Keep bugs to a minimum by using citronella candles or incense to repel mosquitoes, a bug zapper for flies and such, mosquito nets if necessary and a wasp catcher.
Follow these steps to get ready for barbecue night:
- Marinate your main event the night before and store in the fridge.
- Make sure you have extra propane if you are using a gas grill and charcoal briquettes if you’re grilling using that method. You don’t want to run out with that chicken or fish half-baked.
- Position the grill in the right spot. Make sure its well away from the kitchen window so you don’t fill the house with smoke.
- Clean the grill. First, scrape the grate with a grill scraper. Then close the lid and heat up the grill for about 10 minutes. Finally, brush the grate clean with your grill brush. Do a major clean periodically to keep everything tidy, sanitary, and free of unwanted odors and food residue.
Best Barbecue Protein
Burgers and steak—with beef’s distinctive, savory umami—is clearly a top contender when it comes to cooking over fire outdoors. Same with smoky, salty sausages and plump hot dogs. Try sliced steak cold with grilled Creamers or sizzling hot off the grill. Serve burger patties plain or fully loaded with toppings like blue cheese, sautéed mushrooms and Swiss, or BLT (bacon, lettuce and tomato, plus avocado).
Other great choices are tofu, seafood such as shrimp and prawns, chicken and especially fish, which is often overlooked as a top choice, chef Oliver notes. Bone-in chicken is more flavorful and thighs work best on the barbecue. Brine chicken the day before to further enhance flavor. Salmon burgers and thick halibut steaks are fine, but consider using a fish basket for delicate fillets and whole fish like trout—plus tofu—to avoid sticky grill mishaps. The food news is that barbecue menus are straightforward because all you just need is your main protein, plus a side salad and some grilled Creamers or corn on the cob. Add some brownies or watermelon for dessert and you’re ready to eat!
How to grill the perfect steak
Here are some tips on how to grill the most succulent, flavor-filled ribeye or tenderloin:
- Start with a room-temperate steak.
- Salt the steak generously before placing on the grill.
- Make sure the grill is hot. Preheat it for 15 or more minutes.
- Let the meat rest (uncovered) for 10 minutes before cutting and serving.
- Grease the grill (see above).
- “Low and slow” is the key approach to grilling steak. Don’t rush it.
Some of the best easy-barbecuing vegetables are peppers, zucchini, onion, mushrooms (meaty Portobellos), eggplant, and Little Potatoes. Make easy Creamer kebabs, a perfect accompaniment to steak or chicken, or grill them in no-mess foil packs, also optimal for camping.
Some chefs like Jamie Oliver say don’t add oil or seasoning to veggies until after grilling or they will get soggy. Drizzle vegetables in high-quality oil or vinegar after cooking. Toss peppers on the grill whole and turn with the tongs til slightly charred. Slice onions crosswise into quarter-inch rings. Cut eggplant into thick slices and halve zucchinis lengthwise; mark briefly on the flesh side, then turn and cook skin side down to avoid sticking. It’s often safest to BBQ vegetables in a grill basket so they don’t slip down through the grate. Asparagus is lovely and done in minutes, though safest in the basket. You can also slide veggies onto skewers for easy grilling and a festive format. Check out some of our tasty skewer recipes here, for either the main event or colorful side dishes.
Aside from grilled veggies, popular side dishes for the barbecue table are classic potato salad or macaroni salad, coleslaw (standard cabbage, Asian-style or carrot and raisin), corn on the cob and corn bread. Or, instead of corn bread, try flat bread that you cook right on the grill. Substitute corn on the cob for Mexican grilled corn with cilantro and lime juice, too. Caprese Potato Salad combines two favorites in one: potato salad with a popular summer Italian salad—juicy, sun-ripened tomatoes with mild fresh buffalo mozzarella, drizzled in extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkled with fresh basil. Other top BBQ sides are macaroni and cheese, ketchup-and-molasses baked beans, collard greens with bacon, heirloom tomato salad with pickled onions, cucumber-dill salad and seasonal fresh fruit salad.
Beyond the requisites—condiments such as relish, ketchup, mustard, mayo for burgers, for example—you’ll want some snazzy sauces to wow your guests and tantalize the taste buds. Marinade is the ticket. Marinate overnight with your entree sealed in a Ziploc or in a covered casserole dish, reserving some to brush on every 10 minutes as you cook over the grill, advises chef Oliver. That will result in moist, gently caramelized, extremely flavorful fish or meat.
Herb butter is also lovely as a finish. Make it in advance, or buy it, then cut into little disks and place on top of the chicken, fish or steak as it comes off the grill to melt into deliciousness. Barbecue rubs are world-famous, of course. Ditto for BBQ sauces. Make your own or buy pre-mixed versions. Popular rubs include chipotle, paprika-chili, brown sugar-red pepper and garlic-rosemary-thyme-parsley. Sauces range from tomato-based with brown sugar and molasses to tangy with kick, thanks to cayenne, paprika, dried garlic and onion.
Anywhere outside can be the right choice for your barbecue venue as long as it’s flat and relatively sheltered. Choose a pretty spot on the beach, a lawn at a city park or quiet meadow at a nature park. Barbecue while you camp—a prime opportunity to dabble with the low, slow charcoal grilling method while you tell stories and sing gathered around the fire. Block parties are fun because neighbors can roll their BBQs and coolers into the cul-de-sac and set up an impromptu DIY dinner feast with lawn chairs and folding tables. You can show off your grilling skills and get new ideas from the array of potluck dishes, too. Backyard barbecues are the classic format, with friends, family and neighbors gathering around the picnic table while dogs and kids play on the grass. Wherever you choose, make it simple and relaxed, with the emphasis on good times over tasty, fuss-free food.
Festive Summer Themes
If you like having a theme, consider these favorite barbecue concepts, which will give you lots and lots of decoration and ambiance possibilities:
- Fourth of July/Canada Day
- Cowboy hoe down
- Beach party
- Build your own burger
- Hot dog bar
- Mexican fiesta
- Pool party
- Movie night
What to Drink
Beverages are the cherry on top of the sundae and will elevate your barbecue from just-fine to fabulous. Generally speaking, you want something frosty and light to rejuvenate during the summer heat and compliment your grill offerings. Think: cold craft beer cooling in tubs of ice, sparkling chilled cider, sparkling white wine or rosé (or sparkling rosé!). Also en vogue right now is orange wine (skin-contact wine with an eye-catching orange hue), particularly refreshing in summertime. Another classic al fresco beverage is a pitcher of fruity sangría, whether red wine- or white wine-based.
For your non-alcoholic offerings, consider iced tea (herbal and black/caffeinated), a fruit juice spiked with sparkling water and citrus slices, lemonade, sparkling water and a selection of chilled sodas. Put everything out in coolers or tubs with non-breakable cups nearby for easy self-service. If you’re feeling fancy, put out some flirty garnishes as well: lemon wedges skewered with festive toothpicks, lime rinds, fresh mint or berries and cucumber slices, or even edible flowers. Make it colorful and festive.
It’s a Wrap!
Watermelon is traditional, and easy, for your BBQ dessert offering, as are homemade brownies or summer pies like berry, peach, cherry or apple. But if you want to wrap your BBQ party in summer style, try this one: ripe peaches caramelized on the grill. Slice whole peaches in half, drizzle on a little olive oil and then sprinkle with kosher salt. Mark the peach halves slightly on the grill on the flesh side, then flip and continue grilling until soft. If you like, top the peach halves with mascarpone, honey and chopped cashews, or a sprinkle of brown sugar or a brushing of maple syrup. Your guests will gush over this luscious seasonal splurge that tastes like biting into summer.
The time to grill is right now. So take full advantage of easygoing outside entertaining while the days are long and the evenings are balmy. Autumn will be here soon enough, so run barefoot through the grass and snooze in the hammock while you can.
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