It's right up there with baseball games and ice cream cones. We're talking about another popular summer activity that takes place in parks and backyards as soon as Memorial Day hits: barbecuing!
But between buying a grill, choice meats, rubs, marinades, and sundry barbecue gear, this great American pastime can get expensive — quickly.
So we asked a trio of grilling experts to share their best cost-cutting tricks, so you don't have to empty your wallet each time you fire up the grill.
Cost-cutting hack #1: Get the right grill
Skip purchasing a pricey gas cooker in favor of more affordable kettle grills that use charcoal. For instance, a Weber Spirit E-210 gas grill will set you back about $400, but a Weber One-Touch Silver 18.5-inch charcoal grill only costs around $80.
It's a much debated topic in the culinary world, but many foodies argue that charcoal grills cook the best-tasting meat. "You want smoke that comes from charcoal or, if available, real hardwoods," says Wes Berry, author of The Kentucky Barbecue Book. "If you live in an area with hardwoods, don't buy wood chips. Prune some green wood from a tree branch and throw it in with your coals. Oak, apple, cherry, maple, sassafras and, of course, hickory are all good woods with different flavoring and meat-coloring profiles."
Cost-cutting hack #2: Buy in bulk
Befriend the cashier at your local Costco, Sam's Club, or BJ's Wholesale Club, which are all great places to buy meat in bulk and save some serious cash, says Doug Keiles, an award-winning pitmaster for Ribs Within, a team of barbecue aficionados who compete in nationwide cooking contests.
To prevent large quantities of meat from going bad quickly, Keiles suggests divvying up the meat into smaller portions and then putting them in the freezer. And instead of using bulky Tupperware or plastic wrap that may not fully seal the meat, invest in a vacuum sealer that will keep it fresher longer and take up less space.
Cost-cutting hack #3: Prep the grill properly
Spray oils can be costly — as well as dangerous, since they can cause fire flare-ups. That's why Keiles suggests using liquid cooking oil that comes in a bottle, and trying the following: "Grab a paper towel, wet it with cooking oil, and place it inside a pair of tongs. Then wipe down your grill's grates before cooking."
If you do the math, you'll save by buying 64 ounces of Crisco vegetable oil for $5.28 ($.08 per ounce), rather than 5 ounces of Pam original cooking spray for $2.87 ($.57 per ounce).
Cost-cutting hack #4: Make low-cost cuts count
"A less expensive piece of meat doesn't mean your final product will be tough," says Chad Ward, pitmaster of Whiskey Bent BBQ, a competitive barbecue team. You already know that flank steak is cheaper than filet, but Ward says that he can make a flank taste like a filet with just one easy grilling technique.
"I use a reverse sear method for steaks, pork chops and chicken," he says. "This allows the meat to come up slowly, so you don't toughen the muscle fibers." Start the steak on low, indirect heat and cook it until it reaches about 115 degrees (or 10 degrees below your desired temperature). Then fire up the high heat and sear it on both sides, so the exterior becomes delectably charred and caramelized.
Cost-cutting hack #5: Keep the seasoning simple
Sure, you can pay over $7 for 2.5 ounces of an exotic spice blend from the Penzey's online catalog. But the truth is, when it comes to making your meat as yummy as possible while grilling, fancy seasoning shakers just aren't necessary.
"Season any meat — chicken, pork shoulder, pork ribs, beef brisket, rabbit, lamb, or mutton — with salt. If you want to go crazy, add black pepper and garlic powder," Berry says. Those basic spices are cheap, easy to find in any grocery store, and they're probably already in your pantry.
Cost-cutting hack #6: Moisten meat on the cheap
To keep meat from drying out while grilling, create a homemade sop (also known as a mop) instead of buying a premade version. Berry recommends making one that contains just three ingredients: 3.5 cups of white vinegar, 1 tablespoon of salt, and two slices of lemon. If you like a bit of spice, add ¼ cup of cayenne pepper and 1 tablespoon of black pepper. And for a Kentucky-style twist, toss in ¼ cup of lard or butter. Baste the meat once or twice while grilling — just be sure to cook one side first, so you're not basting any raw meat and spreading potential germs.
Cost-cutting hack #7: DIY your grill brush
Instead of investing in a new brush every year, "use crumpled-up tinfoil and a pair of tongs to clean your hot grill," says Keiles. Turn the foil into the shape of a baseball and stick it between the tips of the tongs — then scrape away. (Hint: This technique works best when the grill is still warm.)
Grill brushes can cost anywhere from $7 to $60 a pop, depending on their size and strength. And they can get dirty and damaged quickly when they're overused, so this is one economical solution that'll save you big bucks in the long term.
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