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Tailgating like a pro: Top tips from chefs

Top tips from a top pro - who could ask for more?

A spread from Aba Kebab.
Samantha Brauer / Aba Restaurants

Football season has firmly set in, and the heat of summer is beginning to subside. That can only mean one thing: tailgating season.

Which means it’s the time of year for pregame outdoor cookouts, whether it’s in your backyard or at the stadium itself. No disrespect to hot dogs and cold beer, but we’re ready to elevate our tailgating game. So we reached out to some chefs in the know. And not just any chefs- we’re talking superior culinary minds from some of the top tailgating towns in existence.

We pulled some pro insights and tips on all things tailgating from The Driskill in Austin, Aba, with locations in the football-loving towns of Chicago, Miami, and Austin, and a few other spots. Here’s what we learned, plus a couple of tailgating food recipes to try out, below.

Various meats on grill

Common tailgating mistakes

Chef Alondra Martinez works at the 1886 Cafe and Bakery at The Driskill. Martinez says it’s all about heat management, among other things. “For folks cooking cheeseburgers during their tailgate and using an outdoor grill, a common mistake is not setting up the hot and cold part of the grill. When firing up the grill, set a third of the burners to high heat and the rest to medium low heat.”

Why? “The goal is to start getting a good sear on the patty and utilizing the hottest part of the grill will help you achieve this,” Martinez says. “But keep in mind that it’s important to have the cold part of the grill set up to transfer the patty if it starts to get too charred. Add cheese at the end of the cooking process. Melting the cheese on the patty does not take long once you have reached the desired internal temperature of the burger.”

What does that perfect cheeseburger look like? “I like to keep the burger on the cold side of the grill, then add the cheese to the patty, close the lid of the grill, and wait 30 seconds to one minute,” Martinez says. “My advice is to let the patty rest for a few minutes after you pull it out from the grill. This will help to ensure that the juices distribute evenly. Once it has been rested, then you can build the perfect tailgating cheeseburger!”

Applying sauce on the grill.

Tools of the tailgating trade

For Driskill chef Mark Dayanandan, it’s all about the right equipment. “A big spacious grill is best so that you have flexibility on levels of heat,” he says. “You want power on the grill so you can use it when needed, however, you also want the option to have several different temps for various products. Some items require a quick sear then a slow cook.”

“As far as other features, I’m really a gadget guy,” he admits. “So I want all of the smoke boxes, rotisseries, burners for pans of sauce and an option of putting a French flat top of a section to avoid direct heat. I’m not fussy about wi-fi as I have been cooking for 45 years so I’m an old chef who just wants to cook by hand and feel.”

On the home front, he has a smart fuel hookup. “At my house, I have an attachment that would allow me to connect the grill to gas from my kitchen, therefore, saving on the cost of buying propane tanks. Cleanup of charcoal is a messy job — plus it requires a waiting period for the charcoal to cool off.”

Mustard bbq sauce on ribs.

More tailgating wisdom

C.J. Jacobson is a chef and partner with Aba. He minds us to keep things simple. “Don’t try and get too fancy with it,” he says. “Bring something to your tailgate that is pre-cooked like short rib or pork belly where all you need to do is finish it on the grill.”

Oh, and have a good bit of flavor-enhancing liquid as the ready. “Then, always have a sauce that can solve problems,” he continues. “My favorite combo to have on hand is kecap manis or pomegranate molasses.” The former, for those who aren’t familiar, is a sweeter kind of soy sauce.

Jacobson reminds that a clean grill is a good grill. Scrub hard and you’ll just be left with some carbon, “which you can remove by brushing the grates with an oiled cloth,” he says. And you can knock out those hot and cold areas with charcoal too, if that’s your approach. “Shift the coals to one side of the grill,” he says. “This allows for a high heat side and a ‘cooking through’ or ‘resting’ side. ”

The executive sous chef at The Driskill, Iain Reddick is full of tailgating advice. For starters, don’t forget the tin foil as it’s more versatile than you might think. “Use it for covering meat when resting, wrapping leftover food, and, in a pinch, tin foil can also be fashioned into a plate,” he says. He also suggests marinating your meat the day before as it can be hard to find a sink and soap at a tailgate. If chili is on the menu, serve it in a bread bowl as it adds a tasty addition and reduces waste. Lastly, Reddick recommends finding your grill’s hotspots, as it tends to be different from grill to grill.

Grilled vegetables.

On cooking vegetables

With vegetables, as with meats, it’s all about prep. If you’re hosting a tailgate in your backyard it’s less important but if you’re headed out on the road, prepare the veggies beforehand. In other words, peel and cut to your liking and add a little olive oil or lemon juice to keep things fresh in transit.

If you’re grilling, which you probably are, go with grill-friendly veggies like large mushrooms, zucchini, onion, bell pepper, asparagus, and the like. Also consider pre-batching great vegetable dishes like homemade salsa, artichoke dip, and tzatziki.

Remember that classic sides like chimichurri do well with vegetables as well as meats. “For the non-meat eaters, I recommend a slow grilled then peeled eggplant smothered in Achiote, soy, and shallot salsa – it’s an amazing substitute for meat,” says Dayanandan.

Peanut butter & jelly chicken wings.

PB&J Wings

This playful recipes comes courtesy of Feges BBQ in Houston. The dish mixes all of the best things, from peanut butter and jelly to wings and even Sriracha.

Ingredients

  • 2 dozen chicken wings
  • 1/2 cup toasted peanuts

Wing Sauce

  • 42 ounces grape jelly
  • 16 ounces creamy peanut butter
  • 5 1/2 ounces Sriracha (the Sriracha sauce shortage is about over now)

Method

  1. Smoke the wings at 200 degrees with post oak until they reach 155 degrees internal temperature. This
    is approximately 1.5 hours, depending on the size of the wings. If you don’t have a smoker, bake in the oven for 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until they reach 155 F internal temperature.
  2. Meanwhile mix all the wing sauce ingredients in a food processor until smooth. This will stay good in the refrigerator for two weeks.
  3. Toss cooked wings in sauce, and garnish with toasted peanuts.

A frozen Margarita on the beach.

Damn Good Margarita

This recipe from Levi Goode of Goode Co. in Houston is the ultimate tailgating beverage. “Too often, frozen Margaritas are either too watery or too icy,” Goode says. “The trick is finding the right ratio between booze, sugar, and dilution. Sugar creates body, and if dialed in correctly you get a velvety smooth texture. Dilution is needed, otherwise your drink will not freeze and just be a really cold liquid, too much though and you’ve now got shaved ice with the booze separating away. Lastly, of course is the booze, the right ratio to the previous two will keep the whole thing from freezing over and/or becoming too thick. You can get super fancy here and get a small device that will tell you what your brix levels are, but the most fun and rewarding way is through trial and error.”

Ingredients

  • 2 cups Blanco Tequila
  • 1/2 cup orange liqueur
  • 1 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/2 cup light agave syrup
  • 2 cups crushed (Sonic-style) ice

Method

  1. Combine all in a blender, Vitamix if you have it, and let it rip until smooth.

Consumed by tailgating culture? Check out the best tailgating gear and the best healthy tailgating recipes. And if you need a cold one to wash it all down, here are our favorite barbecue beers of late. Fall sports are only as good as what’s on your plate.

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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