Barbecue season is heating up. If you’re planning on hosting a cookout this summer, you’re not alone: Research from the National Retail Federation shows that last year, an estimated 38 million people hosted cookouts on the Fourth of July alone.
So how do you set yours apart? From unexpected food and drink to creating an ambiance that transports guests, it can be easy and affordable to take your barbecue to the next level and leave your guests saying “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Weeknights are a perfect time for smaller gatherings with close friends and family. Though these cookouts are typically casual, that doesn’t mean they can’t be memorable, and they’re a great opportunity to focus on the food.
Brent Ridge, one of the authors of The Beekman 1802 Heirloom Cookbook, says the perfect barbecue starts with stepping outside the box and offering guests something they typically won’t get at home.
“People usually grill the same things at home, like chicken, burgers or hot dogs,” he says. “So when they come to your house, it’s great if you can give them something different. You want to open the grill and have them say ‘wow, that’s something I’ve never tried before.’”
Grilled vegetables and fruits are a nice complement to grilled meats and offer a big wow factor, says Ridge, because they are fresh and light and make a great alternative to heavier traditional barbecue sides.
“A lot of people still have never tried grilling vegetables, and it’s so easy to do with whatever vegetables happen to be fresh,” he says. From squash and zucchini to cucumbers, green beans and peppers, vegetables are simple to grill, either by placing on skewers or sealing in foil
with olive oil, salt and pepper and herbs.
“You just throw it on the grill and there’s no cleanup,” he says. “It’s so light and so easy.”
Ridge adds that an unexpected twist on a traditional cookout favorite can leave guests talking. He suggests using your favorite meat loaf recipe and forming it into patties for an interesting take on the hamburger.
Small cookouts are also a great time to bring some refinement to your barbecue.
For an intimate gathering or a celebratory occasion, a splurge like grilled lobster raises the bar, says Pat Neely, co-host of the Food Network’s Down Home with the Neelys.
“It’s light, delicious and elegant,” he says, “and makes for a memorable night that really leaves guests feeling special.”
Of course, an intimate meal should be enhanced by intimate surroundings. Stylish place settings on rustic outdoor furniture make a striking yet welcoming setting, and candles and soft music are a must for an elegant background. To heighten senses, try draping fabric or sheets around your outdoor dining area and replace your regular outdoor light bulbs with ones in shades of amber or pink for a transformative experience.
Expert’s Tip: If you make a great barbecue sauce or marinade, send your guests home with a bottle or a nice card with the recipe on it. That way they’ll be able to enjoy your party long after they’ve left.
With more time to prep and a festive atmosphere already in place, your weekend’s potential is only limited by your imagination.
While burgers and hot dogs are always crowd pleasers, outstanding weekend cookouts also make use of other interesting menu options, from grilled pizza to fish tacos. If you do choose the popular burger and hot dog route, even that can be exceptional with a little extra effort, says event planner Andrea Correale, president of New York caterer Elegant Affairs.
In addition to buying the best ground beef possible, she suggests you should also offer veggie, tuna and turkey burgers, and create an elaborate bar with every topping imaginable, from gorgonzola cheese and shredded cheddar to jalapeño peppers, sautéed onions and fried leeks. Along with ketchup, have several other sauces such as barbecue and Thousand Island dressing.
“When you have a huge array of flavors available, no matter what you’re cooking it tantalizes guests’ taste buds,” she says.
The same idea works well for cookout staple corn on the cob, which can be dressed up with different sauces and rubs including parmesan lemon sauce, lime chili butter, and Mexican style cotija cheese and mayonnaise. Dress up the displays with little labels identifying each topping, which can be written up on chalkboards or printed on small place cards for maximum effect.
“All of these things don’t cost a lot, but they make your barbecue very interesting and fun,” Correale says.
Another way to elevate your cookout is to give it a theme that adds drama and flair. One of Correale’s favorites is to showcase the flavors of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, with long tables of grilled chicken paillard, antipasti and grilled pizza Margherita, followed by refreshing desserts such as limoncello sorbet or shaved ice. She also likes a Mediterranean theme, with table linens and decorations of cobalt blue and white, and a feast of grilled lamb and chicken with tatziki in pita pockets alongside a big Greek salad.
“When you think out of the box, it’s fun and different, and people really enjoy it,” she says, adding that online music playlists can elevate the mood of practically every theme.
Switch things up by hosting a breakfast cookout, Ridge suggests.
“We so often think about grilling as an evening activity, but oftentimes that means it’s 90 degrees and really uncomfortable,” he says. “A breakfast grill is a great way to start a weekend day.”
Sausages, bacon and pancakes are all easy to prepare on a griddle on the grill, he says, and they can be nicely finished off by throwing some stone fruits onto skewers and laying them on the grill for a few minutes for fantastic fruit kabobs.
“It’s novel and unique and something your guests will be talking about long after, to be sure,” he says.
Expert’s Tip: Before your cookout, squeeze lemon juice over inexpensive white towels, wet them, roll them up and place them in the freezer. After your meal, bring them out as a way for guests to freshen up.
When it comes to a holiday cookout, the theme may be a no-brainer, but the way it’s executed sets the party apart.
Since it’s hard to spend a lot of time with every guest at a larger gathering, Neely says it’s important that your event has a welcoming ambiance that says “We’re glad you came” from start to finish.
“Everything from the food to the forks and napkins is important,” he says. Scented candles, tiki torches and good music are also great touches and create an instant welcome for every guest, especially if you can’t greet them right away yourself.
“That way, when people walk into your house they immediately feel like they’re at a celebration,” he says.
Because cooking for a large holiday crowd can be hard work, Neely says the party will almost always be a bigger success when the bulk of that work is done before guests arrive.
“For a holiday barbecue, I might make a pork shoulder or six or seven slabs of ribs, but I’ll season them the night before, make the sauce the night before and then cook them early on the day of the cookout,” he says. “That way I don’t feel pressured when guests arrive, and I’m not standing over a hot grill and then have to shower while they enjoy themselves. I just throw the ribs back on the grill on low heat to bring them back, and I’m good to go.”
Neely says rounding out the main dish with delicious sides is especially important for a large group because it keeps things affordable while satisfying a wide variety of tastes.
“Grilled bacon-wrapped asparagus, grilled bell peppers and onions, or grilled fingerling potatoes drizzled in olive oil all make great fillers and really complement any meat that you’re cooking,” he says.
A large gathering is also an ideal place to offer guests a signature cocktail that’s unique to your event. In addition to being more budget-friendly than having a full bar, a signature drink surprises guests and makes more of an impact than a beer or glass of white wine, according to Neely.
“A delicious and refreshing house cocktail has a real wow factor,” he says.
When it comes to the granddaddy of all cookout holidays, the Fourth of July, Correale emphasizes that it’s important to remember that the “All-American” theme can be played out many ways.
“It doesn’t have to just be burgers and dogs,” she says. “For a different take on an American cookout, try smokehouse barbecue with pulled pork, or a New England clam bake with chowder and grilled seafood skewers. Have some fun with it!”
Expert’s Tip: If you’re hosting a large holiday gathering and your guests won’t all fit inside your home, have a rain plan. Many rental companies allow you to place a tent on hold; if you don’t need it, you’ll only pay a small percentage of the actual cost. The peace of mind is worth every penny!