It’s the perfect summer escape without ever leaving your home—the backyard barbecue. Fire up the grill, invite some friends over, and you’ve got yourself a party. Of course, any good party needs a bit of planning, and the same goes for a barbecue. The barbecue staples—burgers and hotdogs on the grill, beer in the cooler—are popular for a reason: They work. But putting a little more effort into the endeavor can make a big difference. From expanding the menu to creating a more comfortable setting, you can turn the usual backyard gathering into something to remember. Ready to get started? Here are some tips on how to throw the perfect summer party.
A great barbecue starts with what’s on the grill. Of course, everyone has different tastes and preferences, but most guests will appreciate you making something special. The nice thing about grilling is that things cook relatively fast (as opposed to real barbecue, which is smoked slowly, see below). You just need to put in a little prep to have things ready to go when the party starts. Some suggestions include:
Ditch the pre-made frozen patties for hand-formed fresh ones. It doesn’t take much time at all, and they taste so much better. For a basic recipe, just add salt, pepper, and maybe some onion soup mix (find a recipe on the package), or use a grilling spice mix. Cumin, grilled onions, and chopped cilantro are also a great mix. Splurge for some quality cheeses, like a sharp cheddar. Blue cheese and A1 Steak sauce is another great combo. And if you must stick to the frozen burgers, remember to at least season them with salt and pepper.
Marinade it in advance to get some flavor in the meat. Bone-in pieces generally work better on the grill, but if you are going boneless, remember that it cooks very fast. Everyone fears undercooking the chicken, so they allow it to cook it far too long. Get a probe thermometer to get it off the grill as soon as it hits 165 degrees.
These are quick and easy—and you can now find a huge variety in most grocery stores. Bratwurst is always a favorite, but you may want to add some other options as well. Chicken sausages, in particular, have come a long way. Put a disposable aluminum pan on the side of the grill with sliced onions (cut from pole-to-pole) and maybe a little beer. Keep stirring them as the meat cooks. Throw them on top of the finished sausage, and you’ll be a hero.
Steak on the grill is always appreciated. An easy twist is to grill skirt steaks, which are done extremely fast and can be cut into strips for fajitas. Grill some onions and peppers and have tortillas, salsa, guacamole, and sour cream on hand and you’ve got yourself a fajita bar—and happy guests.
While we tend to use the term barbecue and grilling interchangeably, real barbecue means slow cooking with low heat. If you’ve got the time and skill to do this, you’ll never want for friends at your gatherings. It’s tough to do right on a gas grill, and charcoal takes much diligence. A smoker is really the way to go here, and while that’s an added expense, it opens up the world of pulled pork, brisket, and ribs. Know that these often take 6-10 hours to cook, so prepare for an early-morning wake-up call to get things started. But the results are worth it. (You can cheat by starting the cooking in your oven and finishing in the smoker or grill. Your guests never need know.)
Fish and seafood
Fish isn’t the easiest thing to cook on a grill, which often scares people away. But in a smaller group, you can have a lot of fun with it. Salmon on a cedar plank, for instance, is relatively easy and very tasty. Or go all in on a theme and have a New England-style clam bake.
No matter what you decide, have a pack of hot dogs on hand for the kids. Same goes for pre-made veggie burgers for any vegetarians who stop by. (If you know you’ve got vegetarians coming, pick up some Portobello mushrooms, which are great on the grill.)
The first rule of summer barbecue—have plenty of ice. Your friends will most likely be bringing along drinks to share, so have a cooler filled with ice handy where they can put their beer or other beverages. Have some options on hand yourself, including beer and wine that pair with the food you’re making. Other ideas to think about include:
• Make a pitcher or two of Sangria
• Summer slushies, made with frozen fruit mixed with wine.
• Non-alcoholic options like homemade lemonade and ice tea, allowing guest to create an Arnold Palmer, a refreshing summer treat (2/3 ice tea, 1/3 lemonade is the way the champ himself made it).
• Water. When it’s hot outside, sometimes you just crave a bottle of water.
With wireless speakers and Bluetooth, everyone’s a DJ now. Just don’t forget to turn it on. Start with your favorite playlist, or use a streaming service like Pandora to help pick the music for you.
Have something besides eating for your guests to do. In the Midwest, it’s not a barbecue unless someone is playing bags (also known as cornhole), probably with the logo of a favorite Big Ten football team on the boards. Horseshoes, croquet, bocce, badminton, and volleyball are other options as well. For a big group, organize a contest like a water balloon toss.
Transform your backyard into an inviting space. This means having plenty of lawn furniture where people can sit and eat. Have a long serving table where all the food goes. Realize that people will crave the shade, so set up the tables and chairs in the most comfortable parts of the yard. An umbrella or large tent can be helpful if you don’t have enough tree cover.
If you’re planning on going into the evening—as good barbecues should—run white string lights around your deck and in the trees. They look great and make it easier to get around.
Use tablecloths for all your tables and make sure you have plenty of plates, napkins, silverware on hand. Have sunscreen and bug spray out and accessible for your guests if needed.
Once the sun goes down, a fire pit is an excellent option for both warmth and entertainment. Have the ingredients for s’mores handy, as you should any time there’s an open fire. But another fun option is popcorn. (A camp-style popper designed for using over a fire can be bought for under $20).
More Party Ideas
You’ve got all the basics covered, but here are a few more ideas to consider:
With all the focus on the meat, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there’s so much good fruit in season. Cut up whatever looks the best at the market and watch it disappear.
Decorate your tables
Use fresh flowers or candles to make your barbecue an event.
Let people help
Almost everyone who’s invited to a barbecue asks, what can I bring? Tell them what you’re making and see if they have a favorite side dish or dessert that they want to bring along. Most people love to share a recipe that they love.
No matter what you decide to do, remember that the point of it all is to relax with friends. Don’t keep yourself so busy that you can’t enjoy it with them. Get the cooking done, grab a drink, and spend time with your guests. That’s the best part of any backyard barbecue.
Written by Jeff Banowetz for Matcha in partnership with AlphaMarts.