HPBA Tips for Budget Grilling
May 1st already? Peak grilling season is upon us. (Not that most of us here at Barbecuebible.com ever stopped grilling during fall and winter). I’ve been thinking a lot about why I grill lately. After two years of Covid isolation, we’re finally rediscovering the social joys of grilling. In fact, grilling makes just about everything better: the food, the setting, the service—whether for dinner, lunch, and, yes, even breakfast. Grilling is democratic: everyone loves to do it. It’s performance art: when you step up to the grill, you’re the star. Above all, it’s fun!
May 7 is #BackToBarbecueDay. Not that you need an invitation, but I encourage you to fire up your grill, joining millions of other barbecue-loving Americans as we get ready for the start of the summer grilling season. True, this season looks a little different, with persistent inflation and war in Europe. Here are my thoughts on how you can celebrate Back to Barbecue Day and not break the bank.
Budget Grilling Tips
Sticker shock? I don’t mean buying a car. I’m talking about shopping at my local grocery store. Meat prices are through the roof and even veggies cost way more than they did last year. What’s a grill master to do?
In this age of grocery store price anxiety, here are some great ways to save money when grilling.
- Use cheaper, often more flavorful cuts—sourced locally, if that’s an option. Substitute chicken thighs, legs, or leg quarters (legs and thighs attached) for breasts. Turkey is often a bargain, especially during prime grilling season. (Check out my turkey “ham”—smoked turkey legs). Buy spareribs or country-style ribs instead of baby backs, or smoke-roast budget-friendly pork chops or pork tenderloins (the latter cost a fraction of the cost of beef tenderloin). Grill mackerel, sardines, and kingfish instead of tuna or halibut—they’re less expensive and better for you! Grill clams or mussels in place of pricier shrimp or lobster. Stretch more expensive seafood, like salmon or crab (smoked or grilled, of course) by using them as an ingredient in an appetizer, chowder, or other side dish.
- Discover new steaks, which are not as well-known as pricier rib-eyes or strip steaks. You might start with well-marbled cuts from the beefy-tasting chuck, such as flat-iron steaks and petite filets (also known as teres major), or steaks cut from the sirloin, like filet of sirloin (also known as baseball steak), and that specialty of Santa Maria, California: the tri-tip. Even though their per pound price is substantially lower, these lesser-known steaks deliver a richly satisfying experience when grilled over live-fire. And don’t forget to ask your butcher for recommendations: he or she will often steer (excuse the pun) you toward bargains.
- Eat your veggies. Especially onions—one of the cheapest veggies and, from a grill master’s point of view, one of the most versatile. Use a half onion impaled on a grill for oiling the grill grate. Puree an onion and use the juice for marinating lamb and other meats—a flavor-boosting technique used by grill masters throughout Central Asia. Grill the onion in the embers—it may look like a big lump of charcoal, but split and enriched with butter and balsamic vinegar, this lowly root vegetable becomes transcendent. Or cut the onion into 1/4-inch slices, which you pin together crosswise with toothpicks. Brush with olive oil or melted butter, season with salt and pepper and direct grill. To save even more money, buy onions by the bag—not individually.
- Like to entertain friends and family with meals grilled outdoors? Remember, not every party has to start after 5 p.m. In fact, breakfast or brunch often works out better for everyone—especially families—as most of the afternoon and evening are free for other activities. And breakfast can be a relatively inexpensive meal for the host. Grilled frittatas, breakfast pizzas, and bacon or breakfast sausages can feed a crowd for a few dollars. And unless you hang with the Bloody Mary and mimosa crowd, the liquor tab will be lower, too.
- Time is money. Cook low and slow, which means maintaining a temperature between 225 and 275 degrees. Turkey thighs. Rib tips. Pork shoulder. True barbecue was originally designed to make cheap cuts palatable. It still does. Don’t own a smoker? Simply set your grill up for indirect grilling—arrange lit coals in two piles on opposite sides of the grill, place a couple of chunks of hardwood on the coals (or use hardwood chips soaked in water for 30 minutes, then drained), and arrange your food in the center away from direct heat. If you own a gas grill, you can adjust the burners to achieve the same effect. Place wood chunks just under the grill grate or put the chips in a smoker box or an aluminum foil pouch. (An aside: Keep your eyes open for good deals on fuel, whether you use charcoal, wood, pellets, or propane.)