By Cora L. Diekman

Published on June 23, 2018

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Illustration by PHUONG NGUYEN

It’s the official start of summer, and that can only mean one thing: It’s time to pull out the grill and throw the best summer barbecue ever. But if you’re hesitant about your outdoor cooking skills and aren’t sure where to start, allow us to help. We tapped into our most knowledgable entertaining experts in order to find the ultimate hacks to make your summer parties as stress-free as possible.

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Courtesy of TARGET

Stop overthinking vegetarian food.

If you’re a meat-and-potatoes type, you may be at a loss about what to serve vegetarian guests come grill time. The truth is, it’s much easier than you might imagine.

Don’t overthink it with complicated veggie burger recipes and soy everything. Instead, go simple with a few deliciously roasted veggies piled over crusty bread with cheese. It’s practically recipe-free: Everything just gets charred on the grill, and everyone will be reaching for a bite (carnivores included).

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Courtesy of CLOSET COOKING

Master an easy marinade.

Marinades make the meat, so make sure you have a quick one you can whip up on hand. We like this zesty cilantro lime option from Closet Cooking, because it works well on both meat and seafood dishes.

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Courtesy of FEASTINGATHOME.COM

You need skewers.

Yes, skewers are essential, even if the menu calls for tacos. Tacos are ideal on the grill, but can get messy without the convenience of an indoor kitchen. Keep wraps neat and tidy until ready to eat by threading a skewer through the top, thus holding everything together hands-free.

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Learn the art of the spatchcock.

Want grilled meat with real stage presence? There’s nothing like the flavor and drama of a whole chicken roasted over the grill (cast iron pan optional). Spatchcocking ensures that a whole bird will cook evenly in minutes, rather than hours.

It’s not as complicated as the name sounds—spatchcocking simply refers to a process of removing the backbone so that the chicken may be butterflied and pressed flat for even and expeditious cooking. Without this clever trick, the grill will burn the outside of the bird before the center even gets started. Marinate with your favorite flavors, and chicken lovers will wonder why they never thought of this before.

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Courtesy of FOOD52

Cast iron skillets work miracles.

While almost everything tastes better on the grill, some foods are more difficult to barbecue than others. And no one wants to be running between the grill and the kitchen with hungry guests waiting. Instead, enlist your cast iron skillet for foods that are not traditionally cooked over open flames—like this challah, for example. Your skillet is ideal for small cuts of meat, veggies, grilled cheese, messy burgers, and fajitas, too.

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Courtesy of DESSERTFORTWO.COM

Don’t forget to grill your fruit.

If you’ve never grilled fruit, it’s time to start.

Now. Tonight.

This supremely simple grill hack makes for an instant side dish or dessert, and packs way more punch than a basic fruit salad. Some fruits like the grill better than others, though—like pineapple, peaches, and plums. And remember: Grill marks are a must.

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Courtesy of FASTCODESIGN.COM

Keep a grilling cheat sheet on hand.

If you’re a grilling newbie, this Grill Master cheat sheet is a must. It breaks down everything from direct versus indirect heat, cooking time, and temperatures for practically every grilled meat and veg. Instead of checking your smartphone (electronics and an open flame combined often leads to disaster), laminate a copy of this sheet and hang it at a safe distance from your grill handle.

Check out the enlarged version here.

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Courtesy of VINDULGE.COM

You can grill dessert, too.

Yep—practically anything you bake in the oven—like pies, crisps, brownies, and tarts—can also be cooked on your grill. Use a cast iron skillet or disposable metal pan, and keep away from direct heat to ensure success.

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Courtesy of DELISH.COM

Turn your grill into a smoker.

Yes, this is totally doable! For only a few dollars, some wood chips, and a 9×11-inch disposable metal pan with water, your charcoal grill can smoke dinner tonight.

Tip: Wood chunks actually burn slower than traditional chips, so opt for those if you have a choice. (Try apple or cherry for optimal flavor.)

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Courtesy of TABLESPOON.COM

Grill a whole fish. (It’s easy!)

Nothing cements your Grill Master status more than successfully grilling a whole fish over open flame… and it’s a lot easier than you might think (but be sure to ask your fishmonger to clean and descale the fish—that can be a hassle). Simply stuff the cavity with lemon slices and a small amount of butter, salt, and pepper, and then sprinkle a little more salt on the outside before popping it into the grill.

Depending on its size, the fish will need 6 to 10 minutes per side. To prevent fish from sticking, oil the grill grates first, and then add a layer of lemon slices between the fish and the grill, which also imparts additional citrus flavor.

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Courtesy of WEBER

Use a chimney starter for charcoal grills.

It’s simply the best way to start a charcoal grill, period. Skip the lighter fluid and heat your coals like professionals do, with this simple contraption that gets it right every time. And if you’re worried about price, don’t be: They’re readily available from many stores (and online) for under $20.

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Courtesy of LAURENSLATEST.COM

Try mac ‘n’ cheese on a grill too.

Nothing will elicit more “oohs” and “aahs” than pulling a hot, cheesy, flavorful pan of mac and cheese from your grill. Charcoal or gas, it doesn’t matter: A few simple steps makes this dish grill-friendly, and no side goes down faster than homemade mac and cheese.

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Courtesy of INSTRUCTABLES.COM

Make a Swedish torch.

Harness your inner outdoorsman and light a Swedish torch at your next grill party. All you need is a chainsaw and a sturdy log, and you have a genius, self-contained fire that doubles as a cooktop. This is perfect for cast iron pans and Dutch ovens. Besides the fact that it’s just plain awesome, this compact little “torch” creates an additional burner for warming or cooking, and a heat source if hot summer days turn into chilly summer nights.

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Courtesy of LTD COMMODITIES

Stock up on mason jars.

Mason jars are riding a (seemingly endless) wave of popularity and utility, thanks to an abundance of accessories that make them useful for just about everything. They make for inexpensive yet sturdy drinking glasses, condiment dispensers, utensil holders, candle holders, and more. They’re especially ideal for corralling grill tools and utensils around the grill, as plastic would easily melt.

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Courtesy of COOKINGCLASSY.COM

If it goes in a bun, you can wrap it in lettuce.

Remember this tip the next time you (gasp!) run out of buns, or simply want a healthier take on dinner. Chances are, at least a few of your guests will appreciate a bun-free option.

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Photography by FAITH DURAND

Turn anything into a steak for easy grilling.

Some foods might taste great on the grill, but their shape can make barbecuing difficult. Rather than chopping them into fine pieces and using a skillet, slice them into large steaks and place them directly on the grill for flame-licked flavor goodness. Cauliflower, pineapple, and cabbage are ideal for this simple hack.

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Photography by CAT MEYER STUDIO

Skewer all of your non-grilled foods, too.

Having everything on skewers makes a serve-yourself buffet fast and simple for guests to navigate. Serving utensils become obsolete, and everything just looks a bit more elegant on a stick. Dessert, fruit, cheese, and all kinds of appetizers work perfectly on skewers, so stock up.

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Courtesy of GARDENTHERAPY.CA

Keep bugs at bay with natural herbs.

Bugs and mosquitoes hate herbs like lavender, mint, lemon balm, sage, and, of course, citronella. Once your food has come off the grill, place a few bundles of fresh herbs onto the grate. The smoke will deter pests, and is chemical-free.

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Courtesy of SERVER-PRODUCTS.COM

Utilize squeeze bottles for condiments.

Instead of juggling a bunch of glass jars, pour sauces and condiments into plastic squeeze bottles. They’re durable, shatter-free, dishwasher safe, and easy to bundle together in a caddy, so, it’s no wonder they’re restaurant staples. 

Bonus: They’re seriously inexpensive.

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Courtesy of SOFFIAWARDY.COM

Yes, you can (and should) grill your salad.

Add salad to the list of things you never thought you could grill. You can, and you should. Not only does grilling amplify flavor and impart a delicious char, but your parmesan cheese topping will be soft and melty.

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Courtesy of WHITEONRICECOUPLE.COM

Skip store-brought sauce and make your own.

Store-bought sauce is fine, but when it’s so simple to make your own, why wouldn’t you? All you need to do is mix a few herbs and spices, some citrus, and favorite condiments like Dijon or balsamic.

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Courtesy of DAMNDELICIOUS.NET

Utilize your grill pan: It’s a lifesaver.

Practically anything can be cooked on the grill, as long as you have the right equipment. Use your grill pan for small pieces of meat, thinly sliced vegetables, or anything likely to slide between the grate. Better safe than sorry, right?

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Courtesy of DAMNDELICIOUS.NET

When all else fails, wrap it in bacon.

Vegetarians aside, this is a no-fail rescue for practically any culinary conundrum. Bland veggies, boring sides, flavorless burgers… just add bacon. And if that seems like a bit too much work, pop a skillet on your grill and fry some bacon up, breakfast style. 

This post was originally published on May 4, 2016. It has been updated with new information.

See more summer entertaining ideas:

The Ultimate Summer Kick-Off Party Playlist
The Summer Decor Staple You Should Be Buying Now
Everything You Need to Throw a Chic Summer Soirée

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