There’s no region in America more suited to summer than the Midwest. While other parts of the country slide gracefully from season to season, the last bells of the school year are like the crack of a starter pistol here. All at once, there’s a riot of Technicolor produce falling off market shelves, the sun seems to burn brighter and backyards come alive with the sound of splashing and laughter. Amid all this chaos, you’ll experience the most subtle yet essential part of summer: the backyard grill. To see that fragrant smoke wafting through neighborhoods every year is what weaves each summer back into summers that came before, infusing the season with a specific nostalgia hard to come by the rest of the year. This month, kick back and fire up your own grill; if you’ve always been the bystander, drink in one hand and a healthy fear of screwing dinner up in the other, it’s time to take your tongs for a spin. Backyard grilling is a time-honored tradition, yes, but one that’s simple to master if you know what you’re doing.
1. Go-To Grilling Gadgets
Grilling Tongs and Spatulas. Save your lightweight tools for indoors; for high-heat grilling, you need durability to withstand the heat and length to keep your body away from it.
Dedicated Basting Brushes. What you use to egg wash a pie isn’t what you use to mop your meat. Arm yourself with several silicone grill brushes for mopping and glazing.
Shatterproof Trays. Your artisan pottery need not apply; portability is the key, and you don’t want any disasters as you go to and from the grill. Pro tip: Line trays with aluminum foil to take meat out to the grill, then discard foil and use the clean tray to take meat back in to avoid cross-contamination.
Lidded Cast-Iron Pot. Perfect for simmering short ribs, brats or anything else you’d like directly on the grill.
Pizza Pan or Stone. Seems like a single-use gadget, but pizza stones can be a good way to grill smaller vegetables, and are ideal for cooking flatbread dough.
Metal Skewers. These keep smaller things like shrimp, vegetables and fruits from slipping through grates and let you flip everything at once.
Cedar or Salt Planks. A fantastic, no-fuss way to infuse additional flavor into meat and fish.
Grill Scraper. The only way to get a grill clean, especially charcoal setups, is with a quality scraper. You can use a metal scraper or brush combo, but the tiny metal bristles can come off as you clean and get embedded in food. The safer option: a flat wooden grill scraper.
2. To Everything, There is a Season
Hey, remember all those dried herbs and spices you have sitting in your cabinet? One of the best ways to use them up is to make your own custom seasoning mixes. It’s easy and cheap – because you likely own the ingredients you need – and it gives you total control over your flavor profile. And skipping the massive sodium count and questionable additives in premade mixes is something to feel good about, too.
3. The Great Debate: Gas or Charcoal?
The war of words that’s played out across backyards for over half a century:
Is charcoal or gas the best choice for cookouts? Opposing sides lob opinions back and forth like a never-ending game of badminton, but it all comes down to preference and what your priorities are for your time in front of the flames.
The first gas grill was invented in the 1950s and called the LazyMan, which is less scathing indictment and more simple definition: Owning a gas grill meant you could spend less time waiting for things to heat up, and grilling food required less tending. Little can go wrong on a gas grill. It’s a push-button operation using propane or natural gas that heats up, cooks and is simple to clean – much like an indoor oven, but with fire. If effortless grilling is what you’re into, a gas grill may be right up your alley, but before you buy, consider the drawbacks.
Because gas grills act so much like ovens, they also carry some of the same limitations. High-heat searing is virtually impossible on a gas grill, so your steaks and burgers won’t develop that crackly outer crust that defines outdoor cooking. True smoke flavor – the kind you likely remember from childhood summers – is noticeably absent, because that smoke comes from setting fire to charcoal or hardwoods, which aren’t present in gas grills. You can buy “smoker boxes” for gas grills to impart some smoke flavor, but purists (and this author, from experience) argue that it has little to no effect on the final product.
Charcoal grills, on the other hand, are going to make you scream, “this is the barbecue I remember!” every time you fire one up. Within minutes of lighting it, the unmistakable smoke of decades past will fill your yard, and as your eyes water (and they will water), you will ready yourself for some old-fashioned grilling. Char is no issue on a charcoal grill: You want crust, you got it, and that smoky flavor will permeate everything those grates come into contact with. Sound like the perfect option? Maybe, but there’s a downside to all this heat.
Grilling pork loin is the ideal way to put a summery spin on a classic winter roast.
If you’re into charcoal grills, you’re familiar with the labor involved. There’s no switch-flipping here: You’re building a fire from scratch and waiting until it’s ready to go, which can take a good 20 minutes. Charcoal grills are prone to flare-ups, which can ruin a meal in seconds; a close watch is required at all times. And cleaning? An arduous task of scrubbing and scraping to keep things from building up on the grates.
So it’s all about lifestyle choices here: If you’re the type who likes to come home from work and fire up the grill to make quick dinners without heating up the house or making a mess, a gas grill may be the perfect thing. If you’re more into weekend “project grilling,” languidly tending your fire with a spatula in one hand and a beer in the other, a charcoal grill sounds like your kind of party.
Lump Hardwood Charcoal vs. Charcoal Briquettes. Charcoal briquettes are an old standby for good reason: They’re uniform in shape and size, inexpensive and consistent. They burn hot and long, maintain a steady heat and create smoke flavor in your food. Sound ideal? For most, it is, but briquettes contain additives – as benign as cornstarch or as bizarre as Borax – which can cause some grillmasters to wrinkle their noses. Enter lump hardwood charcoal: an all-natural alternative to briquettes that can provide intense wood-smoke flavor and unparalleled heat, but burns out quickly and can be temperamental and tricky to control. If you want strictly all-natural and don’t mind the cost, practice with lump hardwood. If you go briquette, do your research to find the best quality with the fewest additives. No matter what you chose, steer clear of “quick-lighting” briquettes, which are infused with lighter fluid and on top of being generally bad for you, lend a distinctly chemical flavor to your food.
Nontoxic Starters. Cranking up the grill naturally should be a no-brainer: Humans discovered cooking with fire, and we didn’t do it with help from a bottle. Don’t even think about using lighter fluid: Its chemical smell and flavor is off-putting and will ruin food, period. By the way, it’s dangerous: Not only does it infuse chemicals into your dinner, but it’s responsible for quite a few serious injuries and deaths every summer. Just don’t.
There are plenty of ways to light your fire that don’t involve chemicals. Invest in a chimney starter for your charcoal grill, for example. You simply pile paper and charcoal in the chimney, light it and 20 minutes later, you’re ready to grill. Paraffin wax starter cubes are also a popular option because they have no odor and leave no ash residue behind – be sure to check that your cubes are all-natural and don’t contain any unnecessary chemical additives. If gadgets get you going, consider a Looftlighter, which looks like a combination curling iron and cheese grater and blows superheated air onto charcoal, lighting it in mere seconds. If more classic gadgetry appeals to you, look for an electric charcoal starter – basically a pitchfork-shaped electric stove burner that gets your charcoal going with ease.
Hot Tip: None of these things are absolutely required. If you don’t mind doing a little work, simply gather your charcoal into a volcano shape with some paper in the center, light a match, and you’ll have a fire in no time.
4. Grill All the Things
At some point this summer, you’re going to invite people over to grill. Among those guests, there’s likely to be at least a few non-meat-eaters, and they crave that smoky, nostalgic char as much as meat-eaters do. Here, we’ve assembled our favorite fruits, vegetables, cheeses, breads and more to throw on the barbie. Many of these items can be simply sliced and added to skewers, while others, like potatoes, can be wrapped in aluminum foil and added directly to grill grates. For the breads, a quick sear adds charred flavor.