Grilling is an all-American activity, and it's hit an all-time high in popularity, according to NPD Group, a national market research firm.
The company's research shows that Fourth of July weekend is the top holiday weekend for grilling. Memorial Day weekend comes in second, followed by Labor Day weekend. Also, 38 percent of households use a grill at least once in an average two-week period, a 6 percent increase in the past decade.
"There is no doubt we are a nation of grillers," says Harry Balzer, head of the NPD Group. "It's convenient, saves time, tastes good, and, perhaps most important to women, the man does it."
Balzer attributes the steady rise in grilling with the increasing number of men cooking at home. "This is the one cooking appliance men are more likely to use than any other appliance in the home."
Grilling is no longer just a summer pastime 26.5 percent report using a grill in the winter. The increase in year-round grilling coincides with the increased ownership of gas grills, according to Balzer. "The majority 76 percent of households have an outdoor grill. And the grill of choice is one that uses gas, as 75 percent of grill owners have a gas grill."
Gas is quicker, but it doesn't give the flavor that charcoal does, said executive chef Eric Finney of the Grand America Hotel. The hotel hosts a cookout on the patio every Saturday night, and the buffet includes grilled steaks, lamb, pork chops and ribs.
"I'm a true believer in charcoal," said Finney, who also does a lot of grilling and barbecuing at home. "Gas is good, but I think charcoal is better."
Here are 10 tips to improve your summer cookouts:
1. Buy the best meat you can afford, said Finney. Most beef in grocery stores is U.S. Department of Agriculture's "select" grade. Some grocery stores and meat markets offer "choice," which is a grade above "select."
"If you can get 'choice,' it's worth the expense when you're dealing with a New York or a rib-eye steak," Finney said.
2. Use the right cut of meat. Tender cuts of beef like sirloin, tenderloin, porterhouse, strip steak are best for grilling, writes Steve Raichlen in his book, "The Barbecue! Bible" (Workman, $22.95). Skirt and flank steaks are OK if they're served thinly sliced on the diagonal. Save tough cuts like chuck or blade steak for moist cooking methods like braising. Bone-in chicken breasts or thighs will take longer than boneless to cook all the way through, so plan accordingly.
3. It's rare to find a great well-done steak. Most chefs will tell you that a medium-rare steak is more juicy. To get a well-done steak that's not dry and tough, look for meat at the market that has finer, more abundant veins of fat, or marbling, throughout the meat, Jones advised.
"When cooked at a high temperature, the marbled fat melts and coats the meat's muscle tissue, insulating it from high heat," Jones said.
Also, take the steaks out of the refrigerator a little while before cooking, to bring the inside of the meat almost to room temperature, Jones said. The steak will cook more evenly; you won't have to burn it on the outside to get it cooked on the inside.
However, don't leave raw meat at room temperature longer than an hour, to avoid the possibility of bacterial growth and food poisoning.
"I pull the steaks out first, so they can come up to temperature while I light the grill and set up everything, which usually takes about 20 to 40 minutes." said Finney.
4. It's not just about the meat. While you've got a hot grill sitting there, why not put some sizzle in the side dishes, too? Grilling caramelizes the natural sugar in vegetables and fruit, giving them a sweeter, more intense flavor.
Dave Jones, executive chef at Bambara, recently added a Castroville Grilled Artichoke to the menu. To do it at home, simmer the fresh, whole globe artichokes in a pot of water with an ounce of lemon juice and a tablespoon of salt. Simmer for 40 minutes or until you can pull a leaf off with a little tug. (If they come off without a tug, they're overcooked.) Then "shock" them by placing in ice water, and then let them sit in the cooled, reserve cooking liquid until you're ready to grill.
Drain them upside down for a few minutes, then drizzle inside the leaves with a little olive oil, garlic powder and salt. Cut the artichoke in half vertically, and set the flat cut side on the grill for about 10 minutes. You can serve it with drawn butter or aoli, but it's quite flavorful all by itself.
Another idea: Drizzle veggies of choice such as sliced mushrooms, zucchini, onions, bell peppers, asparagus with olive oil, and cook them in a grill basket. Just stir every few minutes to keep them from burning. Serve plain, or tossed with vinaigrette as a salad.
5. Mind your marinades. Marinating is used as a tenderizer. But don't submerge the meat too long, said Jones. "It can affect the texture of the meat and make it pithy. The length of marinating time depends on the type of the muscle you're using. For instance, a flank steak is very thin, so you should go no more than two or three hours."
Jones and Finny both advise brining pork chops and poultry to keep them more plump and juicy.
"Brining is like a safety net for certain things like chicken breasts and pork chops that people tend to overcook," said Finney. "It will keep them moist."
Brines and marinades are both flavored liquids; but marinades contain some type of acid such as lemon juice or vinegar, and brines don't. For brining, Jones recommends 1/2 cup sugar and 1/3 cup of salt per gallon of water, plus any flavorings you'd like, such as chiles, herbs or spices.
The brining time depends on type and weight of the food. For a chicken breast, Jones recommends two to three hours; for a pork chop, 4-6 hours; and for turkey breast, 8-10 hours. Then rinse the food to remove the salt, and rub it with a little oil before placing on the grill.
"With a good steak, I like to keep it simple just a little olive oil, salt and pepper," Jones said. "With fish, unless it's a high-fat type like salmon or barracuda, I don't use a marinade because you already have issues with it sticking to the grill."
6. Preheat the grill. "If your meat sticks to your grill, either you're turning it too soon, or your grill isn't hot enough to begin with," said Finney.
According to Raichlen, for a "hot" temperature, you should be able to hold your hand over the coals for only one to three seconds. For medium-hot, you should be able to hold your hand over the coals for four to five seconds.
7. The secret's in the sauce. There are arguments about whether or not to baste meat in barbecue sauce during cooking, said Jones. But the sugar in the sauce attracts heat, and can burn. So, he prefers to brush it on just a few minutes before taking the meat off the grill for a caramelized, but not burned, finish.
8. Use a meat thermometer to check doneness. "Grilling for a crowd sounds fun, but typically what happens is that you don't have enough grills or enough people manning the grills," said Teresa Hunsaker of the Utah State University Extension in Weber County. "So, the line starts to grow, and people don't want to wait to make sure the meat is fully cooked. And that's when they get salmonella with chicken, or E. coli with hamburgers."
9. Go undercover. "If what you're grilling is thinner than the palm of your hand (for example skinless boneless chicken breasts, thin pork chops, or shrimp) grill them uncovered," advises Steve Raichlen, author of "The Barbecue Bible. These items cook quickly; you want to be able to watch them to make sure they don't overcook.
Keep the lid on the grill if the item is thicker than the palm of your hand, "For example, a Bible-thick swordfish or tuna steak, or a thick porterhouse or T-bone steak," writes Raichlen. Covering the grill holds in the heat so the inside of the meat will cook more evenly.10. Give it a rest. Always let the meats sit off the heat a few minutes. "All that heat is bringing the juices to the center of the meat," said Jones. "By giving it a few minutes to relax, the juices will disperse back to the extremities of the meat."
Is it done yet?
Insert the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, but without touching any bones (bones, like metal, conduct heat). Here's a general guide to doneness:
Ground beef, lamb, pork: 160 degrees
Ground chicken or turkey: 165 degrees
BEEF AND LAMB
Rare: 125 degrees
Medium-rare: 145 degrees
Medium: 160 degrees
Well-done: 170-195 degrees
Medium: 160 degrees
Well-done: 170-190 degrees
CHICKEN, TURKEY AND QUAIL
"The Barbecue! Bible," by Steve Raichlen (Workman, $22.95)
Top 10 grilled foods
4. Hot Dogs
5. Pork Chops
8. Other Pork Cuts
10. SeafoodSource: NPD Group
STEAK AND GRILLED RATATOUILLE SALAD
Total preparation and cooking time: 45 to 50 minutes
Marinating time: 6 hours or overnight
1/2 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 beef top round steak, cut 1 inch thick (about 1 1/2 pounds)
1 small eggplant, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch thick slices
2 large red or yellow bell peppers, cut lengthwise into quarters
1 medium zucchini, cut lengthwise in half
1 medium yellow squash, cut lengthwise in half
1/2 cup grape tomato halves
9 cups mixed baby salad greens
Salt and ground black pepper
Combine marinade ingredients in small bowl. Place beef steak and 1/2 cup marinade in food-safe plastic bag; turn steak to coat. Close bag securely and marinate in refrigerator 6 hours or as long as overnight, turning occasionally. Cover and refrigerate remaining marinade for salad.
Spray vegetables, except tomatoes, with nonstick cooking spray.
Remove steak from marinade; discard marinade. Place steak in center of grid over medium, ash-covered coals; arrange vegetables around steak. Grill steak, uncovered, 16 to 18 minutes (over medium heat on preheated gas grill, covered, 16 to 19 minutes) for medium-rare (145F) doneness, turning occasionally. Grill eggplant and bell peppers 12 to 15 minutes; zucchini and yellow squash 8 to 12 minutes (over medium heat on preheated gas grill, covered, eggplant 6 to 8 minutes; bell peppers, zucchini and yellow squash 7 to 11 minutes) or until tender, turning occasionally and basting with remaining reserved marinade.
Cut grilled vegetables into 1-inch pieces. Carve steak into thin slices. Toss lettuce, tomatoes and grilled vegetables with remaining 1/2 cup marinade. Divide vegetable mixture between 6 serving plates. Arrange beef steak slices over vegetables. Season with salt and pepper, as desired. Sprinkle with cheese, as desired. Serves 6.Nutrition information per serving: 334 calories; 19 g fat (4 g saturated fat; 12 g monounsaturated fat); 61 mg cholesterol; 162 mg sodium; 12 g carbohydrate; 5.2 g fiber; 30 g protein; 6.2 mg niacin; 0.7 mg vitamin B6; 1.5 mcg vitamin B12; 4.1 mg iron; 31.4 mcg selenium; 5.4 mg zinc. This recipe is an excellent source of fiber, protein, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, iron, selenium and zinc. National Cattlemen's Beef Association
SWEET HAWAIIAN MINI BURGERS
Total preparation and cooking time: 35 to 40 minutes
1 pound ground beef
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
4 canned pineapple slices, drained
12 Hawaiian sweet or small whole wheat dinner rolls, split
1/4 cup barbecue sauce
1/4 cup pineapple preserves
Combine ground beef and Worcestershire sauce in medium bowl, mixing lightly but thoroughly. Lightly shape into 12 1/2-inch thick mini patties. Set aside.
Combine sauce ingredients in small saucepan; bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Remove from heat.
Place patties in center of grid, over medium, ash-covered coals. Grill, covered, 8 to 10 minutes (over medium heat on preheated gas grill, covered, 9 to 11 minutes), turning occasionally, until instant-read thermometer inserted horizontally into center registers 160F.
Meanwhile brush pineapple slices with sauce and place on grid around patties. Grill pineapple 4 minutes, turning once and brushing with additional sauce. Remove pineapple, keep warm. Brush burgers with remaining sauce after turning.Cut each pineapple slice into thirds. Line bottom of each roll with lettuce, top with burger, then with pineapple piece. Close sandwiches. Serves 4. National Cattlemen's Beef Association