The Food Lab: My 19 Favorite Summer Grilling Recipes

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Even when I lived in a New York apartment, grilling (perhaps illegally, on my balcony) was my favorite way to spend a warm summer evening. Now that I'm out in the Bay Area, warm summer evenings don't really exist, but I've got far more room for grilling than I've ever had before, which means that I've slowly been collecting extra grilling tools. It's only a matter of time before I build myself a full-on outdoor kitchen so that I never have to leave the smoky bliss of the live fire. Whether you're firing up the gas grill for a quick weeknight dinner or settling in with a cooler full of beer for a Sunday afternoon of tending to the coals, here are 19 of my favorite grilling recipes and techniques of all time. They're not in any particular order, unless you count "numerically, from delicious to delicious."

#1: 5-Minute Grilled Chicken Cutlets With Rosemary, Garlic, and Lemon

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I used to be one of those "give me dark meat or give me death" chicken and turkey eaters (you know the type). Maybe it's because I'm getting older or softer, but these days, I almost prefer chicken breast to legs. Actually, I know the reason: It's because I finally learned to cook the darned things well. When done right, chicken breast should be tender and moist, with plenty of clean chicken flavor. This recipe is just about the fastest, most foolproof way to cook chicken on the grill; the trick is to cook it 90% of the way through on one side to maximize browning without overcooking. If you use store-bought cutlets, this go-to weeknight meal can be on the table in under half an hour, start to finish.

Get the recipe for 5-Minute Grilled Chicken Cutlets With Rosemary, Garlic, and Lemon »

#2: Carne Asada

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At its simplest, carne asada is nothing more than skirt steak grilled with a little salt and pepper. But for this version, I wanted to capture the spicy, savory flavor of my favorite Cal-Mex versions growing up. The secret is a marinade made with dried chilies, citrus juice, and (wait for it) fish sauce, for an extra-meaty flavor boost.

Get the recipe for Carne Asada »

#3: Slow-Smoked Porterhouse Steaks

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Have you ever felt like a grilled steak just doesn't have quite enough smoky flavor? This is the recipe for you. By placing thick-cut steaks vertically over indirect heat, you can get tons of smokiness into them, while maintaining a perfectly cooked, medium-rare center.

Get the recipe for Slow-Smoked Porterhouse Steaks »

#4: Grilled Asparagus With Aioli

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Forget the potato chips or the crackers: Grilled asparagus with aioli is the ultimate backyard finger food. The vegetable's juiciness and sweet flavor are complemented by garlicky mayo, and it takes just minutes on a hot grill. Perfect to keep your guests entertained while you prepare the main event.

Get the recipe for Grilled Asparagus With Aioli »

#5: Thai-Style Grilled Chicken (Gai Yang)

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I've grilled this chicken more times than I can count on all of my (sticky and spicy) fingers. With its savory, smoky, extra-juicy meat and a sweet-and-hot dipping sauce, it's a flavor powerhouse that comes in punching and doesn't rest until you've put down that last picked-clean bone. So long as you can handle the heat, I can't think of a better summer-evening meal to wash down with an ice-cold Tiger or Singha.

Get the recipe for Thai-Style Grilled Chicken (Gai Yang) »

#6: Simple Grilled-Potato Salad With Grilled-Lemon Vinaigrette

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My sister texted me the other day to tell me that this was her favorite recipe of all time. I have a hard time arguing with her. It's super simple—just potatoes and herbs in a basic vinaigrette—but it's the details that make it. Parboiling the potatoes helps them get extra crisp and tender on the grill, while grilling the lemon caramelizes its juices and adds smoky complexity to the dressing.

Get the recipe for Simple Grilled-Potato Salad With Grilled-Lemon Vinaigrette »

#7: Mexican Street Corn Salad (Esquites)

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I've kept a running tally. Each time I serve this Mexican street corn salad and it's not the most popular side dish on the table, I put down a tick mark. So far, I've put down exactly zero ticks. The classic Mexican street corn is made by coating grilled corn with a mixture of garlicky mayo, Cotija cheese, dried chili, and lime juice. This salad version is better for a crowd, allowing you to grill the corn and prep the salad in advance, after which it can be shoveled onto paper plates and then directly into hungry and waiting mouths.

Get the recipe for Mexican Street Corn Salad (Esquites) »

#8: Lomo al Trapo (Colombian-Style Cloth-Wrapped Grilled Beef Tenderloin)

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Lomo al trapo—Colombian-style salt-crusted beef tenderloin wrapped in a towel—comes off the coals looking like a chunk of charred wood. But give it a rest and crack into that shell, and you'll reveal a tender hunk of perfectly medium-rare meat underneath. Talk about impressive presentation! Bonus: You can do this in a fireplace, or a campfire (no grill required) for on-the-go steak action.

Get the recipe for Lomo al Trapo (Colombian-Style Cloth-Wrapped Grilled Beef Tenderloin) »

#9: Stuffed Flank Steak, Muffuletta-Style

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These pinwheeled flank steaks aren't just another pretty face. The muffuletta-style filling, made with an olive salad, cured meats, and provolone cheese, adds flavor to each bite. When the pinwheels hit the grill, that cheese starts to melt out, crisping up and giving you the kind of crunchy cheese nubs that you'll dream about for days to come. You owe it to your future sleeping self to make these at least once this summer.

Get the recipe for Stuffed Flank Steak, Muffuletta-Style »

#10: Jerk Chicken

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This was one of the most time-intensive recipe development processes I've ever worked on. Figuring out how to capture the flavor of chicken marinated in spices and slow-smoked over a green-pimento-wood fire was not easy, but, after weeks, I came up with a solution: building a moist bed of bay leaves and allspice berries to smoke the chicken on top of. The resulting flavor is sweet, smoky, spicy, and designed to completely transport you to wherever you dream of eating jerk chicken (whether that's on a Jamaican beach or, as is the case for me, behind a strip club in Detroit, from an oil drum smoker).

Get the recipe for Jerk Chicken »

#11: The Best F&$king Grilled Chicken Sandwich Ever

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Okay, so I've got to admit that the only time I ever ate these chicken and bacon sandwiches with spicy avocado spread and potato chips was the one time Daniel came over to grill them. But I've been riffing on them regularly ever since then, swapping out the sauce for my Peruvian chicken green sauce or a harissa aioli, maybe adding some sliced avocado or pickles, changing up the marinade. The core combination of grilled chicken breast on a toasted bun, with a creamy sauce and potato chips, is what ties them all together. Your turn to play around.

Get the recipe for The Best F&$king Grilled Chicken Sandwich Ever »

#12: Whole Grilled Fish Tacos

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Grilled fish needs to be moist and tender, with plenty of grilled flavor. This can be hard to accomplish with delicate fillets that tend to stick to the grill. A much easier and more foolproof method is to buy smaller fish and grill them whole, skin and all. Serve them with some salsa, citrus, and a stack of warm tortillas and you've got yourself a bone-picking, finger-licking taco party in your backyard.

Get the recipe for Whole Grilled Fish Tacos »

#13: Extra-Juicy and Plump Grilled Shrimp

Grilled Shrimp With Chermoula Recipe

As with squeaky dog toys and novelty sunglasses, the idea of grilled shrimp is generally far better than the rubbery reality. The secret in our recipe is twofold: First, brining the shrimp with salt and baking soda helps them retain moisture and stay plump and firm as they cook. Second, packing them right up next to each other on skewers lowers their ratio of surface area to mass, allowing you to get deeply browned flavors without the risk of overcooking. They're great with just a squeeze of lemon juice, but I like to serve them with an herb-packed chermoula sauce.

Get the recipe for Extra-Juicy and Plump Grilled Shrimp »

#14: Homemade Whopper-Style Burgers

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I've had my share of big, fat, juicy burgers in my day, but these days, if I'm going to eat a beef burger, it's probably going to be one that has smaller proportions (maybe I really am getting older and softer). My technique for making homemade Whopper-style burgers doesn't just make a better-than-BK copycat; it's actually a great technique for any time you want to grill a thinner patty. Just as with chicken cutlets, cooking it most of the way through on the first side allows you to develop some great grill marks, while still retaining plenty of juice.

Get the recipe for Homemade Whopper-Style Burgers »

#15: Really Awesome Black Bean Burgers

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If you or any of your omnivore friends have ever doubted that a vegetable-based burger can be every bit as delicious and satisfying as a beef burger, this is the recipe to prove it to you. By partially dehydrating cooked black beans (for better consistency and more intense flavor) and combining them with a slew of flavor- and texture-packed ingredients, you end up with a patty that can be seared in a skillet or cooked on top of a grill. I like it best with a nicely melted slice of pepper Jack cheese (though some crisp bacon would work great as well).

Get the recipe for Really Awesome Black Bean Burgers »

#16: Grilled Lemongrass- and Coriander-Marinated Tofu Vietnamese Sandwiches (Vegan Banh Mi)

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The keys to great grilled tofu are a powerfully flavorful marinade (like this coriander-based curry paste) and low, direct heat in order to dehydrate and crisp the surface. Follow those steps, then stuff the grilled tofu into a sandwich with cucumbers, jalapeño, and pickled carrots and daikon, and you've got one seriously tasty backyard sandwich.

Get the recipe for Grilled Lemongrass- and Coriander-Marinated Tofu Vietnamese Sandwiches (Vegan Banh Mi) »

#17: Grilled Cabbage

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They may look...charred. Burnt, even. But that's how you want them. Big chunks of cabbage get a sweet, nutty flavor when you push them to what seems like the limits of acceptable grilling. It's a flavor that perfectly complements the tender layers underneath. The cabbage is good enough on its own, but pair it with a dressing—whether it's a sweet-hot Thai vinaigrette, a blue cheese dressing, a yogurt and herb sauce, or even a squeeze of ranch—and it becomes a full-on meal.

Get the recipe for Grilled Cabbage »

#18: Grilled Flatbread With Olive Oil and Za'atar

Grilled Flatbread With Olive Oil and Za'atar Recipe

It's always fun to see how many parts of your meal you can cook off of one fire. These grilled flatbreads, brushed with olive oil and smothered in za'atar, are a good way to start a grilling session. Heck, you could leave the seasonings off them and use them as a side dish for your meal, or perhaps to wrap up your sausages or kebabs. Made with yogurt and olive oil, this bread stays soft and tender for scooping and dipping.

Get the recipe for Grilled Flatbread With Olive Oil and Za'atar »

#19: Grilled Pizza

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For my money, there's no easier way to capture the charred, tender-crisp flavor and texture of pizza cooked in a wood-burning oven than to cook it directly over a hot fire. Once you've got your dough—store-bought works fine—and toppings, it takes only minutes, start to finish, to grill up a pie (or, better yet, a parade of pies), no special equipment required.

Get the recipe for Grilled Pizza »