Barbecue Trends 2021
Covid vaccines have arrived. The election year is behind us. I’m beginning to allow myself to think that 2021 will be not only better than 2020—but awesome. With the new year come new trends to help us grill and eat better. As I look into my barbecue crystal ball, here’s what I see for 2021.
2021 BBQ and Grilling Trends
1. Vegetables 24 / 7
2021 will be the year of the grilled vegetable. I sure hope so, as in May, Workman Publishing will bring out my 31st book: How to Grill Vegetables. Of course, we’ll continue to grill veggie standbys, like peppers, corn, and zucchini. But we’ll also start grilling vegetables we would never have imagined, such as okra, snap peas, and brussels sprouts on the stalk. We’ll use edgy grilling techniques once reserved for animal proteins, from ember-roasting to salt-slab grilling to hay-smoking. We’ll spit-roast whole cauliflowers as we do chickens and “cheesesteaks” made with grilled mushrooms and rutabaga “cheese whiz.” Hardcore carnivores will grill veggies for their health benefits and as killer accompaniments for our favorite grilled meats. Vegetarians and vegans will grill vegetables for the smokiness and supernatural sweetness live fire imparts to plant and dairy foods.
These are the vegetables we will grill in 2021: According to our friend Robert Schueller of Melissa’s (a great source for mail order vegetables), we ate a lot of potatoes in 2020 (hey, they’re the ultimate comfort food). In 2021, we’ll upgrade to heirloom varieties, such as Baby Dutch Yellows, Ruby Golds, and French Rattes. We’ll certainly be grilling shishito and padron peppers (the former originally from Japan; the latter from Spain; both with a pleasing herbaceous flavor and moderate heat). We’ll grill slender Chinese eggplants and exotic mushrooms. We’ll grill chayotes, those pear shaped- and sized-squash from the Caribbean basin. Look for exotic new vegetables to grill, like Romanesco (a cross between broccoli and cauliflower) and calcots, scallion size leeks from Spain.
2. Grilled Vegetables as Culinary Building Blocks
Our fire wrangler, Steve Nestor, predicts that we’ll use grilled and smoked vegetables as ingredients, not just side dishes, to make complex condiments and main courses, like smoked vegetable stocks and soups, ember-roasted tomato sauce, and grilled vegetable frittatas. Thanks, Steve.
3. Spice Rubs You’ve Never Heard Of
Za’atar? Been there. Garam masala? Done that. (In case you’re new to the party, the former is a thyme, sumac and sesame seasoning from the Middle East, while the latter is a spice blend from India. I predict that 2021 will be the year of spice rubs many of us have never heard of. Like dukkah, an Egyptian seasoning made from roasted nuts, sesame and other seeds, and spices (including cumin and coriander)—it’s terrific on grilled fish and sweet potatoes. Or panch phoron, a Bengali blend that blasts your palate with exotic aromatics such as black cumin, black mustard, fennel, fenugreek, and nigella (onion seed). Or sharena sol, a Bulgarian finishing salt perfumed with paprika, cumin, and summer savory. (Try it on grilled chicken and eggs.).
To satisfy our insatiable hunger for flavor, culinary explorers, like Chris Kimball, publisher of Milk Street magazine, will keep scouring world cuisines for the next big spice rub. Perhaps you know of a rub we’ve never heard of: please let us know in the comments!
4. African Grilling
Live fire cooking originated in Africa (archeologists recently discovered an one- million year-old hearth—the world’s oldest—in a cavern in Langebaan, South Africa). So it’s only fitting that we should return to the grilling of the continent where barbecue began. Africa offers some amazing grilling, from the mechouie, pit-roasted lamb (served with cumin and salt) of Morocco to South African braais—lavish outdoor cookouts that turn a meal into an afternoon’s entertainment. Along the way there is suya, Nigerian beef kebabs (seasoned with crumbled bouillon cubes and hot peppers); dibi, mustard- and onion-blasted Senegalese grilled chicken and fish; sosate (South African shish kebab—yes, you can make it with ostrich), and rooster brodje (grilled cheese and chutney sandwiches). Also kati kati, African grilled chicken.
Look for African barbecue sauces, ranging from chermoula (Moroccan tomato vinaigrette) to monkey gland sauce, a chutney- and ketchup-based condiment rumored to have originated at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg. (Rest assured—no primates perished in its preparation.).
5. Black Chefs Matter
Much traditional American barbecue was developed by African slaves and their descendants on southern plantations. And the first great barbecue joints in places like Kansas City were pioneered by Black pit masters, like the legendary Henry Perry and Arthur Bryant. The Black Lives Matter movement has rightly refocused our attention on the Black contribution to American barbecue, and to a new generation of Black pit masters.
Desiree Robinson, owner of Cozy Corner in Memphis, recently became the first Black woman to be inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. Rodney Scott of Charleston, South Carolina, is coming out with a new book in March: Rodney Scott’s World of Barbecue. (We love his slogan: “Every day is a good day.”) Other books to look for in 2021 include culinary historian Adrian Miller’s Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue (University of North Carolina Press) and rocket scientist (really) and pit master Howard Conyers’ book on the African American roots of the art of barbecue.
6. Mixed Method Grilling
It used to be that grilling meant grilling and smoking meant smoking. Then came reverse searing, which combined the two (slow-smoking a thick steak to an internal temperature of 110 degrees, then flash searing it directly over a hot fire to lay on a sizzling crust. Our Facebook friend Brandon Nelson predicts even more mixing of techniques in the future: sous vide-ing a prime rib, for example, then roasting it on the rotisserie. Or starting chili in an Instant Pot, then finishing in the smoker.
7. Wood Oven Cooking
Wood-fired ovens have been with us for millennia, but more and more of us are installing them in our homes and outdoor kitchens. During lockdown, I fired up my Chicago Brick Oven not just to cook pizzas and bread, but to roast fish, rack of lamb, potatoes and other vegetables, chestnuts, and even apples and pears for dessert. I learned to do tiered cooking in my wood burning oven, raising the food on piles of bricks to sear the crust and infuse it with wood smoke. (Heat and smoke rise in a wood burning oven.). I love how my wood burner combines the searing of a grill with the roasting of an oven.
8. The New Wave of Wireless Thermometers
This will be the year of the wireless thermometer—pioneered by such companies as Meater, Yummly, and Maverick. It’s about time! The drawback of yesteryear’s remote thermometers were the wires, which kept you tethered to your grill. And try using a wired thermometer probe on a roast or bird spinning on your rotisserie. Wireless thermometers eliminate these drawbacks. The only hitch: occasional connection glitches. And limited battery life, with an average of 3 hours per charge. That’s great for steaks, chops, chicken, and small roasts. But when you cook a 12-hour-plus packer brisket, you’ll need several thermometer probes you can insert at 2 1/2 hour intervals.
9. Brioche Buns
Marie Antoinette did not say “let them eat cake.” When confronted with the lack of bread for her starving peasants, the French queen actually proclaimed: qu’ils mangent de la brioche (“let them eat brioche”). This egg- and butter-rich bread (1/2 pound butter and 3 eggs per loaf!) has been the pride of French bread bakers for centuries, but like most luxury items, it has gradually worked its way into the American mainstream.
My local supermarket sells no fewer than three (!) brands of brioche hamburger and hotdog buns, and while the mass market version lacks the exquisite silky richness of the artisanal product, brioche rolls beat conventional hamburger and hotdog buns hollow. Use them to upgrade your burgers, sliders, sausages and hotdogs, not to mention brisket sandwiches and pulled pork.
Tip: Should they go stale before you have a chance to eat them, brioche buns make exceptional breadcrumbs. One good brand is Brioche Pasquier.
10. Plant-Based Charcuterie
Move over prosciutto and speck. Make way for watermelon ham, smoked carrots and burdock root “meat sticks.” Plant-based charcuterie is coming our way bigtime. I know it sounds like an oxymoron. After all, “charcuterie” draws from the French words chair, which translates as flesh, and cuite, which means cooked. Here, though, the flesh arrives from the garden, not from the butcher. In the coming year, we’ll see carrot “hotdogs”, tofu “ham”, and other cured and smoked vegetables—prepared by some very serious and seriously carnivorous chefs, like Will Horowitz of Ducks Eatery in Manhattan and Jeremy Umansky of Larder in Cleveland.
Finally, in 2021, keep on the lookout for:
- Grilled avocados
- Smash burgers you cook on your plancha on your grill
- Pork belly burnt ends
- Crown rib roasts made from baby backs
- Wild local shrimp, like Key West pinks and West Coast spot prawns
- Smoked queso fundido
- Sourdough pizzas
- Grilling cheeses, like Bonfire and halloumi
- Fusion que, such as Tex-Mex barbecue (try it at Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin) and Gangnam-‘Que (a fusion of Korean and American barbecue)—try it at Heirloom Market Barbecue in Atlanta.
- Grill shacks or shanties (man caves reborn into grill shacks)
- Santa Maria-style grills with raisable and lowerable grill grates