My childhood summers are defined by memories of an old charcoal grill, my ever-smiling father and a rainstorm that inevitably released its first drops as we stepped outside. My dad would forge ahead—not one to be deterred from cooking over an open flame—diligently manning the grill while I supervised from the safety of the garage.
With those memories standing prominently in my mind, I approach each summer with the anticipation of a small child on Christmas Eve—eagerly watching the temperatures rise and awaiting the first wafts of suntan lotion mingled with the heavenly scent of perfectly seared meat.
If you ask me, there is no better place to bond with family and friends than at a cookout. And, after nearly three decades below the Mason-Dixon, I can say with complete conviction that setting up the perfect grilling station is an art, and in some neighborhoods, an Olympic-level sport.
As you prepare to make your own memories this summer, I hope you’ll use these tips to ensure your set-up will be a convergence of functionality and beauty that will make your barbecue area the toast of the town.
Crank Up the Tunes
Whether you’re flipping a single patty for a solo dinner or welcoming the better part of your extended family for an all-day affair, every grilling experience deserves a soundtrack. If you don’t have an outdoor sound system, but you do have a lot of music on your smartphone (via iTunes or a music streaming app), a docking station is a great option. If you’re on a budget, or you’re in a time crunch, try this nifty trick: put your phone in a paper cup with the speaker toward the bottom. This simple change will significantly amplify the sound of your music. You can also use ceramic bowls and glass cups, but the paper cup allows amplification without distorting the clarity of the lyrics, which is critical to a good jam session!
It can’t be overstated: Give your grill a good scrubbing before you crank it up for the first time. During those sad non-grilling months, it’s amazing the amount of gunk that can, and will, accumulate on your grill. You don’t want your food to taste like last summer, so take the time to clean it and check your equipment. If you’re using a propane grill, ensure there are no holes or worn spots in the hoses. Once you’ve eliminated the worst of the grime, turn your grill on high heat and close the lid. This acts like the self-clean option on your oven, burning off any unwanted grit that didn’t respond to elbow grease.
Regardless of whether you’re a propane advocate or a die-hard lover of charcoal, you’ll want to stock up on extra supplies. Propane users are encouraged to utilize a gas monitor gauge. This little gadget allows you to keep a close eye on the amount of fuel you have in the tank so you can avoid a heartbreaking half-cooked burger. Charcoal users should have charcoal on hand, of course, and a method to light the coals. You can use lighter fluid or a chimney, which eliminates the flavor that can be left by lighter fluid. Chimneys can be lit with crumpled newspaper or paraffin lighter cubes (available at most hardware stores and online retailers).
The Grilling Station
We’re ready to talk about the foundation of any great grilling experience: the grill and prep space. This is where the magic happens so allow adequate room. Do you want your guests near you while you cook? Consider placing an outdoor dining table adjacent to the grill area. Do you typically cook in the evening? Snag a battery-powered grill light that clamps to the side of your grill (available in hardware stores and online retailers). You don’t have to have an expensive outdoor kitchen to be comfortable. Use your imagination—look around your house for underutilized pieces or visit your local thrift store for inexpensive finds. A simple potting bench can be placed next to a grill to create more prep space. A piece of lattice can be hung beside the grill for storage and organization—add a few s-hooks and buckets for perfect utensil and gadget holders. Outdoor storage ottomans make great places for storage (or a hidden cooler!) and allow for extra seating. Small fans help combat pesky bugs and also keep you cool while you master the grill.
If you’ll have a lot of little ones running around, designate a spot a safe distance from the grill and install a chalkboard or a children’s kitchen so they can feel involved in the process. Make this an extension of your indoor living space—comfortable and functional.
Accessorizing Your Space
An outfit is never complete without the perfect accessories, and the same applies to grill stations. Invest in a few key pieces to take your grilling to the next level. Cedar grilling planks are the perfect complement to fish. Toss your fish filet on one of those little planks, place it on the grill, grab a cold drink and wait. In no time you’ll unveil a masterpiece your guests will swear took hours to season. Spices are another great investment. Pre-made grilling blends can be picked up at your local grocery store, but sometimes it’s more fun to make your own. Grab a small ramekin and experiment. For blends with a kick, employ options like cayenne pepper and Creole seasoning. For sweeter varieties, try mixing honey, pepper jelly and honey mustard. When you find the perfect creation, make a slightly larger batch and store it in an airtight container so it’s readily available for that inevitable last-minute cookout.
The most important part of a grilling station is the people around it. This summer, use your grill as a gathering place for family and friends—a reason to slow down and leisurely cook a meal among loved ones while making memories you’ll never forget!