“Barbecue” and “summertime” definitely go hand in hand, and if you have a backyard or a rooftop or access to a large public park, you may feel tempted to host a cookout of your very own during the season. And sure, you can easily grab a few dozen burger patties and hot dogs and call it a day, but if you have extra ambition for your event, a few pointers from legitimate barbecue experts could prove helpful.
Luckily, we had the opportunity to speak with numerous BBQ and grilling pros at this year’s Hot Luck Festival, a massive open-fire cookout hosted in Austin, Texas, over Memorial Day weekend. These grill masters offered valuable advice for anyone hoping to host an unforgettable backyard cookout this summer.
1. Go into your cookout with a clear game plan.
All parties require a solid foundation of planning, but that truth applies tenfold to a properly executed barbecue. “Come with a plan and maybe practice a bit before you have a house full of people!” advises barbecue legend Aaron Franklin, co-founder of the Hot Luck Festival and owner-operator of Franklin Barbecue in Austin.
When it comes to choosing specific dishes to prepare, pastry chef and avid barbecue fan Alex Manley of Swedish Hill Bakery in Austin suggests sticking to items you’re already comfortable and confident making. “I would recommend to anyone hosting a dinner party of any sort to prepare something they are so familiar with they can basically prepare it with their eyes closed,” Manley told HuffPost. “The last thing you want to do when entertaining is to stress out about how to cook something. Test it out a few times first so you can really get the hang of it. That way, it’ll be second nature and you can enjoy your guests and be more a part of your party.”
2. Cook your veggies “low and slow” before starting in with the meat.
To achieve the best results when cooking over a grill, pit or smoker, it’s important to consider the order in which you place each type of food on the hot surface. Chef Jeremiah Stone of Wildair and Contra in New York City favors the following approach: “Some vegetables need a longer, slower heat. I usually do all my veggies first and then reheat [them] in the end after [cooking the] meat. [Prepare] most of your meat to be slow-cooked and then crank up the heat [to] get everything hot and charred.”
3. If you’re smoking or cooking over an open flame for the first time, be extremely careful of the wind and your surroundings.
Smoking meats and open-fire barbecuing are skills that take practice to perfect, and because they involve flame and high heat, safety can easily become a concern. Franklin tells aspiring barbecuers that “a little common sense can go a long way. Stay away from anything that can catch fire, watch the wind and don’t leave [your BBQ set-up] unattended.”
Stone agrees, adding that you should “start a fire slow with fanning and a lighter. Make sure you are not around anything that covers the grill and never store tools or wood in anything other than a metal tray or bin. Also, do not marinate [your meats and veggies] with lots of grease or fat.”
An ardent home barbecuer and a “Top Chef” alum, executive chef Doug Adams of Bullard in Portland, Oregon, knows a thing or two about the disastrous results of smoking without making safety a priority: “I melted the entire side of my house slow-smoking once; it is no joke!” Adams told HuffPost. “Find a nice flat spot to put your grill or smoker, keep a hose somewhere close enough to be able to turn it on if anything happens, and, most importantly, PAY ATTENTION. It’s easy to get distracted when you’re smoking a brisket for 12 hours, but for the sake of the meat (or your home’s siding), just watch it. There are thousands of stories of late-night brisket-smoking and beer-drinking resulting in folks falling asleep and waking up to catastrophes!”
4. Seek out high-quality ingredients. They’re worth it.
It’s easy to assume that the natural smoky flavors imparted by barbecuing diminishes the necessity for excellent ingredients, but selecting a well-sourced and expertly butchered cut of meat and locally harvested vegetables will prove a worthy investment.
“Be a smart shopper and only buy ingredients you need,” advised executive pastry chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph of Emmer & Rye in Austin. “Also, spend a little more to get quality ingredients; your food will taste better.”
5. Don’t have a smoker? There are other ways to infuse your food with smoky flavor.
Barbecue purists will argue that the flavor that results from the traditional smoking process is wholly singular and can’t be effectively replicated by other means. But realistically, most home barbecue hosts don’t have access to professional smoking equipment and must seek out other ways to bring those rich, charred notes to their ingredients.
If you don’t have a smoker, Adams suggests “slow-cooking over charcoal, which requires keeping the grill at a low heat. A spatchcocked whole chicken slow-cooked over charcoal is by far my favorite way to cook a bird. I do not, however, ever recommend using liquid smoke products.”
Culinary director David Norman of Easy Tiger in Austin has a few other helpful hints: “Grill pans can help create some of the sear and char of an outdoor grill on your indoor stove,” he told HuffPost. “If you want to add a smoked element to your dishes without the whole grill setup, try a smoke gun. It burns a small amount of wood shavings, pushing out a good shot of smoke through a tube that you insert under a piece of plastic wrap covering a bowl of food. The smoke flavor penetrates well with just one or two shots.”
6. After the party, make good use of your leftovers.
Even after your guests head home and you cover up your grill, the party can still continue … as long as you know how to get the most out of your leftovers.
If you find yourself with extra brisket or pulled pork, try these ideas from Manley: “We put smoked brisket (tossed in some vinegar-y hot sauce, both for flavor and to help it stay moist) inside some croissant dough with a little cheddar cheese. Then, we top it with some pickled red onions and an herb salad. Brisket is also great as a filling for fried pies. And I haven’t done this before, but thinking about it right now, it sounds amazing to make a ravioli filling with some leftover barbecued brisket or pulled pork.”
7. Hold on to your leftover coals and use them for flavorful cooking later on.
The leftover game doesn’t have to end with foodstuffs; the coals from your barbecue can also find a second life, according to Norman. “When you cook burgers or a steak on a charcoal grill, there are usually some good coals left over,” Norman said. “Next time you are cooking outdoors, add wood chunks to those coals and smoke some pantry staples over the mixture for extra flavor.”