Hot weather. Cool friends and family. It’s time for our outdoor parties and get-togethers. (I have a July birthday, so I especially love this time of year of celebrating outdoors!) You want to make sure that you and your guests are satiated and safe as you enjoy delicious drinks and foods. Here are some tips to help make your outdoor party a success.
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Outdoor Party Tips: Keeping It Cool
We all know that water is key in the warmer weather. We need to drink a lot more of it to stay hydrated. Bonus points if you have a pool of some sort, sprinklers to run and play in, or even a Slip-n-Slide. But there are some other things you can do to keep it cool and keep your foods safe in the hot weather.
Avoid a rapid meltdown. Naturally, the larger the block of ice, the longer it is going to take to melt. So create giant ice cubes by freezing water in plastic bowls and not just ice cube trays. If you need ice for a cooler to keep foods fresh, refill your 1/2 gallon milk, water, or orange juice containers and place those in the cooler instead of ice cubes or bags of ice. Put these in the freezer the night before you need them and be good to go in the morning. They also are great to put in front of a fan to blow around cooler air instead of only stirring up the hotter air.
Don’t dilute the drinks! Keep your beverages cool and avoid watering them down by making ice cubes out of the same thing instead of using water ice cubes. Freeze some lemonade, punch, or juice and put those into the bowls or pitchers. Use them for the ice in your cocktails. I like to freeze coffee cubes to put into Bailey’s, for example, or lemonade for vodka. The hotter it is, the faster these will melt to mix your drink! You can also freeze herbs in ice cubes to add to smoothies.
Make freezer foods and drinks. You can prep your non-carbonated beverages by placing them in the freezer the night before. Then they will slowly melt in the heat, while also keeping the drinks cool. Some foods are also great frozen. You can freeze those small guacamole cups and individual yogurt cups ahead of time. (Fruit at the bottom yogurts don’t freeze as nicely. Regardless, they’ll need a good stir when you’re ready to eat them.) I love frozen Go-Gurts to eat as a sort of popsicle. Frozen grapes are a new weakness of mine, especially the super sweet black ones. And I do love frozen berries, peaches, and especially mango. (Beware of giving frozen fruits and Go-Gurts to young children, as they can be a choking hazard.) A bonus is these frozen foods will also help keep other foods cool in your coolers and lunch bags.
Make DIY ice packs. You can make great little ice packs by soaking new and unused sponges in water and then placing in the freezer. Wrap them up in a sandwich bag to keep them more sanitary for reuse. They don’t last quite as long, but are still pretty effective. A bonus is that you can use them as ice packs to soothe those boo-boos that inevitably pop up. Just change the bag after use. I always had these in my classroom freezer for the kids.
Keep cold foods safe! You want to keep your cold foods safe and avoid contamination. Keep them at 40 degrees F to keep the bacteria at bay. Once your food is exposed to a higher temperature, it is only safe to consume for two more hours. If it’s a really hot day, like 90 or above, you only have about an hour. But why push it?
Maximize your cool food flavor. These warmer days are the perfect time to enjoy cooler foods, like those potato salads, pasta salads, and cole slaw. If you make them a day or two in advance, it really gives the flavors a chance to blend together and taste so much better.
Keep it dry. I know a lot of people hate the word “moist.” Even worse is food that is not supposed to be moist, but ends up so because they are put together too soon. The best example is a sandwich. When you put that lettuce and those veggies on bread or near chips and crackers too soon, that moisture will transfer and you’re left with a bunch of soggy grossness. Keep your veggies and condiments separate until you’re ready to eat!
Outdoor Party Tips: Be a Grilling Master
Know the difference between direct heat and indirect heat. Direct heat is when the heat source is directly underneath the food that you are cooking. It makes foods cook much faster. Indirect heat is off to the side and is meant for slower cooking.
When do you use direct heat? This is the best technique for cooking foods like burgers, veggies, and fruits, foods that are smaller and faster cooking. These are foods that will not overcook on the outside before getting done on the inside.
When do you use indirect heat? This is the best technique for foods that require a longer cooking time to ensure they are cooked all the way through. Think of your larger food items, such as roasts or whole chickens. It also works well to finish cooking items you seared over direct heat.
Size does matter. When getting your burgers ready for the grill, you want to make them the ultimate size, which is about 3/4 of an inch. If you go larger, you’re more likely to overcook the outside before the inside is done. If you go smaller, they are more likely to cook too fast or even fall apart on the grill.
Bring the flavor. A plain burger honestly doesn’t have a lot of flavor to it. Sure, you can dress it up with all kinds of toppings. But adding in basic seasonings, such as salt and pepper, or getting more adventurous with herbs like fresh rosemary or Worcestershire sauce can make a big difference, too. My favorite is to add in garlic and/or onions.
Keep the meat moist. Ooh, there’s everyone’s favorite word again. There’s nothing worse than a dried out burger, but you can easily prevent this. You want to use meat that has a higher fat content that will keep the meat juicy while it burns off, such as regular ground beef instead of ground sirloin, ground round, or ground chuck. The aforementioned Worcestershire sauce and minced onions also will provide moisture while you’re cooking and would help out those leaner meats. I’ve also wrapped my ground beef around ice cubes. As the ice melts, it cooks from the inside and provides more moisture.
Temperature is key to safety. It’s best to cook your burger over direct, high heat for about 8 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the burger and what temperature you’re aiming for. Follow the USDA recommendations for internal cooking temperatures of meat. Ground beef is 160 degrees F, but your turkey burger needs to be 165 degrees F. And remember that to keep your cooked foods safe, they need to stay at 140 degrees F to prevent that harmful bacteria growth. Refrigerate them within 2 hours of dropping below that temperature, sooner if it is a hot day.
Be cheesy! I do love to have some cheese on my burgers. Sometimes I have tossed in a bit of shredded cheese to the ground beef mixture to have it melted in. If you’re going to add softer cheese slices on top of your burger, put the slices on top about a minute before the burgers are finished cooking. If you’re choosing to use a harder and chunkier cheese, like blue cheese, switch over to indirect heat a couple of minutes before the burgers are done. Then add the cheese and close the lid for those two to three minutes.
Use foil packets. Layer your food on a piece of aluminum foil that is large enough to fold over all of the ingredients. Seal the edges tight enough that no steam can escape, but also leave space for expansion while it’s cooking. Fish cooks best in a foil packet on the grill, because otherwise it could fall apart while cooking. You can even put frozen fish into a foil packet and leave it on the grill a couple of minutes longer.
Want more grilling tips? Get the best information from the grilling masters with Weber’s Way to Grill: The Step-by-Step Guide to Expert Grilling by Jamie Purviance.
Outdoor Party Tips: Keep It Simple
Less is more. You’ll want to keep your menu simple. It will give you more time to relax and to spend time with your guests. At an annual party I go to every year, my friend provides non-alcoholic beverages with maybe a beer option. She encourages people to BYOB. And then she also provides the meat and has everyone else bring sides dishes and desserts to pass. To make it a bit more even, she divides up the request on the invites she sends out. Keep some to-go containers on hand to send off the leftovers instead of being stuck with a bunch of random items.
And then her brother-in-law, who is a grill master, does the bulk of the grilling because he loves it. I also often have someone else do the grilling at my house because it is not my favorite thing to do in large quantities. Plus it frees us up to mingle with our guests and have fun.
Simple decorations make a bold statement. Add vibrant color with simple flower pots placed on your deck or patio. Those that have a few large blooms will create quite an impact. If you’re able to take cuttings of flowers from your yard to put into a vase, that will tie together your party area with the rest of your yard. Those make great centerpieces.
The most important thing is to have fun at your outdoor gathering. Enjoy the company of your friends and family and breathe in all of that wonderful fresh air before we’re all cooped up again. Have fun and stay safe!
What are some of your tips for a successful outdoor party? Share them in the comments.