Diablo Dish: End of Summer BBQ Tips
Chicken, ribs, and burgers, oh my!
At the end of a busy summer, sometimes just hanging out on the patio seems like the best way to spend the evening. Sure, it takes a little energy to fire up the grill and barbecue some serious protein, but the drinks are a lot cheaper, and you don’t have to worry about a reservation. Here are a few tips to make that home-cooked barbecue taste even better.
Tip No. 1—don’t use white meat. Deep down, I wonder why anyone likes dry white meat, but it’s especially tasteless coming off the grill, so definitely opt for the fattier, tastier legs and thighs. That fat, though, has a tendency to melt, land on the coals or burners, and erupt in flames that char the chicken black before it can really cook through.
Tip No. 2—use indirect grilling, which means either turn on only one burner, or stack the coals on one side of the barbecue. Cook the chicken away from the direct heat until it’s almost done (more time with the skin side down), and then give it a quick sear over the flames just before serving.
Finally, think about just grilling thighs. The legs cook differently than the thighs due to their shape and are very tough to get just right.
And by the way, meat thermometers are a wonderful invention that will significantly improve all your cooking. Using a good instant-read meat thermometer with your chicken will allow you to pick the temperature you prefer (I’m always on the low end of the range), take the meat out at the precise temperature you need, and get consistent results.
I have always loved spare ribs—my father’s specialty in our Lafayette backyard—but they are tricky to cook.
I’ve tried the low and slow method, which works well, but takes several hours of monitoring, especially if you’re cooking with charcoal. Keeping the temperature in the right range is far from easy, and even with a meat thermometer, it’s hard to tell when the ribs are really done. Shaking a slab of ribs to test their flexibility—they should move up and down a little—is about the only method I’ve found, and it’s far from precise.
And then there’s the sauce. If you just throw the ribs on the fire, scrape off some charcoal and douse them with sauce, you usually have dry meat without much flavor. And if that’s the case, what purpose does the meat really serve?
Even with low and slow grilling, the ribs are put into a secondary role when the sauce is put on for the last 30 minutes or so.
Instead, I’ve been putting a basic salt, pepper, and tiny bit of sugar rub on my ribs. Then, I’ll cut them into slabs of two and cook them quick on the grill. Start with five minutes meat side down—and have a spray bottle handy to douse the flames—and then flip and cook for five minutes with the bone side down. Finish by grilling a few more minutes with the meat side down, and then serve. You don’t really need sauce, as you can really taste the ribs, but you can have some on the table for those who want it. The key, though, is to keep the flames down, which means you do have to pay attention for about 15 minutes. However, that is a lot better than five hours …
The old standby of the backyard barbecue is not as simple as it seems (what is, really?), but here’s one non-meat tip that will make your burgers a whole lot better: Butter and lightly toast the buns right before serving. You can do it on the grill, but the oven is better. Put the buns in for about five minutes at 250 degrees (with plenty of butter), and when they come out, they are a perfect place to put those burgers.
Again, an instant-read meat thermometer will be a huge help for your burgers, but aside from overcooked or undercooked, another pitfall to avoid is the patty falling apart. A couple thoughts, and the first is definitely counter-intuitive: Keep the patties cold until you put them on the grill. The warmer they are, the more likely they are to come apart. Also, limit the liquid you mix in with the meat—unless you want to add an egg. Since I opt for a little A.1. Sauce and a little Worcestershire, I toss in a beaten egg—but good beef can always stand on its own without much outside help.
Now armed with some (hopefully) new techniques, push back that restaurant reservation one week and enjoy the Northern California summer. School will be starting soon (if it hasn’t already), and what better way to ease into the inevitable rush than with some home cooking and twilight wine.