Summer Smoking + Grilling Tips with Paula Disbrowe
Fourth of July weekend is fast approaching and we’re ready for four days of friends, family, and wood fired food. Grilling is one of our favorite summer traditions—from juicy cheeseburgers to smoky corn on the cob—and while we all have our favorite tried-and-true methods, we’re always on the look out for new ways to cook out. So, to gear up for the biggest grilling holiday of the year, we caught up with chef and author of the recently released Thank You for Smoking, Paula Disbrowe. Read on for her tips on grilling for a group, how to avoid the most common grilling mistakes, and the ways she imparts smoky flavors into every aspect of a meal.
terrain: For those of us who are new to smoking or are intimidated by the process, can you demystify it a bit for us? Does every smoked dish have to take all night to prepare?
Paula: Definitely not! My approach in Thank You For Smoking is actually the opposite of low and slow barbecue. As much as I love smoked brisket—the star of central Texas barbecue—I don’t have the time to babysit a hunk of meat for 12-18 hours. So in my book, I use smoke as a seasoning and focus on its ability to infuse a broad range of ingredients, from French lentils to quinoa to lobster tails, in as little as 30 minutes.
terrain: We’re definitely fans of grilling and smoking meats, seafood, veggies, and even fruit. Is there anything else you enjoy smoking that may come as a surprise to home cooks?
Paula: I’m a big fan of making the most of lingering heat—it’s almost painful to ignore a beautiful bed of coals after you’ve spent a few minutes searing chicken breasts, for instance. It’s much more efficient and satisfying to use that ambient heat to prepare ingredients for future meals (say, coal roasting onions or eggplant for a smoky spread) or smoke something like pecans and kalamata olives while you’re enjoying dinner. It’s easy to do because the smoking process doesn’t require constant attention. Having a “smoked pantry” of staples like smoked beans, barely, or nuts makes every meal more interesting without having to fire up the grill every night of the week.
terrain: Is there one common grilling mistake you see people making? How can we avoid these pitfalls when we’re firing up our own smokers?
Paula: Don’t be afraid to flip frequently (this allows burgers, chops, and steaks to maintain a consistent temperature while they cook) and use your tongs to move food around the fire as needed. I almost always cook over a two-zone fire, because it provides a cooler “safety zone” (the side with no coals) where I can move food to if they’re browning too quickly.
terrain: When it comes to seasoning your grilled food, how do you like to go about it?
Paula: Season simply! Grilling and smoking create such satisfying, complex flavors that foods don’t need a lot of extra flourish. My typical approach to grilling any meat or fish is simply a drizzle of olive oils, kosher salt, and freshly ground pepper. You don’t need much more than a squeeze of lemon and/or a pinch of flaky salt afterwards. When the initial prep is that easy, you’re free to focus on the process and interacting with the heat.
terrain: Do you have any tips for folks who want to use their grill or smoker for a big party–like a 4th of July bash–where they’re also trying to make sides, entertain guests, and enjoy themselves at the same time?
Paula: I definitely think it can be intimidating to feed a crowd exclusively from a menu that’s “hot off the grill.” Instead, I like to make a menu that includes a few components made in advance. Many dishes like bean and grain salads, marinated vegetables, potato salad, and baked beans are better when made ahead. Absolutely plan to have snacks and drinks ready when folks arrive, so you can point them to a cooler or table while you’re firing chicken wings. I like to grill items that will hold at room temp first (like vegetables for a salad), then move on to proteins that can be fired off together.
And Paula’s last tip for enjoying your grill this summer? “Have fun! Could there be anything bad about cooking outdoors, preferably with a cold beverage and your favorite playlist? Grilling and smoking allows you to disengage from the frenetic pace of daily life, just enjoying the sounds and aromas, the sunset, and the prospect of eating something delicious afterwards.”