Think Like a Chef to Grill Like a Pro

Drop the hot dogs and back away from those premade burger patties­—it’s time to take your grill game to the next level. You don’t have to be a chef; you just need to think like one. Inspired and informed by fire-loving chefs from across the country, we’ve created a smart mix-and-match menu that is packed with time-saving hacks and adapts to whatever’s best at the farmers market. What are you waiting for? Head outside, fire up the grill, and get ready to enjoy the most delicious summer food of the season.
By Josh Miller
May 21, 2020

1. Make a Plan

Whether it’s at a Michelin-starred restaurant or right in your backyard, every great meal starts with a smart plan. The key to a successful, low-stress cookout is to expend effort strategically by working ahead, saving time for casual cooking and low-lift, high-impact finishing touches.

Let everyone choose their own adventure with this make-ahead mixer flavored with sweet mango nectar and sour-tart hibiscus syrup. It’s equally delicious on the rocks with sparkling water, topped with bubbly Cava, or stirred together with tequila for a cocktail.

Get the Recipe: Mango-Hibiscus Cooler

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen

2. Expedite Drinks + Apps

Ask any chef, and they’ll tell you the secret to happy eaters is to get them drinks and starters quickly. Since you’ll be too busy at the grill to mix up cocktails, set up a DIY drinks station so everyone can serve themselves. Prepare two appetizers to keep appetites at bay: a make-ahead Chile-Coconut Watermelon Crudo inspired by chef Deb Paquette of Etch in Nashville and three easy, flavor-packed pintxos that can be assembled ahead of time and grilled à la minute.

This sweet, spicy, and punchy upgrade to classic slabs of salted watermelon is the palate-pleasing appetizer you deserve. Fresh coconut water is much sweeter, and has a greater depth of flavor than bottled versions, so crack open a coconut if you can. If using store-bought, select a brand with no additives for the best tasting crudo. Reserve the strained spicy marinade to use as a fruity base for a tequila cocktail.

Get the Recipe: Chile-Coconut Watermelon Crudo

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen

These simple, one-bite snacks are quick to assemble and grill as you wait for the main event. Sticky-sweet pork belly, tender, meaty shrimp, and bright, quick-pickled tomato variations offer something for everyone.

Get the Recipe: Pork Belly, Shrimp, and Pickled Tomato Pintxos

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen

3. Keep It Fresh

The secret to great summer cooking is the freshest possible produce. If you hit the farmers market early, you’ll find off-duty chefs strolling the stalls, searching for fresh inspiration. Our giant Grilled Vegetable Flatbread with Smoked Almond Muhammara allows for just that kind of spontaneity: Grill any vegetables that grab your attention—chef’s choice!—and nestle them into the versatile, smoky spread over warm bread.

This vegetarian masterpiece is packed with make-ahead options and smart shortcuts. Make the Smoked Almond Muhammara up to 3 days in advance and stash it in the fridge; skip a step and substitute 2 cups jarred roasted peppers for the grilled bell peppers, plus about 1/4 cup liquid from the jar. If you’re working with a small grill, cut the flatbread in half, or use lavash instead.

Get the Recipe: Grilled Vegetable Flatbread with Smoked Almond Muhammara

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen

4. Claim Your Grill Space

The grill is the heart of all outdoor cooking. And while everyone may want to hang out where you’re grilling, to cook effectively you need your space. Think like a chef, and set up your cooking area for maximum efficiency and economy of movement. Start by setting up your grill in a low-traffic area with convenient kitchen access. Then trick it out to your liking.

Gear Up

Your cookout can be as simple or elaborate as you'd like. If top-notch gear gets you excited about grilling, give these 11 high- and low-tech tools a try.

Table Service

Position a small table near the grill to give you a spot to place items pre- and post-grilling; set it up perpendicular to the grill to block off your workspace. Have these items on hand to reduce dashes back to the kitchen:

Checklist

5. Grill All the Things

Instead of serving one protein, go with a mixed grill to offer a variety of meats seasoned with our sweet and savory Koji-Cola All-Purpose Marinade—it’s a low-effort move that will make a big impact at the table. Whether you’re serving chicken, steak, salmon, or all of the above, this rice-thickened, soy- and Mexican Coke–spiked marinade tenderizes, adds umami and sweetness, and crisps into a thin, crackly crust on the grill.

When dreaming up this all-purpose marinade, we took a page from chef Jeremy Umansky’s book—literally. In between shifts at Larder in Cleveland, he found time to write his new book, Koji Alchemy, extolling the virtues of koji rice, which is exposed to the same microorganism that gives soy sauce, miso, and sake their fermented flavor. The magic of koji is its ability to transform proteins. For our all-purpose marinade, we finely grind koji rice and combine it with a slightly sweet solution that allows it to activate quickly. Once hydrated, koji transforms into a paste that breaks down proteins, delivering superior texture and bold flavor in one delicious punch.

Koji rice teams up with cane sugar–rich Mexican Coca-Cola to tenderize the meat of your choice while grilling up nice and crispy; find koji rice online or at Asian markets.

Get the Recipe: Koji-Cola All-Purpose Marinade

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen

6. Don't Skip Dessert

There’s a reason most great restaurants have a pastry chef on the team: Dessert is your last chance to leave a big impression. And there’s no better way than with this jaw-dropping, surprisingly easy meringue- and berry-topped cake. Make it the morning of your grill day, then top it with sour cream–spiked whipped cream and macerated fruit just before serving. Trust us—you'll be talking about this one for many summers to come.

The meringue topping expands as this stunning cake bakes, so be careful not to spread it all the way to the edges of the cake batter to make removing the cake from the pan easier. Top with whatever berries are in season at your market, or use your favorite sliced stonefruit.

Get the Recipe: Double-Decker Meringue Cake with Summer Berries

Photo by Victor Protasio / Food Styling by Chelsea Zimmer / Prop Styling by Claire Spollen