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Grilling on a Budget: Our Best Money-Saving Tips

Windy City Mexican Grilled Corn

Visits to the gas pump or grocery store will confirm what we’ve been hearing: inflation is at levels not seen for forty years. Like most Americans, you’re likely looking for ways to cut costs, even those associated with back yard grilling or smoking. We’re here to help. Below are our best money-saving tips, painless ways to reduce the impact on your wallet of feeding friends and family well.

Grilling on a Budget

*Restrict trips to the supermarket to once a week. During the pandemic, we took advantage of a local store’s delivery service, and quickly realized that, despite a charge for the service and tips for the drivers, we actually spent less than when shopping for ourselves in-store. (Can you say, “impulse items?”) Of course, we still support weekly farmers’ markets, where seasonal fruits and vegetables are often sold at bargain prices.

*Cut down on the cost of proteins like meat, seafood, and even eggs (the price per dozen has risen substantially in recent months) by making vegetables the focus of occasional meals. One of our favorite salads, this colorful Thai Grilled Beef Salad is perfect for warm summer nights! Rediscover ground meats.

Grilling on a Budget

*Pad menus with filling side dishes like pasta salads, baked beans, roasted potatoes, sweet corn, whole onions and cabbages, etc. You can get extra mileage from charcoal fires by cooking sturdy vegetables directly in the embers while the main course grills atop the grate.

*Conserve fuel. If cooking with gas, do a timed preheat. And don’t forget to shut the valve off at the tank at the end of the cook. (It’s easy to forget when you’re trying to waltz hot food to the table. And very disappointing to discover your tank’s empty at the start of your next cook. Yes, we’ve been guilty of committing this rookie mistake.) Don’t light more charcoal or wood than you’ll need. If you have some left once the food’s ready, shut down the vents to extinguish the fire. Use the coals to fuel your next cook.

Gas Grill

*Make your own fire starters by smearing a tablespoon or so of solid shortening in a paper roll, such as the kind that holds paper towels. (Cut the tube in thirds.) Place in the bottom of a chimney starter and light.

*If you enjoy entertaining, host a weekend brunch instead of a late afternoon or evening meal. In fact, breakfast or brunch often works out better for everyone—especially families—as the rest of the day is 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 several people for a few dollars. And unless you hang with the Bloody Mary and mimosa crowd, the liquor tab will be lower, too. If your guests offer to “bring something,” let ’em. That invests them in the success of the party.

Steven Raichlen Tip of Budget Grilling

*Don’t waste food. Professional kitchens try to use every edible scrap, and you should, too. Have half an onion or red bell pepper left over when you’ve prepped a recipe? Dice them and freeze in sturdy resealable plastic bags for use in a soup, stock, or sauce. Or corral leftovers in their own place in the refrigerator so you don’t forget to use them before they spoil.

*If you have the space, grow your own herbs. Otherwise, you’ll pay over $2.00 for a small clamshell of tired-looking specimens.

*Make your own rubs, marinades, flavor-enhancing compound butters, and sauces. We’ve published many on our website, and highly recommend Steven’s book, Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades. Also, don’t forget the magic that can be created with salt and pepper alone.

*Take advantage, when you find them, of bargains in meat, poultry, and seafood. Eschew pricier cuts of beef with well-marbled cuts from the beefy-tasting chuck, such as flat-iron steaks, boneless chuck ribs, filet or sirloin, or that specialty of California, tri-tip. Put pork on the menu instead of beef. (Pork shoulder is often less than $2.00 a pound.) Substitute chicken legs, thighs, leg quarters, or wings for breasts. Turkey is a relative bargain this time of year, too; check the frozen food aisle for legs, breasts, etc. Stretch more expensive seafood like salmon or crab by featuring them in an appetizer, chowder, or side dish.

*In the market for a new grill? Fall—if you can wait that long—is often a great time to buy grilling and smoking hardware. Watch local prices, or enquire if any price reductions or rebates are planned.

What are your best tips for saving money on meals cooked outdoors? Please share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or Instagram!