Summer hasn't officially begun, but for many, the summer grilling season starts as soon as it's warm enough to venture outside minus a parka. And why not? Grilled or barbecued food is delicious, whether the preparation is complex or simple, and an afternoon or evening spent with family and friends while dinner cooks over a backyard flame is one of America's happiest pastimes. Unfortunately, if you're not careful, your backyard barbecue can sear your budget. Here's how save some money on this summer's cookouts.
1. Pick the right grill for you.
Gas versus charcoal grilling is the great debate of summer cookouts. Which type of grill will save you the most money depends on your needs. According to shopping comparison website DealNews, a basic gas grill can cost $70 more than a basic charcoal grill. If you only barbecue once or twice a year, it may make sense to go with charcoal grill due to the lower initial cost. On the other hand, gas grills are cheaper to operate due to the lower fuel costs. DealNews calculates that cooking with gas costs $1 per hour of grilling, and charcoal costs $1.70 per cookout. If you use your grill on a weekly basis, gas might be the better choice.
2. Stop wasting fuel.
Whatever method you choose, you can cut costs quickly by not wasting fuel. For gas, once you've brought your grill to the right temperature, use only the burners you need to maintain that temperature, and keep the lid shut as your manufacturer suggests. In fact, many grill recipes suggest indirect rather than direct cooking, and you'll need to switch off one or more burners. For charcoal, don't fill your chimney starter to the brim, and keep the lid closed.
3. Control other equipment costs.
Do you really need a special set of outdoor cooking tools? Most of the tools and gear found in a well-stocked kitchen will work just as well outside. You can also avoid busting your budget by avoiding grill gadgets and accessories you may not use. Will you really use the side burner on that gas grill you're thinking of buying? Or that cast iron garlic roaster and squeezer?
4. Choose cheaper cuts.
A pricey cut of meat done right on the grill is among summer's great joys. More fiscally responsible proteins will get you most of the way there, especially if you're willing to experiment with recipes and techniques. Chicken legs and thighs are much cheaper than chicken breasts. Several cheaper cuts of beef, such as flank steak, tri-tip and skirt are well-suited to grill preparations. Get to know your butcher for recipe suggestions and to find out when those pricier steaks are going on sale.
5. Freshen old favorites.
Hamburgers and hot dogs are grilling staples because they are tasty and affordable. You can make them extra special with the addition of interesting flourishes. For example, mix ground beef and ground lamb for a tastier burger. Slice dogs and sausages lengthwise, and fill with cheese just before serving. Caramelize onions to add sweetness and depth to everything that comes off the grill.
6. Add grillable sides.
Corn on the cob is a popular grilled side, but many vegetables do well on the grill, from asparagus to zucchini. Just sprinkle with salt and pepper, coat in olive oil and add heat. Vegetables are cheap, filling and delicious. Bread dough can go right on the grill (think grilled pizza), and biscuits can, too – muffin pan and all. When the summer peaches are ripe in the store, don't miss the chance for grilled peaches and ice cream.
7. Invite your friends and make extra.
Food always tastes better with company, and this is true especially for barbecuing and grilling. This is also an opportunity for a potluck to share the cost of your feast. Ask everyone to bring a side. When you're working out how much to make, plan for a little extra. You'll be prepared in case a few other friends arrive. More importantly, you'll have leftover barbecue for lunch on Monday.