Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Elizabeth Karmel as executive chef of Hill Country Barbecue Market. She was founding executive chef there but left to launch Carolina Cue To-Go. This version has been corrected.
Used to be, cookouts meant burgers and dogs. Ketchup and mustard. It was a tradition about as summery and American as fresh-cut green lawns and baseball. Today, with the rise of the foodie, the millennial and the median household income, grilling is decidedly something more. “It’s a legitimate hobby,” says Elizabeth Karmel, owner of Carolina Cue To-Go and former executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market in the District and New York. “It’s probably the most talked-about indigenous American way of cooking.”
Household chefs are experimenting with the types of food they grill — watermelon, eggplant, even oysters and mussels. They’re developing their own spice rubs and buying more than one type of grill. Die-hards are even designing outdoor kitchens. For one Northern Virginia project, Charlene Kennerknecht and her partner, Arch Williams, created a “grotto,” a cabana-like structure over a kitchen, dining room and living room in one. Clients are even asking for outdoor TVs, bar seating and fire pits, as alfresco entertaining becomes the activity of summer.
Maybe you don’t know how to get started, though. First decide whether you’re a gas or charcoal griller. For taste and convenience, Karmel says, “gas cannot be beat.” But “charcoal is a lot of fun when you have more time to be hands-on.”
Then, what to eat? Heed Karmel’s mantra: If you can eat it, then you can grill it. Put the food on, and as entertaining expert Susan Spungen says, “When the party starts, be in it.”
The only real mistake you can make is calling hot dogs “barbecue,” because, as Southerners are quick to tell you, it’s only barbecue if it’s cooked low and slow. Anything else is simply “grilling out” — not that there’s anything wrong with that.
We may be grilling fruit and pizza these days, but there’s still nothing like the classics. Serve up hot dogs or sausages in compostable wooden trays from Food52. ($20 for a set of 20, food52.com). They’re the right size for holding all the fixings, or even a grilled dessert of bananas in their peels, dusted with cinnamon and sugar — one of Karmel’s favorites. Bonus: For little hands, trays are far superior to flimsy paper plates.
It’s not a real cookout if there’s not barbecue sauce on your hands and corn cob threads in your teeth. But who says you can’t clean up in style? “I always use cloth napkins,” Kennerknecht says. “Outside, you’re usually eating barbecue, and paper napkins just won’t cut it.” Anthropologie’s herringbone napkins will ($32 for a set of six, anthropologie.com).
Karmel, who once taught Martha Stewart how to cook a beer-can chicken, says that all you need for delicious grilling is a knowledge of direct and indirect heat, plus three ingredients: kosher salt, pepper and a good-quality olive oil. These corn salt and pepper shakers are a wink at a favorite American grilled treat, corn on the cob ($6, crateandbarrel.com).
Consumer Reports gives high marks to the Better Homes and Gardens stainless-steel four-burner gas grill with side burner, which preheats well and cooks evenly ($248, walmart.com). The burger capacity is 32 — just right for an eager crowd. For all grills, Consumer Reports recommends that you look for seamless construction and welded joints and even jostle the grill to make sure it’s steady before buying.
Grilling can get pretty messy. Find an apron with pockets and plenty of fabric for wiping, such as Picnic Fashion’s buffalo check red apron ($35, picnicfashion.com).
Karmel found her favorite way of grilling burgers by chance. She was testing recipes and needed to grill only little pieces of meat, so she pulled out her Lodge Logic cast-iron platter to prevent the pieces from falling through the grates ($20, sears.com). The burger crust was diner-divine, so she cooked up meal-size burgers for guests that way the next time she hosted.
Toast to a perfect sear with Govino’s dishwasher-safe flutes, made of shatterproof plastic that’s just as thin and refined-feeling as crystal ($23 for a set of four, govino.com). A thumb notch keeps the glass securely in hand.
Side dishes would find a home in Terrain’s Floral Sketch melamine serving bowl, which only looks like ceramic; the bamboo-fiber melamine won’t break if dropped on the way outside ($32, terrain.com). Look to Karmel’s first cookbook, “Taming the Flame,” for twists on sides: Chicago Steakhouse Salad, Shout Hallelujah Potato Salad and Sweet Bourbon Mash.
These acacia-wood and stainless-steel corn holders by German makers Schmidt Brothers are as much a step up from plastic holders of past as grass-fed beef is over conventional ($16 for a set of four pairs, gracioushome.com). Dress up your corn with paprika and lime wedges to make it worthy of these haute holders.
New from Coyote Outdoor Living is the Asado freestanding ceramic grill, a kamado-style smoker that’s a centuries-old Japanese design — made popular again by Big Green Egg. The Asado burns wood chips or charcoal, has a grate with wide openings for direct-heat cooking and searing, and includes a cart with fold-down shelves ($1,199, bbqguys.com).
The portable Wherever dual-fuel grill can use charcoal fuel when outside or an electric mode when used on an apartment balcony with no-flame regulations ($80, crateandbarrel.com).
Set the table before you get to grilling so you can keep an eye on the meat. Try World Market’s red-and-blue-striped Loire table runner, which would add a rustic, patriotic touch to a wood picnic table ($25, worldmarket.com).
Keep the party going late into the night with a packable 9.5-inch-by-6-inch rechargeable camp lantern, in red, bronze or silver ($50, food52.com). On the brightest setting, it stays lighted for four hours; on the dimmest, 80 hours. Bonus: If you need to charge your phone for more selfies, plug it into the lantern’s built-in USB port.
A good pair of tongs is a grilling essential. OXO’s 12-inch tongs are the perfect size, Karmel says — any longer and you lose control ($13, oxo.com). “You want the tongs to be an extension of your fingers,” she advises. Karmel’s other must-have tools: an angled basting brush, a brass-bristle cleaning brush (though she says a ball of heavy-duty aluminum foil can work in a pinch) and an instant-read meat thermometer.
“Outdoor stemware used to be tacky,” Kennerknecht says. “But some of the acrylic today looks really good, almost like real crystal.” Have fun with smoke gray, aqua, lime or orange acrylic stemless wine glasses from World Market ($12 for a set of four, worldmarket.com). “It’s important not to have glass around a pool, especially,” she says.
One of the trickiest parts of outdoor cooking is all the back and forth between the indoor and outdoor kitchen. Cook and serve with the Nordic Ware Sizzling Steak serving platter ($24, kohls.com). Just be careful with the hot handles; a long, heavy-duty mitt is one of Karmel’s must-haves.
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