What makes a good Barbecue?
June 21, 2014 12:30 PM   Subscribe

What makes a good Barbecue?

I have taken on a rural smallholding and over the last year there have been half a dozen people, friends and family, who have really helped make this new life happen. I'm pretty big on food and am hoping to take advantage of a few rare days of Scottish summer to invite them over to enjoy some good food and drink. I thought we could cook outside over the fire pit / grill I built but I've never barbecued a damn thing in my life. The cooking isn't the problem it's what to cook, how much and what else to serve up. I thought my own burgers with some sides like coleslaw and my own salad. Maybe some skewers of lamb and halloumi. Chicken, seafood? Cold beers and wine? I don't think I can master the serious slow cooked ribs and pulled pork hot smoking stuff but hot coals and grill is all go. Do the best cookouts in your life have any common factor, is less more or is the bigger the spread better?! Please share your BBQ highlights and lowlights! Thanks!
posted by Caskeum to Food & Drink (14 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I cannot speak to the food as much, but I have never failed to enjoy a barbecue that served cold beer.
posted by 724A at 12:39 PM on June 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

My trick lately is to have a cord of wood standing by for a firepit, and Round 2 of food that can be cooked directly in the fire. After the initial frenzy of grilling activity, it's nice for everyone to settle around the fire and have a little snack later. I like:

-lil smokies on bamboo skewers

-s'mores, especially with reese's cups in lieu of chocolate

-bananas peeled, split, filled with peanut butter and chocolate chips, then wrapped in foil to toss in the coals

-tin foil packets of very thinly sliced potatoes dotted with butter, salt, pepper - I also like dried shallots, aleppo pepper, and either very thin slices of a cured meat like salami or little dots on nduja. these also get cooked in the coals
posted by Juliet Banana at 12:40 PM on June 21, 2014 [7 favorites]

A few choices of main course/protein items, steaks, burgers, chicken, what have you. In my experience folks tend to choose a couple of different meats, so chicken and steak, or hotdogs and burgers, but ultimately the sky is the limit and depends what you like. I had grilled salmon at a recent barbecue, and it was amazing. Halloumi sounds pretty great, too. I don't think elaborate skewer things are necessary, but if you want to, sure, why not?

Then make a few side dishes that can be served cold/room temp or are also prepared on the grill. Potato salad, regular green salad, baked beans, grilled corn, cole slaw, and grilled veggies (onions, peppers, zucchini, eggplant, asparagus, etc) are all popular options.

In terms of quantity. Have enough mains for people to have their choice of whatever meat, and have something for the vegetarians. Which could just be plenty/large variety of especially delicious sides, or could be some sort of grilled vegetarian main course like marinated grilled portobello mushrooms or halloumi.

I personally would go simpler on the main/protein options (just pick two plus a vegetarian option), and more elaborate on the sides since they can typically be prepared in advance.

Cold beer, of course. For wine I'd pick a light floral/citrusy white like a vinho verde or a sauvignon blanc, and a bolder rose. People feel like beef = big reds, but I think they're not very cookout friendly. Maybe a simple fruit-forward red like Cotes du Rhone?
posted by Sara C. at 12:47 PM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, and if you are doing a firepit rather than the typical American-style barbecue grill with charcoal, I will share with you my favorite app to have whenever there's fire involved.

Buy a wheel of brie. Put it on a serving item that can be placed near the fire on something like a ceramic serving plate or a substantial wood bread board. Place brie near enough to the fire that it will get warm and melty, but not near enough to burn. Remove when the wheel feels warm to the touch. Cut open and service delicious warm oozy cheese with bread, apples, crudite, or the cheese-vehicle of your choice.
posted by Sara C. at 12:52 PM on June 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

You probably know that if you're cooking on charcoal, you need to wait until there are no flames and the coals are white on the outside. That's the usual beginner mistake.

My experience with chicken drumsticks/thighs is that it's better to oven-cook them at a medium heat in a marinade until just done, then use the barbecue to finish them off (i.e. to add the characteristic barbecue charring). Cooking chicken from raw on a barbecue tends to result in chicken that's burnt on the outside (because most of the fat is just under the skin) with rubbery tendons on the inside. Pre-cooking chicken is a cheat, but the results are moist and delicious, with just the right amount of crispiness/charring on the outside.

One of my favourite marinades for chicken is a few tablespoons of jerk seasoning mixed with a can of coconut 'milk'.

If you're using bamboo skewers, make sure you've soaked them in water overnight (or in boiling water for half an hour) before you put meat on them.

Lamb is excellent for barbecues as it usually contains plenty of fat, and it doesn't matter if the result is a bit pink inside.

My favourite thing: slice a lot of onions and wrap them up in a little package of foil, adding a few glugs of a nice beer before you seal the package. Put the foil package on a medium area of the barbecue and forget about it while you cook the other stuff. The result is some seriously lovely caramelised onions which are really good on a burger or hotdog.

Another good one is to mix chopped garlic, olive oil, breadcrumbs and some nice strong cheese. Use this to stuff some large mushrooms. Wrap in foil and forget on the barbecue for a while.

Rice- or couscous-based side dishes are idea for barbecues, as a lot of them can be served hot or cold.
posted by pipeski at 12:52 PM on June 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

Make sure you have some sort of appetizers/snacks out from the very beginning, and plenty of non-grilled sides. You don't want your guests to starve if the grill takes longer to get going than you anticipated.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:55 PM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

To make chicken grilling EASY then I would suggest getting your butcher to debone chicken thighs but leave the skin on. You can marinate the meat really well (this cut lets flavor permeate the meat fully and quickly) and then either skewer or just place directly on the properly heated grill. The thighs cook quickly with no fear of pink chicken with crispy, slightly charred skin and the size is perfect for popping on a roll (bap) or even just eating on a fork. Another advantage of this chicken prep is that it cooks the same time as burgers so there is no lag in meat preparation e.g., chicken people waiting on their food while the burger people are already done.

Have bottles of beer, wine and fizzy water for spritzers, summery non-alcoholic and alcoholic punches and cocktails not to mention iced tea. Make it self serve where people can grab it on their own.

Icebox desserts are great and we just had a thread on it; made the night before and ready to serve it frees you from the freak out.

Heck, if you have a decent deli you can outsource the potato salad or any salad fixings so again, more time for you to mingle.

If you want to go low and slow BBQ then the book of choice is Low and Slow by Wiviott, which got even klutzy me into BBQ proficiency. He also covers all types of BBQ equipment including kettle, smoky mountain and off set smoker.

The best thing about a BBQ is the company and the good times. BBQ is just a good reason to hang out with people and be wreathed in scented smoke and convivial laughter.
posted by jadepearl at 1:15 PM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Lots of pleasant places to sit arranged around the area so that if the wind changes and the smoke starts blowing unpleasantly across the place there are still comfortable spots in which to gather.

A little smoke is okay, but too much is annoying.
posted by winna at 1:20 PM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

For your first go-round, I'd recommend some easy stuff that's tasty, leave chicken (tricky even for experts) and other meats for later, when you're used to it.

Shrimp on skewers marinated in oil, lemon and dill (garlic will burn over the fire.) These will cook quickly so as soon as they're pink, they're done.

Burgers (dimple in the middle so they don't 'puff' up) and Hot Dogs, Bratwurst or Italian Sausages are delicious over the fire.

Cold salads are great with grilled meats and you can make them in advance. If you're unfamiliar with them (I have no idea what you can get in Scotland) just google a recipe, but pretty much anything on the Food Network will be good:

Potato Salad
Pasta Salad
Cole Slaw
Fruit Salad, OR the traditional enormous Watermelon, cut into wedges. (Put this one on ice in a cooler, for fun.)

If you want to get fancy, and very Southern US, Deviled Eggs are yummy!

I'd serve cold beer (Lager) and a nice, fruity Sangria.

Don't go nuts. Grilling out is just so damn fantastic that traditional offerings are a fine feast of mid-summer.

S'mores for dessert should be fine. Chocolate chip cookies are also very nice.

Have fun!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:51 PM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

My go-to for grilling ideas (and grilling ideas advice) is always Mark Bittman's 101 Fast Recipes for Grilling.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 4:02 PM on June 21, 2014

You don't need 2000 different options for dishes. You can do two proteins, 3 or 4 sides, and maybe a light dessert (like fruit with cream). Don't over complicate this stuff. Whatever you don't eat can be sent home with your guests and/or you can fridge or freeze it. Don't forget to have water available, all those sugars in drinks can be dehydrating.
posted by Aranquis at 4:53 PM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Your menu can be as snazzy as your budget allows. I like to pre-cook chicken, ideally in a pressure-cooker, then finish it on the grill to get the smoky flavor and some caramelization and crisp skin. Hamburgers, sausages, meat on skewers are delicious grilled. I prefer to keep the menu limited, so I'd pick 1 or 2 meat items, and several side dishes, and I'd make pretty big batches, since food is part pf the entertainment. The side dishes can mostly be done ahead of time, so you can be part of the party, not just doing food prep. In the US, coleslaw, homemade baked beans, potato salad, watermelon are standard barbecue options. We've had bonfires with cook-it-yourself-on-the-fire food, as julietbanana suggested, with partially cooked white and sweet potato chunks, sausage and marinated beef, which was very popular. I picked up long forks at thrift shops. I make a big pitcher of iced tea that is 1/2 lemonade, 1/2 unsweetened tea, and put beer in a tub of ice. If you know some of your friends don't drink beer, add some wine or a mixed drink that can be served in a pitcher, maybe some sangria. Put out paper towels, cups, paper plates, and put on some good music. We bought a set of external speakers for the smart phone just for backyard fun.
posted by theora55 at 11:44 AM on June 22, 2014

My standard for BBQ has always been to provide food and ask guests to bring drinks to share, though if you're doing a thank you BBQ, you might skip that and provide the drinks as well. It makes sense, even for a small BBQ to have a cooler, or coolers for drinks, as people constantly going into the fridge for beer isn't ideal. If you can, it would be a treat to have something you know your guests like, a bottle of wine they've mentioned liking, or six packs of beer you know they've enjoyed.

It's important to have some sort of food ready for when people show up. Even if you wait til everyone's there to throw food on the grill, they'll be hungry when they get there. Even if it's chips and dip, a veggie tray, salad, something that will tide them over til the food comes off the grill.

As you mention, ribs and such are something you build up to, not something you try on your first BBQ. Honestly, though, I'd avoid burgers. They can actually be pretty tricky to get right, especially if you haven't done some trial runs before the BBQ (seriously, you should fire it up a couple times and check heat zones, hot spots, etc, and see what cooks well and where). Kebabs/skewers are easy and a good way to add flavors and textures. Meat/mushroom/onion/bell pepper is a pretty great skewer, and again, is easy to cook.

Recipe-wise, I'd suggest chunks of chicken thigh with the aforementioned veggies. You can do a variety of flavors/seasonings, like a simple tandoori (yogurt, minced garlic and ginger, turmeric, cumin, coriander, garam masala, chile powder), a Mediterranean (minced rosemary, garlic, pepper, salt, balsamic vinegar and lemon marinade), or even just a straight BBQ rub. Lamb skewers would also be pretty great. You can always warm some pitas on a cooler part of the grill so people can slide the food off the skewer into the pita.

At the end, for a dessert, you seriously can't go wrong with grilled pineapple. Fresh chunks of pineapple, doused with a marinade made from melted butter, brown sugar, a dash of powdered ginger, and a healthy splash of spiced rum, them grilled til it begins to brown. Best thing in the world.

Still, on thing to think about, like I mentioned above, is to set up zones for heat. It can be as simple as having the majority of your coals towards one side of the grill. I wouldn't want to set chicken or lamb over the absolute hottest point if the grill, you'll just get charred, yet raw meat. If you set the skewers just off to the side, they'll still cook, and you can finish them off over the hot part.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:55 PM on June 22, 2014

Grilled chicken is delicious. I grew up around a grill, but I don't think it'll be hard for you to do too. A simple recipe is just to marinate the chicken pieces in Italian salad dressing for a couple of hours in a covered dish or big zip lock bag in the fridge before grilling. The Italian salad dressing has vinegar to help tenderize the meat, oil to keep it moist, and herbs and spices for flavor. Brush more dressing on the chicken pieces as they cook and turn them over a few times to cook them evenly. Don't use the contaminated dressing the chicken marinated in; that should be discarded. Use fresh from the bottle dressing.

Another easy one I like is honey mustard pork loin chops. Buy a pork loin, and cut it into chops about 1 and 1/4 inches thick. That's a little over 3cm for civilized folks who live in the 21st century. Give them a light coating of olive oil, then shake some seasoned salt and coarse ground pepper on them. Let them sit in the fridge for a couple of hours in a covered dish. Make a honey mustard glaze, using equal measures of each. I use about 1/2 cup (120ml) glaze for 4 - 6 chops. Quickly sear them with the grill about 2" (5cm) above the coals, 60 - 90 seconds on each side, then move the grill to about 5 to 6 inches (~12 - 15cm) above the coals. After they're seared, baste them on the top with the glaze, and turn them over every 4 or 5 minutes, basting the tops after each turn. Moist and delicious, but don't overcook or they'll dry out.

You'll get a lot of complements from these 2 simple recipes.

Some things you'll want to buy: Decent quality charcoal, a chimney charcoal starter, grill brush, spatula, long handled silicone basting brush, tongs, and a cooking fork thermometer.

I cant emphasize this enough: A cooking fork thermometer has been a great boon for me. I was always erring on the side of overcooking because I was paranoid about making someone sick from undercooked meat, especially with chicken and ground beef. My cooking fork thermometer allows me to serve properly cooked meat that isn't overdone and dried out.

Don't forget the iced tea, beer, and wine!
posted by Daddy-O at 12:43 AM on June 23, 2014

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