Until the 1940s, people grilled primarily at picnics and campsites. Then, after World War II, the middle class moved to the ’burbs. Lest you think the 1950s were all about poodle skirts and Elvis (swoon), that’s also when backyard grills became all the rage. And decades later, grilling remains as popular as ever. Here are some of our favorite ingredients and equipment to help ensure success.
Ketchup originated in Southeast Asia and did not originally contain tomatoes; in its original incarnation it likely resembled fermented fish sauce. Today’s ketchups are universally tomato based, but they’re not all alike. We tried many products, including some with grainy, coarse textures and others with atypical ingredients such as honey, green bell pepper, and lime juice concentrate. But we overwhelmingly preferred to keep it classic. Our winner has a familiar sweet-tart flavor and a smooth consistency that we love.
Heinz Organic Tomato Ketchup ($3.69 for 14 oz)
Yellow mustard’s tang makes it an excellent accompaniment to rich, fatty meats. And although it’s made from yellow mustard seeds, it actually gets its bright hue from the addition of turmeric. This top-rated mustard’s classic flavor is mildly sweet and smooth, with just the right amount of zing.
Heinz Yellow Mustard ($1.99 for 14 oz)
Mayonnaise is America’s top-selling condiment, and for good reason. We love it on sandwiches, burgers, salads, and more. Tasters called our favorite product a “close second” to homemade.
Blue Plate Real Mayonnaise ($4.79 for 32 oz), which is available in the South and Southeast and also via mail order. We also recommend Hellmann's Real Mayonnaise ($4.79 for 30 oz), which is available nationwide.
Traditional mayonnaise uses egg yolks as an emulsifier, but our favorite vegan mayo—technically called a dressing or spread because it doesn’t contain egg—relies on pea protein instead, and to great effect. While many of the options we tasted were, well, awful, our winner is tangy, creamy, and spreadable—and tasters said they wouldn’t even know it’s vegan. In fact, when we did a side-by-side taste test with regular mayo, our favorite vegan mayonnaise was just as good in every single application.
Hampton Creek Just Mayo, Original ($5.99 per 30-oz jar)
Bottled Barbecue Sauce
There are many types of barbecue sauce, but most supermarket varieties are modeled after Kansas City–style blends. This style of sauce is thick, sweet, tangy, and tomato based, offering a nice contrast to savory grilled meat. Our favorite bottled barbecue sauce has a sweet, tomato-y flavor with subtle smokiness.
Bull’s-Eye Original BBQ Sauce ($2.59 for 18 oz)
Dill Pickle Spears
We tried both shelf-stable and refrigerated pickle spears and much preferred the latter. They have a shorter shelf life, so they don’t sit in their liquid and become oversaturated like shelf-stable varieties. As a result, refrigerated pickles, such as our winner, are pleasantly crunchy. Our favorite spears are also slightly spicy and very garlicky, with a great snap.
Boar’s Head Kosher Dill Pickle Spears ($3.99 for 26 oz)
We love adding American cheese to burgers, but some manufacturers cut costs by using less actual cheese in their products and more comparatively cheap thickeners such as milk, whey, or milk protein concentrate. Our winner is a “process cheese,” a technical term that essentially means it doesn’t include tons of thickeners—as evidenced by its short ingredient list. It has a nutty, tangy flavor and a tender texture.
Boar’s Head American Cheese ($5.49 for 8 oz)
Supermarket Extra-Sharp Cheddar
Manufacturers sometimes make their white and orange cheddars differently, as each part of the country has its own style and preferences. Terroir also plays a role. Bacterial cultures picked up from the air, milk, and environment grow—and affect flavor—as the cheese ages, meaning that production location matters. Our favorite white cheddar is sharp, tangy, and rich and melts beautifully, while our favorite orange cheddar has a mild, milky flavor and a creamy texture when melted.
Cracker Barrel Extra Sharp White Cheddar Cheese ($3.99 for 8 oz) if you prefer white cheddar; Cracker Barrel Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese ($3.99 for 8 oz) if you prefer orange cheddar
We prefer sauerkraut packaged in shelf-stable jars or cans as opposed to refrigerated plastic bags; bags let in air over time and degrade the kraut’s flavor. Look for versions made with just cabbage, salt, and water. We’ve found that sauerkraut made with additional ingredients such as preservatives can have off-flavors. Our winner comes in a jar, contains no preservatives, and is tangy with a slightly chewy texture.
Eden Organic Sauerkraut ($4.45 for 32 oz)
According to market research, 70 percent of American adults regularly eat bacon. We like it with eggs and in BLTs, of course, and we also love adding it to burgers for some extra oomph. Our top-rated bacon has a meaty flavor that isn’t overwhelmingly smoky and a standout texture that’s just the right balance of chewy and crispy.
Oscar Mayer Naturally Hardwood Smoked Bacon ($6.99 for 16-oz package)
Choose a Cheese
We asked readers about their favorite cheese for topping burgers, and white cheddar was the resounding favorite (American was a close second). We also heard some less common—but still delicious-sounding—suggestions. Some of our favorites? One reader uses Camembert with thin slices of dates or figs to complement a beef or pork patty, while another loves the creaminess of mozzarella. And yet another said they opt for blue cheese and skip all the other condiments entirely.
All-Beef Hot Dogs
When shopping, look for larger hot dogs with more fat, such as our winner. With 15 grams of fat, more than double the amount of some other products, our winning hot dogs are tender and juicy with a nice, bouncy texture. Also note the ingredients: Hot dogs that include corn products (including corn syrup) as primary ingredients can be too sweet; we prefer varieties with no corn products or “2% or less” on ingredient lists. Our top dog has a bold flavor and a substantial heft.
Nathan's Famous Skinless Beef Franks ($6.99 for 8 hot dogs)
Tofu dates back 2000 years to China’s Han dynasty, and its popularity in the United States is on the rise. With more people embracing plant-based eating, tofu is a great idea for the grill. Our favorite tofu has a light, clean flavor and a pleasing, firm texture.
Nasoya Organic Firm Tofu ($2.99 for 14-oz package)
Meat-free products are in demand as people incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet for both health and environmental reasons. And there are meatless products available now that mimic the taste, texture, and appearance of the real thing. Both the mineral-y flavor and blood-red color of our favorite meat-free burger are due largely to the manufacturer’s pioneering use of an iron-containing molecule naturally found in soy roots. The coarse texture and bits of solid coconut oil resemble beef flecked with fat, resulting in a meat-free burger that “tastes like a normal burger,” according to our tasting panel.
Impossible Foods Impossible Burger ($10.39 for 12 oz)
While traditional hamburger buns use water to hydrate the dough, the manufacturer of our winning buns replaces water with potato flakes, milk, and butter—which is, essentially, mashed potatoes. The potato starch gives the rolls a tender, fluffy texture, and the sweetness offers a nice contrast to savory burgers.
Martin's Sandwich Potato Rolls ($3.69 for 8 buns)
Hot Dog Buns
Hot dog buns can be top sliced or side sliced; we much prefer the former because the bread is evenly distributed on each side of the hot dog, holding it and any condiments securely. Our top-ranked hot dog buns have a crusty exterior and yeasty flavor and are sturdy enough to handle hefty hot dogs.
Pepperidge Farm Hot Dog Buns ($1.99 for 8 buns)
We asked Deputy Food Editor Morgan Bolling how to make great grilled hamburgers. Here are her top tips.
1. While we sometimes use 80 percent lean ground beef for burgers, we use 85 percent lean ground beef more often. It’s plenty rich, and less fat means fewer flare-ups.
2. Don’t overwork the meat when forming patties, or your burgers may end up with a dense, sausage-like texture.
3. Salt only the exterior of your burger, not the interior, and do so just before grilling. Salt removes water from and dissolves some meat proteins, leaving the insoluble proteins bound together—which gives meat a springy bite that’s better suited to sausages than burgers if salt is added to the interior of the patty.
4. Create a small indentation in the center of each burger patty. This will help prevent the patties from puffing up.
Ready to get grilling? Cook’s Country has a burger recipe for every palate. There are bacon burgers and butter burgers, portobello and meatloaf burgers, and even grilled chile chorizo and pork burgers. Go to CooksCountry.com/grillingrecipes for more information.
Gas Grill under $500
No cookout is complete without a grill, and we like gas models for their ease of use—ideal for people who want a quick, low-fuss setup. This grill makes it easy to maintain steady heat and distribute smoke, and the angle of the lid when open keeps smoke out of our faces. It also has a large grease tray that makes cleanup easier, and we like the sturdily built cart.
Weber Spirit II E-310 Gas Grill ($499.00)
Food grilled over charcoal has a distinct smoky taste that we love, making it worth the extra time and effort of setting up this type of grill. So if flavor is paramount and you’re not in a hurry, we recommend a charcoal grill. Our favorite model has a gas ignition system that lights coals with the push of a button, no chimney starter required. It also has a roomy cart that’s easy to roll, a charcoal storage bin, and a lid holder.
Weber Performer Deluxe Charcoal Grill ($399.00)
If you have a charcoal grill without an ignition system, you’ll likely need one of these. We use a chimney starter to light charcoal for grilling because lighter fluid, which is petroleum or alcohol based, can impart unpleasant flavors to grilled food. Our winner is easy to load, lift, and pour from, and it feels comfortable to use thanks to its two handles.
Weber Rapidfire Chimney Starter ($14.99)
Disposable dinnerware won’t break, making it ideal for outdoor dining. These plates are roomy and well designed, with an 8-inch eating surface, a steep lip to keep food from spilling over, and a thick bottom that can easily withstand high-moisture foods such as potato salad.
Hefty Super Strong Paper Plates ($2.99 for 16 plates)
Other Grilling Essentials
A well-designed pair of tongs can make grilling so much more pleasant. Our favorite pair is light but durable, with precise pincers that stay aligned and can handle foods large and small. They’re 16 inches long, offering ample protection from the grill’s heat without sacrificing leverage.
OXO Good Grips 16" Locking Tongs ($14.93)
Cleaning your grill—every time you grill—is a must. We tried a lot of different brushes and found that short metal bristles and a triangular head shape made for a winning combination. Our winning brush could both sweep the top of the grill and clean between bars, and because it doesn’t have a scraper we can brush even the very ends of the grates.
Weber 12 Inch Grill Brush ($9.99)
Those burgers aren’t going to flip themselves, meaning you’ll need a spatula—one designed specifically for grilling—to protect your hands from the flames. Our highest-ranked grill spatula is narrow enough to navigate between burgers on the grill, easily handles everything from delicate fish to floppy pizza, and is sturdy with a comfortable handle.
Barbecue Basting Brush
Long-handled basting brushes help you add oil or sauce to food on the grill without burning your fingers. Our top-rated basting brush has a nice heft and bastes large, uniform areas quickly. But more important, it holds a lot of sauce thanks to its high number of bristles, including four with special reservoirs for retaining liquids.