Grilling hacks, food and drink recipes to make your Memorial Day weekend extra delicious

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
As long as they are cooked right, burgers, hot dogs and chicken can easily replace steaks and more expensive meats as perfectly acceptable cookout fare.

Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start to everything, including grilling season. It's always grilling season in my book, but this weekend is when most people will load up on charcoal or buy that extra propane tank. If you haven't done that already you might want to get on that. 

Some people are intimidated by grilling. Some also think of it as the sole purview of men. I'm here to assure you that neither is the case. Strap on an apron, grab some tongs and let's get to it.

How to make a perfect burger

Burgers are a standout cookout star and a certified crowd-pleaser. To help you cut down on prep time the day of the cookout, patty them up the night before. An 80/20 ratio of lean to fat seems to be the perfect mix for juicy, drip down your arm burgers.

More:Grilled pizza is better than oven-baked pizza; here's why and how to do it at home

Make sure to season your mix with plenty of salt and pepper, because no one wants a bland burger. Please don't be tempted to add a bunch of seasonings and garlic to the meat, or you'll end up with meatloaf on a bun. Don't overwork the meat, either. Form patties that are a little bit bigger than the bun and make sure they're nice and thin by pressing the patty with the heel of your hand. This helps prevent shrinkage. 

As for the actual grilling process, start with a hot, clean, oiled grill. The grill is ready when it's too hot to hold your hand just over the surface.

More:How to grill lettuce and 5 other weird things you didn't know you could cook over fire

More:Good Ranchers' 4 most epic burgers for Memorial Day weekend

Once the burgers are on the grill, move them as little as possible, but watch them like a hawk. Flare-ups are no fun, and they make your patties taste like burnt rubber. If the flare-ups are fierce, turn down the heat a bit. 

Put your cheese on when your burgers are just seconds from being done. Burgers are done when they reach 145 in the center. That's medium. Cook up to 160 for well done, though prepare for a dryer burger.

Serve patties on a platter next to a plate of lightly toasted buns. The best toppings are simple: Red onion slices, leaf lettuce and juicy red tomato rounds are always a good bet. Put out some ketchup, mustard and mayo. I also like to mix up mayo, a bit of Sriracha, chopped pickles, a squeeze of lemon and Worcestershire for a perfect "special sauce."

Mise en place; enlist the skillet

The best way to keep from having to run back and forth from the kitchen to the grill is to ready your mise en place, a fancy chef term for having all of your ingredients prepped and within easy reach. That means having any sauces, tools to brush said sauces on your meat, and any other ingredients waiting next to the grill. 

Cauliflower steaks can be grilled or seared in a cast iron skillet and then finished in the oven. Once you've cooked them, you can top them with any number of sauces or toppings, including a chimichurri, Japanese curry or anchovy-caper breadcrumbs.

Another way to keep things in one spot is to enlist your skillet. Have a side that would usually come together on the stovetop? Make it in a hot skillet right on top of the grill. Here's where I cook smaller vegetables like mushrooms that would otherwise fall through the grates. A hot skillet is perfect for making crispy potatoes and brown, blistery green beans and asparagus.

More:How to clean cast iron and other important skillet questions answered

Think outside the bun

While burgers and dogs are great, there's a whole world of protein options out there. Chicken wings, for example, are absolutely delicious when grilled, but there's a trick to making them come out perfect.

First, I recommend brining them for at least a few hours. The basic brine ratio should be about a cup of kosher salt per gallon of cold water. Scale up or down as needed. 

After you drain your chicken wings, pat them dry, then toss them in a bit of oil. Add salt and pepper and any other dry seasonings at this point. 

Preheat the grill for moderate heat, about 350 degrees. Grill your wings in a single layer directly on your grill grates. Cook for close to 30 minutes, turning to avoid charring. Once the wings start to get golden brown, begin to brush on the sauce of your choice until they're done cooking. You can add extra sauce at the end. Watch for burning. If there's sugar in your sauce, you may want to keep the heat on the lower end. You can test for doneness by poking down to the bone to make sure the meat is cooked through. Is it tender? You're good to go. Rubbery and slightly pink? Keep cooking.

Have a drink or two; more tips

A backyard barbecue is nothing without a cold drink, but it doesn't have to be boozy. Here are recipes for a couple of perfectly summery sippers, one with alcohol and one without, to sip while you're staring at the smoke and flames.

Looking for more grill tips, recipes and even a hot summer playlist? Visit www.southernkitchen.com to find our guide to all-American grilling traditions, including how to make Juicy Lucy burgers and how to throw a classic outdoor oyster roast.

Strawberry Mojito

Zero-proof strawberry mojitos

Strawberries are in season and add perfect zing to this nonalcoholic cocktail. Just a few fresh berries, mint, lime and sparkling water, and before you know if you’ll have consumed two zero-proof cocktails without missing out on a thing. 

Serves: Makes 2 drinks

Hands On Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

6 strawberries, sliced, plus more for garnish

6 lime rounds

2 springs fresh mint

1/2 ounce agave syrup or honey 

Ice cubes

Strawberry or plain sparkling water, to top off the glass

Instructions

Divide the strawberries, lime rounds and mint between two glasses of your choice. Muddle the fruit until it releases its juices. Muddle in the agave. Fill the glass with ice cubes, then top with the sparkling water. With a long spoon, stir all of the ingredients together. Garnish with additional strawberries and enjoy immediately.

Pimms Cup

Traditional Pimm's Cup

The Pimm’s Cup originated in England in the 1840s, gaining fame a second time a century later by way of the landmark Napoleon House hotel. Since its debut in New Orleans, it has remained one of the most classic and beloved beverages in the Big Easy.

This herbaceous ginger-flavored cocktail is traditionally enjoyed during the summer months due to its bright flavor profile, but it's perfect any time of the year.

Serves: Makes 1 cocktail

Hands On Time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 5 minutes

Ingredients

1 1/2 ounces Pimm’s No. 1

1/2 ounce gin

1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice

1/2 ounce simple syrup

2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

Ginger beer

Fresh mint and cucumber rounds, for garnish

Instructions

In a highball glass, combine the Pimm’s, gin, lemon juice, simple syrup and bitters. Add a desired amount of ice and, with a long cocktail spoon, stir ingredients to mix well. Top with ginger beer and garnish with fresh sprigs of mint and cucumber slices. Serve immediately.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com