There’s no better way to celebrate the summer season than a cookout. What’s not to love about enjoying the best weather of the year while savoring grilled meat and side dishes galore? Whether you’re hosting the party or just bringing your favorite dish to share, we all have a role to make sure that everybody has a good time while also staying safe. Besides running out of food, there are no greater buzzkills at a cookout than food poisoning.
The time to start thinking about food safety for your next cookout starts as soon as you leave the grocery store. Get raw meats and other perishables into the refrigerator or freezer as quickly as possible.
When thawing frozen protein, put the package inside another container to avoid leakage and place it on the lowest shelf in the refrigerator. Be certain that meats are completely thawed before grilling or you’ll risk uneven cooking. Plan ahead and thaw a day or two before you plan to cook.
Despite what our parents may have done through our childhoods, under no circumstances defrost meat on the counter. Room temperature presents an opportunity for dangerous bacteria to thrive.
Keeping things separate
The kitchen becomes a chaotic place before any gathering, but it’s particularly important to stay vigilant about cross-contamination. Keep raw meat away from foods you plan to serve uncooked, especially during cookouts where meat is often prepped alongside cold side dishes, fruits and veggies. Always use separate cutting boards and utensils for raw meat and make sure to wash them in hot soapy water after use.
By now, you’ve probably heard about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s plea to stop rinsing chicken under running water, as it can cause potentially deadly bacteria to splash all over your sink, counters, walls and clothes. Chicken often needs to be trimmed and seasoned - so some treatment is needed. Pat the meat with paper towels, if necessary, then continue prepping. The goal is to get raw meat out of the package and to a cooking vessel or grill with as few opportunities for cross-contamination as possible.
Poultry can marinate, refrigerated, for up to two days before cooking. You have a little more wiggle room with refrigerated pork and red meat - up to five days before cooking. Keep in mind that longer isn’t necessarily better, as acidic marinades and salty brines will eventually cause the texture of meat to deteriorate. Always refer to the recipe for suggested timelines. If you plan to also serve a marinade as a sauce, it must be boiled first.
Use a separate cooler for raw meat, poultry and seafood, and fill it with ice or ice packs to keep the interior temperature below 40 degrees. Try not to open coolers more frequently than necessary, as this lets the cold air out and warm air in. Don’t take raw meat out until you’re ready to grill it. Bring dedicated bags of ice for beverages instead of using ice that may have been contaminated by food and dirty hands. If you won’t have running water at the cookout location, bring a few jugs for cleaning utensils and hands. Also bring hand sanitizer and extra paper towels.
If you’re responsible for grilling, gather the proper tools, including silicone basting brushes, which are perfect for slathering on sauces and glazes without worrying that bristles will melt or fall off into the food. A handheld instant-read meat thermometer will enable you to take quick temperature checks as food cooks.
If you’re slow-smoking larger cuts of meat, a probe thermometer is even better. It stays in the meat to monitor the internal temperature without requiring you to constantly opening the grill. These days, many have Bluetooth functionality so that you can monitor progress from your smartphone. Some thermometers come with dual probes, one to stick in the meat and another that you can place near the grill grates to monitor the temperature inside the grill.
I’m a stickler for having some sort of thermometer on hand, because some critical numbers for food safety are useful to know. The grill or smoker needs to be at least 250 degrees to safely cook food. Per the Department of Agriculture guidelines, poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Pork, beef, lamb and veal steaks, chops or roasts should be cooked to at least 145 degrees. All ground meat should be cooked to 160 degrees.
It’s imperative that cold dishes stay cold; in particular, those made with uncooked eggs (such as homemade mayonnaise). You’ll want to avoid letting food sit out in the sun, so find a shady area for the buffet table. Even better, set cold side dishes inside a bigger pan filled with ice to help keep them cold longer.
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Likewise, hot dishes need to be kept hot - warmer than 140 degrees. To do this outdoors, you can utilize disposable chafing dish buffet kits, which will keep food piping hot. A set of pans, wire racks, and fuel tins to keep two dishes hot will set you back a mere $10 to $15. Once you’re finished grilling, you can also keep food hot by setting aluminum pans on the cooler side of the grill. (Just avoid putting the pan over hot coals, which would cause it to overcook or, worse, burn.)
Whether cold or hot, food should not be left out at room or outdoor temperature for longer than two hours. If it’s warmer than 90 degrees outside, that expiration is shortened to one hour. Beyond that time period, there’s a greater likelihood for bacteria to grow. So instead of letting the food sit out until it’s gone, as soon as guests have made their rounds, wrap or cover all dishes, and place them in the fridge (or coolers packed with ice to keep food below 40 degrees until you get home).
This brings us to the last phase of the cookout. Assuming you took the preceding precautions, properly refrigerated leftovers should be consumed within three to four days, tops. Always be sure to thoroughly reheat hot food in the microwave or oven until steaming.
Although it may be a bit of a drag to take on the role of cookout safety monitor, knowing better means doing better. So be as annoying as it takes, and refer folks to this article if they try to give you a hard time about inspecting chicken with a thermometer or putting those leftovers away a little earlier than usual. Ensuring your guests are served food that’s safe to eat is just as important as how it tastes.
SICHUAN CHILE HANGER STEAK
Chef Brandon Kida of Hinoki & the Bird in Century City, Calif., uses the intense beefy flavor of prime hanger steak as a backdrop to flavor with loads of red chiles and Sichuan peppercorns. Prime hanger steaks have more marbling than regular, or “choice,” hanger steaks you often see in grocery stores, so it’s worth searching out. Ask your local butcher to order it for you, or if you can’t find it, use regular hanger steak, which will still taste great coated in the fragrant spices of this stir-fry-like dish.
25 minutes. Serves 4.
1 1/2 pounds trimmed prime hanger steak
Flaky sea salt
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
1 tablespoon whole cumin seeds
1/4 cup vegetable oil
10 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 cups dried red chile Japones or chiles de arbol
4 scallions, thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 large wedge calamansi (Filipino lime) or lemon
Prepare a charcoal grill for direct, high-heat grilling or heat a gas grill to high. (Alternatively, heat a large cast iron skillet over high heat.) Season the steak all over with salt and add to the grill or pan. Cook, flipping once halfway through, until golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the steak reads 120 to 125 degrees for medium-rare doneness. Transfer the steak to a plate, tent loosely with foil, and let rest for five minutes while you make the spice mixture. Leave the grill on.
Combine the Sichuan and black peppercorns and coriander and cumin seeds in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder and finely grind. Transfer the steak to a cutting board and cut across the grain into quarter-inch-thick slices.
Heat the oil in a large cast iron pan or skillet over high heat on the grill (or on your stove). Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, 20 to 30 seconds. Add the red chiles and reserved spice mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until lightly toasted, one to two minutes. Add the sliced steak and toss quickly to combine with the spices (you don’t want to cook the steak more), about 10 seconds. Season with more salt.
4Immediately transfer the steak and spices to a large serving bowl or platter. Sprinkle with the sliced scallions, squeeze the citrus wedge all over, and serve immediately.
SICHUAN CHICKEN-FRIED STEAK
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Whisk two large eggs in a bowl, place one and a half cups all-purpose flour in a second bowl, and two cups panko breadcrumbs in a third bowl. Slice the raw hanger steak into quarter-inch-thick slices and season with salt and pepper. Dredge the slices first in flour, next in egg, and then in breadcrumbs, shaking off any excess. Heat two quarts peanut oil in a large Dutch oven or deep-fryer until it registers 350 degrees on a deep-fry thermometer. Working in batches, add the steak slices and fry until golden brown and just cooked through, two to three minutes. Transfer the fried steak to paper towels to drain briefly, then toss in a bowl with the Sichuan spice mixture and scallions. Serve with the calamansi or lemon wedge.
GRILLED RIB-EYE STEAK WITH PISTACHIO GREMOLATA AND CHARRED BALSAMIC BROCCOLINI
Chef Vartan Abgaryan of Yours Truly in Venice, Calif., serves Flannery’s Jorge steak with a floral herb and citrus gremolata, teeming with sweet poached garlic cloves, and a side of grilled broccolini dressed in a tart balsamic vinaigrette. Flannery sells its Jorge steaks nationwide via its website, flannerybeef.com. But you can also ask your local butcher for a 3-inch-thick bone-in rib-eye steak, cut from the chuck end, as a substitute. Because these steaks are so large, it is important to remove them from the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before you plan to cook them, so that they cook evenly.
50 minutes. Serves 4 to 6.
1 cup raw peanuts
2 Jorge steaks (see note above) or other 3-inch-thick, bone-in rib-eye steaks (36 ounces each)
Olive oil (not extra-virgin)
Flaky sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 pound broccolini, trimmed
Balsamic Vinaigrette (recipe below)
6 scallions, thinly sliced
Pistachio Gremolata (recipe below)
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the peanuts and cook, tossing occasionally, until toasted and fragrant. Place the peanuts in a mortar and pestle, let cool, and roughly crush (or roughly chop with a knife); return to their bowl.
Prepare a charcoal grill for both direct, high-heat grilling and indirect grilling. Or heat a gas grill to medium-high on one side and low on the other side. (Alternatively, heat a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat and heat the oven to 250 degrees.) Brush the steaks very lightly with olive oil, then season liberally with salt and pepper. Place the steaks on the direct, high-heat side of the grill (or in the skillet) and cook, flipping from cut side to cut side once, then to fat side, until lightly charred at the edges and mahogany brown all over. (If you encounter flare-ups, move the steak to the indirect or low-heat part of the grill for a few seconds before returning it to the flame.) Move the steaks to the indirect or low-heat part of the grill and close the grill. (Alternatively, transfer the steak in the skillet to the oven.) Continue cooking the steaks, checking every five minutes or so, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat reads 120 to 125 degrees for medium-rare doneness. Transfer the steaks to a platter, tent loosely with foil, and let rest for at least 10 minutes as you cook the broccolini. Leave the grill on.
In a large bowl, toss the broccolini with a drizzle of olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Place the broccolini on the direct, high-heat side of the grill—or in another large skillet — (reserve the bowl) and cook, turning occasionally and placing the stems on the hottest part of the grill, if possible, until lightly charred and the stems are just tender, about eight minutes. Return the broccolini to the reserved bowl and toss with the crushed peanuts, a quarter cup of the balsamic vinaigrette and the scallions.
Uncover the steaks, cut along the bone in each steak to remove it, then slice the meat crosswise into half-inch-thick pieces. Transfer the slices with the bones to a large serving platter and “reassamble” the steak, then spoon some of the gremolata over the meat. Serve the broccolini on a platter next to the steak with bowls of extra gremolata and balsamic vinaigrette on the side.
Makes 3 1/2 cups
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup whole garlic cloves, peeled, plus 1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup shelled raw pistachios
1 1/2 cups olive oil (not extra-virgin)
1 cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup pitted picholine or other green olives, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 small lemon
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 small orange
Bring the milk and one cup of whole garlic cloves to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat, then reduce the heat, if necessary, to maintain a gentle simmer. Cover partially and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cloves are very tender, about 15 minutes. The tip of a paring knife should slip in and out of each clove with no resistance. Drain the garlic in a colander, rinse and then transfer to paper towels to dry.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pistachios and cook, tossing occasionally, until toasted and fragrant. Transfer the pistachios to a cutting board, let cool, then finely chop. Place the chopped pistachios in a medium bowl, then stir in the olive oil, parsley, olives, salt, citrus zests and juices and the one clove of raw minced garlic. Add the poached whole garlic cloves and stir them into the gremolata. Transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to three days. Bring to room temperature again before serving.
SMOKED BALSAMIC VINAIGRETTE
Makes 1 cup
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
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1 1/2 teaspoons smoked soy sauce (available from Amazon and other online retailers) or regular soy sauce
3/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 small lemon
1/2 cup olive oil (not extra-virgin)
In a blender, combine the balsamic, honey, soy sauce, mustard, salt, paprika and lemon zest and juice. With the blender running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil until the vinaigrette emulsifies. Season with more salt, if desired, and transfer to a serving bowl. Store in an airtight container for up to one week.
Make ahead: Both the pistachio gremolata and balsamic vinaigrette can be made up to three days in advance and stored in the refrigerator until ready to use.