You’ve got the paper plates, cups, just the right amount of snacks to go around and the beer is ice cold — you’re good to go for your BBQ, right? Wrong. While putting together a cook out might seem like the world’s easiest party, chances are you’re getting a few elements dreadfully wrong. From sending your guests home with a lovely parting gift of food poisoning to nasty flare-ups, cook outs are riddled with pitfalls. However, don’t haul off and cancel that party yet. Lifehack is here to guide you through the most common mistakes so you come out more “Kiss The Cook” than “Diss The Cook.”

The Preparation

dirty old grill

The first thing you’re going to need to do is to clean that grill. After all, nobody wants to eat your charred chicken remnants from last year’s wing disaster. Also, a clean grill means that your food is less likely to stick, thus rocketing you from amateur status in the eyes of your guests. Take off the grill and scrub with warm, soapy water, preferably using either a wire brush or a heavy-duty scouring pad. This will take some elbow grease, and you will once again vow that next year you’ll clean this thing before sticking it in the garage. Scrape out any old charcoal and give the whole thing a good, soapy wipe-down, followed by a good rinse. You’re preparing food on this thing, after all, so cleanliness really is next to godliness. Gas grills need less of the treatment, but ensure everything is cleaned and wiped down, particularly the grill portion. Portable grills? Well, you’re already home free from this portion of the exercise.

When it comes to lighting that sucker up, there are a bunch of different methods you can try, from your basic charcoal lighting, to using a charcoal chimney, all the way to your high-end gas grill methods. In this, YouTube is your friend. Be sure you get your grill going at least 30–60 minutes before you want to start cooking so you’re able to get a nice even temperature, and also create a “cooler” and “hotter” side, depending on what you want to grill.

Some Important Gear

BBQ tools

Get yourself ready for the big day with some basic utensils:

  • A pair of tongs
  • A spatula
  • Oven and/or BBQ gloves (that thing is hot)
  • A water mister (for flare ups)
  • A meat thermometer (plus wipes to clean it off between readings)
  • A fire extinguisher (it never hurts to be prepared)
  • A clean plate for cooked food

You may also want to have a handy copy of this meat temperatures chart around, just as a cheat sheet.

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The Burgers

While there are all sorts of things you can throw on a grill, in order to keep your party easy, select just a few items to serve. A cook out, at its most basic, can have chicken, something for the veggies and a bunch of salads, but it’s just not the same without a tasty burger. Nearly everybody has that perfect blend of seasonings and spices for their burgers, but it’s not so much the seasonings as the formation that can ruin a perfectly good hunk of beef. In fact, by digging through that meat and rubbing in those seasonings, you can actually be over-mixing your meat, causing “hockey-puck syndrome.” Be gentle with it, and add salt and pepper to the outside of your burger, and don’t forget that all-important thumb print. One last thing, don’t think it makes you look like a stud to press down on the burger with your spatula while it’s cooking so you can hear that sizzle. You’re actually just drying the thing out, and it really does look like amateur hour. The video above is sure to make you look like the Grill God that you’ve surely set out to be.

The Chicken

Though it may seem like burger season, it’s hard to resist a perfectly grilled piece of chicken straight off the barbecue. For the best bang for your clucking buck, ditch the pricey chicken breast and instead head for the thigh or leg action, as both can stand up to the aggressive heat of the grill. They’re also right at home with a good marinade that you can start the night before, ramping up the flavor and eliciting gasps of wonderment from your awed guests. It’s important to be careful with your chicken though, as it’s sadly one of the foods that’s most likely to give you food poisoning if you fail to get the temperature right. The video above gives you all the skinny on how to cook every cut of chicken to perfection. However, another method you should definitely try at least once in your life is the legendary Beer Can Chicken. Moist, tender and impressive as anything, it’s an easy win if you’re looking to spend less time slaving over the stove and more time chilling with your friends.

The Veggies

Grilled vegetables aren’t just for those non-meat eaters in your life. Vegetables were practically made for the grill! Try using a giant, meaty portobello mushroom burger in place of (or even on top of) your regular beef patty. Vegetarian kebabs are also excellent as both a main or a side dish. One of the favorites in America’s corn belt of the Midwest is grilled corn. In fact, it’s difficult to even go to a festival where this isn’t being served up, or to walk through a Mexican neighborhood where someone isn’t selling elotes. The video clip above will show you just how easy it is to whip up a batch of grilled corn for your pals at your next BBQ. Bonus: corn is cheap in the late summer, thus keeping your party costs down.

The Sides and Stuff

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A BBQ or cook out just isn’t the same unless you’ve got the extra goods to back it up. Think of toppings, sides and salads to round out the meal. Popular items to have for toppings would include:

  • Condiments (ketchup, mustard, salsa, mayo, hot sauce)
  • Fresh cut veggies (tomatoes, onions, lettuce)
  • Pickles
  • Cheese

When it comes to salads, you can go traditional or branch out into the exotic. One great way to make sure you have a range of salads is to invite everyone who’s coming to bring a side dish or salad, meaning you’ll end up with a cornucopia of delights depending on everyone’s background. There are also some excellent summer BBQ salad ideas you can view here. Be sure to also offer some chips and pretzels for people to munch on before the main event.

Once you’ve mastered these BBQ basics, you’ll be able to branch out into seafood, steaks and other styles and marinades. You’re only limited to your imagination and budget, so get out there and get grilling this summer. You’re sure to be a scorcher!

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