Holidays are all about tradition, so little surprise that July 4th remains the most popular day of the year for grilling. Close to 70 percent of us will be cooking our beloved beef, chicken and fish over gas, charcoal or an open fire on Independence Day, cementing the cookout’s reputation as America’s favorite — and perhaps only — way to celebrate the Fourth.
Where backyard chefs differ is in how they choose to season the proteins they’re about to throw on the grill.
Some let the meat speak for itself with little more than a sprinkling of salt, but if you really want to transform chicken, beef or fish from something ordinary into a dish that sings, consider a tasty marinade or sauce.
Marinating before grilling infuses meat with flavor while basting it with a complementary sauce while cooking — typically during the last few minutes of grilling or after slicing — gives it sheen and helps build the crust that makes your taste buds shout “Wow!”
It’s also good to have a really great spice rub in your grilling arsenal, especially if you want delish, tender meat on a budget. Rubs permeate tough cuts, creating complex layers of flavor.
“They help meat taste and look delicious and they’re crucial to the formation of a tasty, crusty bark,” writes Texas pitmaster Aaron Franklin and co-author Jordan Mackay in “Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto.”
What sets a great rub apart from a lesser competitor depends on the whims of the cook. Standard rubs include salt, pepper, granulated garlic and onion and often paprika or dried chilies for a bit of heat. The goal, notes the authors, is to “complement a nice piece of meat, not to obscure a crappy piece of meat. All spices should react well with one another. No one spice should stand out or be too recognizable.”
Restraint, along with balance, also is the name of the game when stirring together sauces and marinades. You want to dress up the meat or fish, not drown it.
Some tips before cooking:
• Always apply a rub to meat about 1 hour before cooking, letting it come to room temperature before placing on the grill. This allows the seasoning to “sweat” into the meat. Also, try to get an even coat of rub over the surface of the meat to allow for even cooking.
• Pay careful attention to marinating times; leave it on too long, and it can turn the surface mushy. Poultry takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours; delicate fish and seafood shouldn’t swim more than 30 minutes in a marinade.
• Never re-use marinade used on raw meat or poultry unless you boil it first to destroy harmful bacteria.
• Sauces should be brushed on the last 5 to 15 minutes of cooking. Keep a careful eye on the fire — most barbecue sauces have sugar in them and you don’t want it to burn.