Memorial Day is almost upon us, which means it’s time to start thinking about firing up the grill for the first official cookout of summer. These tips and tricks from some of the nation’s top chefs will save you time and effort, so you can actually enjoy your backyard bash!
Crank up the grill
Preheating the grill is critical to achieving that smoky, savory sear on big chunks of meat. “Always make sure the fire is hot. For gas grills, turn it on about 15 minutes before you’re ready to cook. If you’re using charcoal, light it about 45 minutes ahead of time to let the coals burn down,” says Vanderlei Melchior, head gaucho chef for the upscale Brazilian steakhouse chain Fogo de Chão.
Hack your cooler
“Don’t forget that your cooler can double as an insulated ‘warmer.’ Use it to keep things warm in transit to a cookout,” says Sunny Anderson, celebrity chef, cookbook author, and co-host of “The Kitchen” on Food Network.
Form the perfect burger
If you’re going to serve hamburgers (because let’s face it, they’re pretty much the quintessential Memorial Day grub!), make sure you do it right. “It’s important to know how to choose the right burger for grilling. It should be at least 80/20 lean to fat ratio ground chuck. Too much fat can cause it to shrink,” says Jon Lemon, Bareburger culinary director. “Form into 6-oz. patties and press a ½ inch dimple into the middle of the patty so it keeps its form.”
Invest in a meat thermometer
Using a meat thermometer to ensure your cuts are perfectly cooked doesn’t make you less of a grill master. “Purchase a digital thermometer. You’ll be more confident when grilling and won’t waste any money on over- or under-cooked protein,” says Geoffrey Zakarian, chef and partner of Point Royal at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Fla.
Spray your meat
That’s right—filling a spray bottle with marinade or loose barbecue sauce is an easy and mess-free way to glaze your meat more evenly, says Michael Schulson, founder and CEO of Schulson Collective restaurant group.
Elevate the classics
There’s nothing wrong with a plain ol’ hot dog with mustard—but putting a new twist on Memorial Day favorites is sure to wow your guests. “Adding unexpected flavors and ingredients always impresses and kicks a dish up a notch,” says Ayesha Curry, chef and cookbook author.
Grill in sessions
“To spend as much time with your guests as you can, get some veggies on the grill before they arrive. I love making grilled veggie salads, which you can build with seasonal ingredients such as corn or zucchini and prepare ahead of time,” says Ryan Farr of San Francisco’s 4505 Burgers and BBQ, named “Hottest Barbecue Joint in America” by Zagat.
Let your protein rest
“One of the top mistakes when grilling any meat or fish is not letting it come to room temperature before starting. This ensures more even cooking and the juiciest results—just don’t leave it out longer than two hours,” says Anderson.
Opt for sliders
Grilling up miniature sliders instead of regular-sized burgers will allow you and your guests to sample all your summery mains and sides. “Sliders are so great because there are simple and easy options you can throw together. For a break from beef, buy a pre-roasted rotisserie chicken, pull apart the meat, toss it with barbecue sauce, and top it with coleslaw or jalapeños,” says Beau Houck, executive chef of Noi Due Carne on New York City’s Upper West Side.
Make a shopping list
Look at your recipes beforehand and shop according to the exact amounts you’ll need—this will prevent you from wasting money and food by overbuying. “Buying pre-packaged perishable items often leads to extra ingredients that wind up going to waste because they don’t keep,” says Stephanie Izard, a Food Network Iron Chef, founder of several Chicago area restaurants, and spokesperson for Morton Salt’s Erase Food Waste campaign.
Make a batch of drinks
Mixing a cocktail or sangria in bulk is a little more fun than a cooler full of beer or wine. “Batching cocktails allows you to spend more time entertaining your guests, but it’s very important to know your proportions before mixing everything together,” says Mo Ghanem, brand manager for the tequila brand Riazul. Multiply the amounts for one drink by the number of guests you expect.
Keep the kids happy
“Create a play area where the little ones can all hang out. Fill it with crafts, toys, and games so they have a dedicated area, just for them,” says Curry. “This is always my go-to so the adults can mingle.”
“Grease” the grill with an onion
That’s right—rubbing half an onion down the length of the grill will prevent meat from sticking, says Adrian Davila of Davila’s BBQ in Seguin, Texas and third-generation pitmaster.
Stacking protein and veggies on skewers makes for a fun presentation and easy way to serve a variety of flavors—plus, you don’t have to worry about smaller cuts of meat or vegetables falling through the grill grate. “My Jerk Rubbed Chicken Skewers with Mango Salsa is great as a side dish or main, and it comes together so quickly,” says Curry.
Have vegetarian options
Don’t forget about your herbivore guests! Be sure to have side dishes or mains that are meat-free. For something besides veggie or pasta salads, Houck suggests grilling up a hearty olive oil-brushed bread and serving with a nice cheese (such as burrata or fresh mozzarella), tomatoes, and fresh basil.
Do dessert on the grill
As long as it’s fired up, grill seasonal fruits for an easy dessert. “Pears, peaches, and seasonal fruits actually sweeten up once grilled—just add ice cream!” says Anderson.
“Place your grill at least 15 feet away from your house and always have a fire extinguisher on hand,” says Anderson.
Pay attention to marbling
If you want a premium cut of meat, look for consistent marbling, red color, and don’t be afraid to ask your grocery store’s butcher for advice,” says Davila.
Hack your skewers
To keep your kebabs from rolling and flipping all over the grill—which can lead to uneven cooking—use two skewers per serving, says Schulson. This helps holds them steady.