Labor Day is almost upon us, which means that summer is fast coming to an end. But, rather than wallow in despair at the changing of the seasons, we recommend that you use the holiday as an excuse for one last, pull-out-all-the-stops backyard cookout.
This is a celebration, so it's no time for restraint—invite all your friends, stock up on drinks, and plan your menu early. Hot dogs and burgers have a permanent spot on ours, but there's so much more you can (and should!) do with that hot grill: smoked porterhouse steaks, whole fish tacos, spatchcocked chicken flavored with za'atar or lemon, and the best black bean burgers you've ever tasted. To do Labor Day right, keep reading for a whopping 35 of our favorite recipes for satisfying cookout main dishes.
Thick and Juicy Home-Ground Grilled Cheeseburgers
The most important step in making better homemade burgers: Say no to the store-bought ground beef (and don't even get me started on preformed patties). Grinding your own beef gives you much more control over flavor, fat content, and texture. To see just how great the possibilities are, try these burgers, made with a mix of short rib, brisket, and sirloin for intensely beefy flavor and a looser, more juice-trapping structure.
Spicy, creamy pimento cheese is every bit as delicious on a hamburger as it is on crackers; the heat and acidity make it a great partner for a meaty burger. While I generally keep my pimento cheese chunky for dipping, here you'll process it until it's very smooth to ensure optimal meltability.
Homemade Burger King Whopper-Style Cheeseburgers
Grilling a Whopper-style thin hamburger patty is tricky: In the time it takes to develop a good sear on both sides, the beef can easily turn to leather. Our solution is to cook the patties almost entirely through on one side, maximizing the smoky char and keeping them from overcooking. Once that's done, simply assemble the burger with the classic Whopper accoutrements—crinkly dill pickle slices, mayo, ketchup, sesame-seeded bun, and all—for a decidedly upgraded fast food standard.
Cajun Burgers With Spicy Remoulade
For these flavorful Cajun-themed burgers, we swap out the traditional burger-topping trio—lettuce, tomato, and onion—for the Cajun "Holy Trinity" of bell pepper, onion, and celery. Andouille sausage mixed into the beef adds a spicy element, bolstered by a cayenne- and horseradish-spiked remoulade. Blue cheese isn't a Cajun ingredient, of course, but it adds a little funk to these burgers that just feels right.
There's more to making a great teriyaki burger than just slapping a little teriyaki sauce onto the patty. The first step to improvement is making your own teriyaki sauce—the store-bought stuff is almost always too thin, and far too sweet. Next, brush it on at the end of cooking, so that it glazes the meat without having time to burn. And the pineapple you usually see on teriyaki burgers? The sauce already supplies plenty of sweetness, so we top the patties with crunchy cabbage and scallions instead.
The Best Grilled Hot Dogs
Natural-casing hot dogs are generally a good choice for grilling, but there's always the risk of a blowout. To make sure the franks don't pop and leak their juices onto the fire, we recommend poaching them in flavorful liquid to heat them through, then grilling them over high heat just long enough to char. If you're using skinless hot dogs, just make a few slits in them and heat them up directly on the grill, without poaching.
Grilled Bratwurst With Warm German Potato Slaw
The same poach-and-grill technique we use for basic hot dogs works wonderfully for producing tender, juicy bratwurst as well. For a classic combination of sausages and German potato salad, we gently cook bacon, potatoes, and aromatics together in beef broth, then layer on red cabbage and sausages—as the brats cook, their fat will drip down into the slaw mixture, providing extra flavor and richness. Once the sausages hit an internal temperature of 140 to 145°F, sear them over high heat and serve them with the warm slaw.
Sous Vide Sausages
Though sausages have a reputation for being easy to prepare, there's still a fair risk of overcooking (and we've all probably eaten enough dry, tough-skinned sausages in our lives to recognize it). Sous vide solves that problem by giving you precise control over temperature, and it allows you to achieve textures you can't get with traditional cooking methods. After cooking sous vide to your desired temperature (140°F for extra-juicy but softer sausages; 160 for a firmer, smoother texture), finish the links on the grill to crisp up their casings.
The Best Juicy Grilled Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts
There are two near-universal truths of cooking chicken. The first is that the breast is the most boring of cuts; the second is that cooking the meat with its skin and bones yields infinitely better flavor. But skinless, boneless chicken breasts are affordable and convenient, and such a crowd-pleaser that you might find them a worthwhile investment for your Labor Day get-together. To make grilled chicken breast that holds its own against any other piece of the bird, we recommend pounding it to an even thickness, brining it in a salt-and-sugar mixture, and cooking it over moderate heat.
The Best F&$king Grilled Chicken Sandwich Ever
Even perfectly grilled chicken breasts need a little dressing up to become truly great. One of our favorite ways to use them is in these unbelievably good sandwiches, built with a medley of big flavors and contrasting textures from an assortment of toppings: salty bacon and crushed potato chips, lettuce, tomato, creamy mayonnaise, and a jalapeño-avocado sauce. Cram it all into a big, soft white burger bun for a juicy, drippy masterpiece.
Japanese Chicken Skewers With Scallion (Negima Yakitori)
A typical Japanese yakitori restaurant may offer dozens of different cuts of chicken (can someone explain to me what a "chicken tenderloin" is?) for threading on skewers and slow-grilling. When you're making your own at home, though, it's easiest to stick with reliably tender, flavorful chicken thigh. Homemade teriyaki sauce, scallions, salt, and white pepper are all you need to finish off these tasty skewers.
Grilled Curry Chicken Kebabs
Chicken thighs are a must when making kebabs, since breast meat is almost guaranteed to dry out. For extra insurance that they'll come out moist (and for better flavor), it's a good idea to marinate them. Here, we use a potent marinade of coconut milk, curry powder, and garlic, plus a bit of fish sauce to boost the savoriness of the chicken.
Crispy Caramel Chicken Skewers
Southeast Asia produces some of the world's best grilled chicken, and the caramel-glazed gà kho you'll find in Vietnam is no exception. That's the inspiration behind these sweet-and-savory chicken skewers, marinated in a mixture of brown sugar, citrus juice, vinegar, fish sauce, and honey, which caramelizes into a sticky glaze on the grill. For a little crunchy texture, roll the skewers in sesame seeds and sliced almonds before serving.
Grilled Chicken With Za'atar
Za'atar is a woodsy spice blend that's ubiquitous in the Middle East. It can be purchased or made at home; recipes vary, but our version uses dried oregano, fresh thyme and savory, sesame seeds, and ground sumac, a bright, lemony spice common in Middle Eastern cooking. To get the za'atar to adhere firmly to the spatchcocked chicken in this recipe, mix it with olive oil to form a paste, rub the paste on the meat, then apply a coating of the dry spice blend.
Greek-Style Grilled Chicken With Oregano, Garlic, Lemon, and Olive Oil
Squeezing lemon juice onto chicken as it grills, a traditional Greek technique, is a great way to add flavor, but it also makes the skin crisp up more slowly and can lead to overcooked meat. A better solution is to use a lemon-herb vinaigrette to add flavor to the chicken, both before and after grilling: We marinate the meat in it first, but save some to use as a sauce to maximize its fresh lemon flavor.
Grilled Spicy Chicken Wings With Soy and Fish Sauce
Chicken wings aren't the most common cut you'll see on the grill, but they're just as delicious cooked over live flame as they are deep-fried. To ensure juiciness, we marinate them overnight, then grill them over a two-zone fire. The marinade is a spicy mixture of soy sauce, granulated garlic, lots of dried chili peppers, and fish sauce—it won't make the wings taste fishy, but it will deepen their savory flavor.
Tsukune (Japanese Chicken Meatballs)
These Japanese-style chicken meatballs are seasoned with scallions, garlic, ginger, and sesame oil, then glazed with an aromatic tare sauce for a sweet-and-salty coating. The trickiest part about making chicken meatballs is getting them to stay together without ending up tough or rubbery. We use panko and egg as binders; the meatballs will still require gentle handling en route to the grill, but they'll firm up as they cook.
Grilled Salmon Steak Medallions
Though salmon steaks are fairly easy to grill, their shape can pose a problem—the thin belly flaps inevitably cook faster than the rest of the meat, and are prone to sticking and tearing when you try to flip the steaks. Our solution: Debone the steaks and roll them into tight rounds, which are much easier to handle. Here, we glaze them with our not-too-sweet Homemade Teriyaki Sauce and sliced scallions.
Whole Grilled Fish Tacos
The main downside of grilled-fish tacos (apart from the fact that fried-fish tacos are so darn tasty) is that fish fillets are tough to grill. But grilling whole fish is another story—the skin protects the meat and keeps it moist, making a whole fish naturally suited to the process. Plus, it's an impressive centerpiece for a backyard party.
Grilled Shrimp With Garlic and Lemon
Because shrimp cook so quickly, it's hard to give them a nice sear without overcooking them, which means grilled shrimp turn out dry or rubbery far too often. With the right technique, though, you can enjoy plump, snappy grilled shrimp every time. The three main steps to keep in mind: dry-brine the shrimp with salt and baking soda, pack them tightly onto skewers, and air-dry them thoroughly.
Grilled Shrimp With Chermoula
Once you've learned how to grill shrimp properly, you can apply just about any kind of flavoring scheme you like. Here, we coat the shrimp in chermoula, a bright North African sauce made with olive oil, lemon, cumin, and lots of fresh herbs.
Steamed Buns With Grilled Shrimp and Sriracha Mayonnaise
As fun as it is to eat grilled shrimp straight off the skewer, there are other ways to use them. In this recipe, we pile the shrimp into tender Chinese steamed buns, along with crisp shredded cabbage, vinegary pickles, and spicy sriracha mayo, for a handheld snack that's bursting with complementary flavors and textures.
Grilled Lemongrass Shrimp
Want good grilled shrimp with less effort? You can get results similar to what our previous recipes will provide simply by grilling the shrimp with the shells on—they'll protect the meat and make it less prone to drying out. Shell-on shrimp are definitely messier to eat, but what's the fun of a cookout if you aren't getting your hands dirty? We toss these in a powerful marinade of lemongrass, garlic, fish sauce, and ginger before cooking.
Really Awesome Black Bean Burgers
Cookouts aren't known for being particularly friendly to vegetarians, who are too often forced to make their way past the piles of grilled burgers and hot dogs to the sides table and fill up on potato salad and coleslaw. If you have vegetarians coming over on Labor Day (or if you're vegetarian yourself), not only will these black bean burgers satisfy their desire for a hearty main, but even the most committed omnivores among you will enjoy them, too. Chopped cashews and partially dried beans are the secret to their meaty texture, while mayo and feta add necessary fat and flavor.
Grilled Lemongrass- and Coriander-Marinated Tofu Vietnamese Sandwiches (Vegan Banh Mi)
Tofu doesn't deserve its reputation as a flavorless health food—cooked right, it takes on a tender interior and deliciously crisp exterior. Soaking it in an aromatic Thai-style marinade turns it into a great filling for Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, built on Vietnamese or French baguettes and stuffed with cilantro, cucumber, and jalapeño. Keep them vegan if you like by using homemade or store-bought vegan mayonnaise.
Grilled Spiced Cauliflower
High heat is the best way to cook cauliflower; a quick char will bring out its nutty flavor and keep it from turning mushy. Grilling is well suited for the job, but you'll want to prepare the vegetable appropriately—florets are just the right size and shape to fall through the grates into the fire, while cutting the cauliflower vertically into large steaks makes it much more grill-friendly.
The Best Carne Asada
Carne asada literally translates to "grilled beef," and, as you might expect from such a vague name, there are a million different ways to make it. To make a Cal-Mex version that's buttery and rich, with good smoky, charred flavor, we marinate skirt steak in orange juice, lime juice, and a variety of chilies and aromatics, plus soy sauce and fish sauce to enhance its savoriness. Remove the steak from the grill a bit early to account for carryover cooking and ensure perfectly grilled meat.
Grilled Mojo-Marinated Skirt Steak
Because skirt steak is so thin, it's a great candidate for cooking hot and fast. It's also got a heavy grain that readily absorbs flavorful marinades, which we capitalize on here by soaking the meat in a citrusy mojo scented with cumin. Grilled Potato Wedges would make an ideal accompaniment.
Sous Vide Smoked Brisket
True barbecue brisket requires hours of babysitting the smoker, and even then, it's rare to find brisket that doesn't end up dry and bland. Fortunately, there's a way to get terrific flavor and texture with far less effort, if not less time: sous vide. Once the beef comes out of the water bath, we smoke it for just a few hours to give it that deep, almost black crust and incredible smoky flavor that are hallmarks of the best brisket.
Slow-Smoked Porterhouse Steaks
While brisket is made for low, slow cooking, steaks are typically heated hot and fast to avoid drying them out. But, by placing thick porterhouse steaks on a grill vertically over very low heat, with the tenderloin far from the heat source, it's possible to imbue them with plenty of smoke and still keep them medium-rare. Finish the steaks over a ripping-hot fire to char the exteriors without overcooking.
Muffuletta-Style Grilled Stuffed Flank Steak With Salumi, Provolone, and Olive Salad
For a pretty steak centerpiece that's a little easier on the wallet than porterhouse, these stuffed flank-steak pinwheels are the ticket. Once you've butterflied the meat, it's easy to wrap it around a whole range of flavorful fillings. Here, taking inspiration from a New Orleans–style muffuletta sandwich, we roll the steak with prosciutto, capicola, mortadella, provolone, and olive salad.
For the best balance of tenderness, flavor, and value when making kebabs, we prefer sirloin, which also has the advantage of being able to stand up to an assertive marinade of Worcestershire, garlic, and mustard. This recipe delivers a steakhouse experience on a stick, with cubes of medium-rare meat alternating with red onion and cremini mushrooms. Don't over-marinate the meat, or it will turn mushy—an hour is long enough.
Balinese Pork Satay (Sate Babi) With Sweet Soy Glaze and Peanut Sauce
This rich and delicious Balinese-style satay starts with the fattiest pork you can find—we recommend pork shoulder. It's flavored with not one but two sauces: a sweet ginger-and-garlic glaze, and a tangy peanut-tamarind dipping sauce. It's important to fan the fire continuously while the meat grills, not only to make the coals burn hotter but also to push the flames away from the meat and prevent sooty flare-ups.
Grilled Pork Sandwiches With Grilled Plum Chutney and Cabbage Slaw
This is the kind of dish that uses your grill to its full potential—almost every component is grilled, from the bread to the pork to the plums, scallions, and jalapeños used to make the fruity chutney. But, while we're fans of grilled cabbage, too, we choose to top this sandwich with a raw miso-dressed slaw instead for cool, crunchy contrast.
Grilled Pork Belly Kebabs With Sweet-and-Spicy Gochujang Marinade
I like sriracha as much as the next person, but the world of Asian chili sauces is vast, and most of them are criminally underused here in the West. One of my favorite alternatives right now is gochujang, a thick, sticky Korean condiment with a sweet, spicy, and funky flavor. In this recipe, we combine it with honey, sake, and soy sauce to make a tasty marinade for pork belly, skewered with cherry tomatoes, bell pepper, and zucchini, then grilled.