Memorial Day is just around the corner, and we all know what that means: the unofficial start of summer! And with summer comes cookout season! A summer cookout is the perfect way to gather friends and family around for good food and good times. And our team of professional cooks and food editors is here to help you have the best cookout yet. Read on for our tips.
Cookout Tips from the Pros at Cook’s Country
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10 ingredients. 45 minutes. Quick, easy, and fresh weeknight recipes.
Prep Your Grill
Prepare your grill the day before. If your grates aren't clean, start by cleaning them. If you’re using charcoal, make sure the grill is cleared of ash and old coals. Check to be sure you have plenty of charcoal on hand or propane if you have a gas grill. Especially if it’s your first cookout of the year, make sure you know where your grill brush, grilling tongs, and grill gloves are so that you are ready to be in grill master mode the next day. –Morgan Bolling, Executive Editor, Creative Content
Create an Outdoor Kitchen
If I'm cooking outside, I want to stay outside (and not have to run back inside for things I may have forgotten), so I like to set myself up with all the tools, equipment, and ingredients I'll need.
Ideally, I'll use a small table on each side of the grill: One side serves as a staging area with a cutting board, knives, raw ingredients (including ready-to-grill items on baking sheets or in disposable aluminum pans, vegetable oil, salt, and pepper), cooking utensils, side towels, and paper towels. The other side is the serving area with clean serving platters and utensils, a clean dish towel or two, and small bowls or bottles of finishing herbs, olive oil, lemon wedges, seasonings, and sauces. –Nicole Konstantinakos, Deputy Food Editor
Two Fires Mean Twice the Fun
I know it sounds excessive, but I like to have both my gas grill and charcoal grill going at cookouts: charcoal for something smoked that I make (Smoked Chicken Wings, smoked salmon, and North Carolina Barbecue Pork are a few favorites) and the gas grill so that guests can grab the tongs and cook what they brought. –Scott Kathan, Executive Editor
Find More Cooler Space
Coolers can be in high demand at cookouts. I like to rest BBQ in them, and the meat is my priority, so I’ll often fill a kiddie pool with ice and pack beer and other drinks in that. This also works well for keeping food that should be cold (condiments, salads, etc) on ice. –Morgan Bolling, Executive Editor, Creative Content
Cook What’s In Season (and On Hand)
Check out your local farmers' market for inspiration. Depending on your zone, produce that might be in season around Memorial Day includes assorted radishes, asparagus, rhubarb, spring peas, strawberries, and various lettuces. For a fun appetizer, you can pair seasonal veggies with homemade White Bean Dip!
This is also an excellent opportunity to use up some of those home-canned items or jams in your pantry from the previous year to make way for this year's stash. If you have canned peaches, try Preserved Peach and Burrata Salad or Preserved Peach Snack Cake. Or whip up some Quick Pickled Rhubarb to serve with a cheese and charcuterie platter. –Amanda Luchtel, Test Cook
Choose an Easy Crowd-Pleasing Recipe
My go-to recipe when I’m grilling for a gathering of people is our Flank Steak with Basil Dressing. It’s a supersimple recipe that can be doubled easily to serve 12 people and grills up in a flash, leaving lots of life in the coals for anything else guests have brought for the grill. Plus, it’s convenient to have only one or two steaks to think about and still have enough meat to fill a huge platter.
To add variety to the spread, I briefly char up some tortillas on the grill and serve the steak with a couple of other sauces: the Soy Dressing from another version of our flank steak recipe, as well as a very simple chimichurri. –Matthew Fairman, Senior Editor
Try Something New
When it comes to the food at a cookout, it’s best when there is a combination of the expected (burgers and dogs, BBQ chicken, steak tips) and the unexpected. Unexpected dishes have the ability to contribute to new traditions or to expose someone to a dish they’ve never had before. In the past, I’ve found with all the celebrating going on, people tend to be more adventurous eaters (beer and wine also help).
Grilled lamb chops make a great addition to your cookout meat lineup, but if space on the grill is at a premium, serving Crumb-Crusted Rack of Lamb is a worthy alternative: It's packed with flavor, has a mix of textures and an elegant feel, and it’s roasted indoors. Another option is oysters or clams. These cook quickly on the grill and need minimal condiments. Give the people what they want, but also give them what they didn’t know they needed. –Lawman Johnson, Senior Photo Test Cook
Find a Good Butcher
Though I love all the fixings, when it comes to those big summer cookouts (or barbecues, depending on where you’re from), for me it’s all about the meat. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hefty Texas Barbecue Brisket, a tale of two mouthwatering North Carolina Barbecue Pork sandwiches, or burgers and dogs on the grill. The meat is the star of the show and should be treated as such. I make sure to head to the best local butcher around for the highest-quality meats to ensure that I am serving the best food I can to my family and friends. –Mark Huxsoll, Test Cook
Opt for Cans
Always, always serve canned beer. Cleaning up broken glass from bottles off your porch, patio, or grass is a big pain. Thankfully these days there are some good options for canned and boxed wine, too, which I recommend. Maybe my friends are clumsy, but I’ve learned this lesson the hard way too many times. –Morgan Bolling, Executive Editor, Creative Content
Make Big Batches of Drinks
For those looking to spice up their cookout drink selection beyond beers and hard seltzers, batch-made cocktails are a quick and classy way to whip up a mini bar experience anywhere. You can prepare pitchers in advance and keep them chilled in the fridge; simply serve with cups, ice, and garnishes on the side.
For me, summer afternoons call for bright, punchy flavors and colors, like Mixed Berry Rosé Sangria or Hibiscus Tea Cocktails. Following a more traditional route, serve Boulevardiers for a Crowd (they’re even pre-diluted with water, so you don’t have to stir with ice).
Or skip the alcohol altogether — anything fruity and homemade is sure to stun, like Strawberry-Lime Lemonade or Hibiscus Iced Tea (the non-alcoholic counterpart to our cocktail). –Kelly Song, Test Cook
Transport Desserts Safely
Whenever I’m invited to or hosting a cookout, my dessert of choice is some kind of bar cookie or treat. They’re both easy to transport and easy to eat. Any of your guests can just walk by the dessert table and grab one—no plate needed (maybe a napkin, depending on the treat). Anything from Scotcheroos to Lemon Cookie Bars is sure to be a hit.
My go-to is our Strawberry Cheesecake Bars. I remove the bars from the pan, trim about ¼ inch from every side (the bonus here is that I get to eat all the trimmings!), and then cut the bars into squares. These neat, slightly smaller squares easily fit back into the pan for safe transport, and they can be served right from it. (Sturdier bars can simply be cut and returned to the pan or even stacked in the pan.) –Megan Ginsberg, Deputy Editor
Set Up an Ice Cream Bar
On a hot day, serving an ice cream sundae bar is a pro move. I like to prep all my toppings in advance. I load up a muffin tin with sprinkles, M&Ms, crushed oreos, etc., and I wrap that and leave it inside. When it’s close to dessert time, I place a tub of ice cream in a large bowl and fill the rest of the bowl with ice to keep it cold. Then I bring that outside with the toppings bar, bowls, spoons, and an ice cream scoop! –Morgan Bolling, Executive Editor, Creative Content