There’s something about a three-day weekend that demands a BBQ cookout. Whether you’re gathering with your pals at the park over some grilled hot dogs and tossing the frisbee, kicking back at the beach munching on burgers and strumming on the guitar, or just sitting in your backyard around the fire pit enjoying brisket and beans, cooking outside with friends is a time-honored tradition that says, “Life is good!”
If you want to have a great social with your friends this weekend (or any time), I’d like to offer a few practical hints that will help make sure your BBQ is the highlight of the summer. With just a bit of advance planning, your friends will forever refer to you as “the burgermeister,” the “pit boss,” or perhaps even “the skipper of the flipper.”
Consider your menu
The first consideration is who you’re going to invite to your BBQ, because that will help determine the menu. Is this going to be a casual Memorial Day gathering with your roommates at a local park? If so, you probably will have just a small charcoal or gas hibachi grill available, which limits you to quick-cooking hamburgers, hot dogs, and black bean burgers.
Or perhaps you’d like to impress your coworkers by having them over to your apartment for a Saturday summer dinner, which means you will have your whole kitchen available and can prepare a batch of pulled pork in the crock-pot (recipe below).
And if you want to go all-out and you have access to an actual wood smoker or pellet grill, you might attempt the mother-of-all slow-smoked protein centerpieces, the Texas-style beef brisket — but that’s a lesson for the master-level BBQ class.
Here’s a little secret: not every BBQ meal needs to be cooked on a grill or smoker. I’ve served many excellent meals of tender and smoky pulled pork that were entirely cooked in a crock pot (or an even quicker version in the Instant Pot). You will discover that if the meat and the accompanying side dishes are lip-smackingly tasty, your guests will be just as satisfied as they’d be if you’d slaved all day over the blazingly hot mesquite coals of a BBQ pit.
Plan your side dishes
The side dishes are a key part of every successful BBQ. For casual gatherings, you might ask your friends to bring along a veggie tray, a bag of chips, or a bowl of macaroni salad to accompany the main dish — just remember that mayonnaise-based and egg-based salads and sides will need to be kept chilled in a cooler rather than left to ferment in the sun.
I’ve found that even store-bought potato salad can be an excellent accompaniment — just add a diced hard-boiled egg or two and some additional chopped pickles to add your own flair. Baked beans are always a great BBQ side, as they can be enjoyed hot or cold. And later in the summer season, grilled corn-on-the-cob (or, to really class it up, Mexican street corn) is a delicious treat that straddles the line between side dish and dessert.
Desserts and beverages can be easy
When it comes to the dessert course, cold and sweet is always the way to go. Try watermelon slices (sprinkled with a bit of salt for a savory revelation), Southern-style banana pudding (again remembering to keep it cool and out of the sun), or (if you have a freezer handy) every grown-up-kid’s favorite: popsicles. You can even go really simple by putting out a bowl filled with an assortment of always-crowd-pleasing Ding Dongs and Tastykakes.
On the beverage scene, your guests may enjoy beer, sangria, and plenty of non-alcoholic sparkling water, or even a couple of pitchers of agua fresca (see recipe below). Of course, beverages are always a great place to ask your guests to pitch in — that’ll be one less thing you’ll have to worry about as the host.
A few last practical considerations: for food service, you’ll need paper plates, forks/spoons/knives, napkins, and perhaps beverage cups. Don’t forget platters, serving bowls, and serving spoons/tongs for the main and side dishes. Condiments to dress up the main dish (with dogs and burgers, you’ll need buns, ketchup, mustard, relish, tomatoes, lettuce, and these super-awesome quick-pickled onions). If you’re grilling, you’ll want long-handled spatulas, tongs, grill cleaning brush, meat thermometer to ensure food safety, a pair of BBQ gloves and/or oven mitts, and an apron — the chef’s hat is optional.
Remember to have handy a large cooler filled with ice for beverages, and another for storing foods that need to be kept cool (including the raw meat that you’ll be cooking). And if you’ll be outside, you’ll need to be sure you have enough seating for your guests — we always ask friends to bring foldable chairs or camp stools for themselves.
No matter whether this is your first BBQ or you’re an accomplished cookout host, don’t forget to have fun yourself. Keep hydrated, reapply the sunscreen frequently, and make sure to have a little taste of everything on the table. And always remember that cooking outside with your friends is a sign that “life is very good!”
Recipe: Slow-Cooker Pulled Pork
- 4-6 lb. boneless pork shoulder (can also use bone-in) 2 tablespoons BBQ seasoning/rub (any brand will work, even just a mix of garlic and onion powders)
- 1 teaspoon table salt
- ½ teaspoon cracked black pepper
- ¼ cup water
- 1 teaspoon liquid smoke (*hickory or pecan are great with pork, and a little goes a long way)
- Season the pork all over with salt, pepper, and any BBQ rub, then place seasoned meat in the slow cooker. Add water and liquid smoke to the slow cooker — you don’t need a lot of liquid as the roast will produce more as it cooks.
- Cover with a lid and cook on low for about 8 hours, until it reaches an internal temperature of 190F.
- When the pork has reached 190F, remove it to a board and let cool for at least 20 minutes before shredding with two forks. Discard the largest hunks of fat.
- Remove the leftover liquid from the crockpot and strain it to remove any solids.
- Add the liquid back to the shredded pork and toss well.
- Return pulled pork to the crock pot to keep warm while serving (use “Keep Warm” setting if available; otherwise, use “Low”).
Recipe: Blackberry Mint Agua Frescas
- 1 pint blackberries
- 1 bottle (750mL) sparkling water
- 1 small handful fresh mint leaves
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar (more or less to taste, optional)
- Combine ingredients in large pitcher and add 5-6 cups ice. Serve immediately.