Most frugal backyard cooks know the basics. For carnivores, they involve cheap but tasty meats and DIY barbecue sauce and rubs. For vegetarians, it's all about the glory of grilled vegetables, seasoned with a dab of olive oil, salt and pepper, and maybe a squirt of lemon. And who doesn't love a low-cost grilled dessert? But even if you shy away from outdoor cooking because of the perceived fuss and expense, these simple barbecue tips should get the fires burning.
Ground beef prices depend on the fat content: Less fat equals more money. But buying fat-loaded ground beef because it's cheap might not make sense for grilling. When hamburgers are prepared on a grill, most of the fat is cooked out. That means cheaper, fattier beef would leave you with less edible meat per pound than a pricier lean blend.
One inexpensive cut of meat that qualifies as grilling fodder is chuck eye steak. Slightly tougher and less flavorful than a rib eye but still delicious, chuck eye sometimes is referred to as the poor man's rib eye. Seasoning or marinating before grilling enhances the result, as does cooking the steak to medium, at most. Other inexpensive cuts that do well on a grill include flat iron steak and London broil, although the latter is fairly tough and definitely requires a marinade, preferably overnight.
Hot dogs are an all-time budget grilling favorite but experiencing some pushback from consumers who wonder just what's inside. A taste test conducted by Cheapism deemed Oscar Mayer Classic Beef Franks the best cheap hot dogs, at less than 40 cents each. Despite the appealing price of pork dogs, the panel generally agreed it's worth spending a little more for the beef variety.
Remember this tip when meat is on the menu: Many supermarkets offer discounted prepackaged meat that's about to hit its expiration date. If bought and grilled on the same day, the sale-priced meat is an excellent way to conserve cash.
Store-bought rubs can quickly become favorites, but many grill masters have their own concoctions. Remember, fresh means flavor, and a trip to a market that sells bulk spices can save you a bundle -- buy only the amount you need now. Most rubs are made up of sugar, salt, pepper, and a mixture of spices to taste. Ratios often depend on the type of meat: Pork takes more sugar, beef more salt and some heat, and chicken likes spice.
Although barbecue sauces by the dozen line the grocery shelves, it's also easy and cheap to make your own. Avoiding preservatives and high fructose corn syrup is an added benefit. Homemade barbecue sauces generally begin with a combination of ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar, and spices. There are hundreds of recipes that can be tweaked until they suit your palate.
Ears of corn go for 50 cents or so and make a delicious main dish for vegetarians or side for carnivores. They're also super easy to prepare on a grill: Leave on the husk and throw the entire ear into coals or set it on top of the grill. Rotate occasionally (with tongs) and then peel off the blackened husk (with an oven mitt). Slather on a little butter and a sprinkle of salt.
Other vegetables that take well to grilling include Vidalia and red onions, zucchini, eggplant, potatoes, green beans (wrapped in foil), asparagus, and bell pepper. A pound of vegetables often costs less than a pound of meat, and they're an important part of a healthy meal. One tasty and relatively cheap tip is to coat a whole portobello mushroom with a little olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper and place it on the grill. This edible fungus is packed with flavor that stands on its own or as an add-on to a regular burger.
As an outdoor cookout winds down, it's time to sweeten things up with a quick and easy dessert. Keep the grill fired up and throw on pineapple slices or peach halves, fruits that often are sweet enough to satisfy dessert-aholics. (A dab of vanilla ice cream as a finishing touch wouldn't hurt.) If you have skewers, fresh fruit kabobs with bananas, strawberries, apples, and any other ingredient that tickles your sweet tooth are a fun alternative.