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.
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.
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.
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.
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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:
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.
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.