Barbecues bring people together. It’s our birthright: Grilling in the African-American community has origins that trace back to West and Central Africa. In this country, it’s a heritage rooted in the 1500s, when the outdoor-cooking methods of enslaved Africans mixed with those of Native Americans, according to culinary historian Michael W. Twitty, author of the book The Cooking Gene. Over time, barbecue traditions, including Juneteenth, have been handed down through generations; and recipes for smoked ribs, BBQ chicken and your Aunt Hattie’s famous potato salad always make the menu. Fire up your grill, big or small, and use these chef-approved tips to get the most out of your family cookouts this season.
The Grill Guide
When selecting which grill to buy, consider budget, frequency of use and how many guests you plan to serve, on average. Should you go with a gas or a charcoal grill? “They both play their part,” says Trevon Stoute, executive chef at Pavão, in the Sweetfield Manor Boutique Hotel in Barbados. “For a fast-paced environment and time efficiency, go with gas. For smaller, intimate settings, choose charcoal for its rich mixture of smoke and char.” Use this chart to decide which style of grill is best for you.
Gas grills: Turn on the burners and you’re good to go. No prep or fuss—but you’ll need to add the flavor.
Charcoal grills: More flexible prices—but they need prep, cajoling and cleanup.
Electric grills: Possibly the greenest way to grill; and no need to fill gas tanks or buy bags of charcoal or wood.
Gas grills: Low to high heat, instantly; and slow cooking. Easy cleanup. They come in all sizes, from small and portable to large and luxe.
Charcoal grills: Kettle styles are smaller and economical; they use less fuel. Barrel styles are large-capacity; pitmasters dig them. Coals add flavor to food.
Electric grills: No fire; economical; heat quickly. They’re indoor/outdoor friendly. Lots of options, from countertop to infrared—you name it.
Master The Grill
Want to make your grill a nonstick zone? “Don’t apply oil to the grill grate as it’s heating up, because the oil melts away,” says Chef Todd Richards, of Lake & Oak Neighborhood BBQ in Atlanta. “Wait until the grill is hot, and then use a high-heat oil. I prefer grape-seed oil.” Here are seven other ESSENCE must-know tricks for wannabe grill masters.
1. Remove Moisture
Pat meat or poultry dry with paper towels before placing it on the grill.
2. Control the Heat
Creating high- and low-temp zones on charcoal grills is key when cooking many items at once.
3. Use Rows
Lay the food on the grill from left to right, so that you’ll remember the order in which you should flip it.
4. Resist Overhandling
Turn meats just once, and be careful not to squeeze out the flavorful juices.
5. Get a Meat Thermometer
It’s a reliable way to keep an eye on internal temperature.
6. Give it a Rest
Let meat sit for five minutes, immediately after it comes off the grill, so any juices can be reabsorbed.
7. Clean Fast
Carefully scrub grates while they are still warm. This makes cleanup much easier, as the excess food and oil hasn’t yet hardened.
“Show off your skills and become a part of family folklore by making your own sauce,” says Chef Richards. Sauces can be made with spices, fruits and vegetables. “If you’re short on time, doctor up a good pre-made bottle,” recommends Kevin Hart’s chef, Kai Chase. “Add bourbon, citrus fruits, Chipotle en Adobo and maple brown sugar.” You’d rather buy than DIY? Chef Martin Draluck, of Post & Beam in Crenshaw, likes Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce (from $12, sweetbabyrays.com).
Don’t forget The Veggies
Vegetables release key nutrients after being grilled. For the best effect, keep it simple. “Use smoked salt, black pepper, olive oil, fresh garlic and aged balsamic vinegar,” suggests Chef Deborah VanTrece. Try it on bell peppers, onions, zucchini, eggplant, asparagus and tomatoes on the vine. And add veggie burgers to the menu. Fruits can shine, too.Throw apples, pears, bananas or peaches over the flame. Pineapple slices make great substitutes for hamburger buns; and for dessert, try making blueberry cobbler right on the grill.
The Meat and Seafood Manual
Steak: Consider the cut, seasoning and marbling of the meat before you grill. “I use cracked black pepper, fresh herbs, fresh garlic, olive oil and really great salt for my favorite: bone-in rib eye with intense marbling,” says Chef VanTrece, of Twisted Soul Cookhouse & Pours in Atlanta. Other smart grilling choices: sirloin, porterhouse, T-bone steak and tenderloin.
Pork ribs: Ribs are a staple on the menu when it’s time to fire up that grill—but how can you nail them every time? “Slow cook with aromatics and herbs, salt, pepper and brown sugar,” says Chef Stoute. “It is all about the sauce for this one.” For a boost of flavor, follow the lead of Chef Deborah Jones, of Jones Bar-B-Q in Kansas City: “Use hickory chips. You can get them from a local grocery store.”
Chicken: Skinless chicken breasts and lean ground poultry can be tasty as well as healthy choices for your next cookout. Cook boneless chicken pieces quickly, over direct high heat, and bone-in pieces longer using indirect low heat. “My favorite cut is a boneless chicken thigh,” says Chef Draluck. “Brine it first, and then put it on the grill. It will stay pretty moist that way.”
Seafood: Chef Javon Cummins, of Tapestry Restaurant @Treasure Beach Hotel, suggests grilling whole fish or fillets. “Whole snapper or salmon fillets are great with a fresh rub of thyme, garlic, cilantro, sea salt and cracked black pepper,” he says. “Cook skin-side down at medium-high. Choose a high-smoke oil,” like safflower or vegetable oil. Also try: Swordfish, shrimp and mahi-mahi wrapped in foil.
We love these Black-owned cookout-sauce must-haves
1. Original Charleston Gourmet Burger Burger Sauce, $15.97, charlestongourmetburger.com.
2. Capital City Mild Mambo Sauce, $6.99, capitalcity.com.
3. Jones Bar-B-Q Three Pack Gift Set: Rub, Original Sauce, Coconut Pineapple Sauce, $24.99, jonesbbqkc.com.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of ESSENCE