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Biggest BBQ Mistakes to Avoid This Labor Day

Rachel Tepper Paley
August 26, 2014

Photo credit: Eising Studio/StockFood

You’ve been looking forward to Labor Day for weeks, and when you’re hunkered down by the grill, you don’t want to screw up the barbecued short ribs, brisket, or pork shoulder. 

Kat Kinsman, managing editor of CNN’s food-centric blog Eatocracy, first got serious about cooking with fire in the late 1990s. Since then she has amassed a collection of devices she uses to grill, char, and smoke all manner of things in her Brooklyn, New York backyard. Nowadays, she is even a BBQ lecturer.

Kinsman has learned a few tricks along the way:

Don’t be afraid to cook low and slow. "I had to really get on my temperature game—that is really the key to everything," Kinsman said. Yes, one needs to be careful to avoiding dipping into the "danger zone,” the temperature range between 40 and 140 degrees that doesn’t effectively kill harmful bacteria. But cooking meat at relatively cool temperatures of at least 140 degrees over a long period of time tends to yield the most mouth-watering results.

Give meat enough time, and then some. Even meat that appears delicious and falling-apart can sometimes benefit from more time over the flames. ”It gets to this beautiful slumping stage where some reaction goes on in the meat,” Kinsman mused. And that means being patient. “You’ve got to go with it and trust it.”

Start early. When Kinsman was still a grilling novice, she often “wouldn’t start early enough, and everyone would be sitting there starving at 10 P.M.” That’s a major buzzkill for any grill gathering. So start in the wee hours if need be. 

Remember that safety comes first. No one has ever gotten sick on Kinsman’s watch, and she credits her strict adherence to safety rules. "It’s good that my sink and my grill are pretty close—I wash tongs between uses. I don’t reuse platters that have held raw meat," she said. "I am so diligent about avoiding cross-contamination."

Know your butcher. “Butchers like to be talked to!” Kinsman exclaimed. “They’re not just cutters-up-of-pork-chops—the good ones are really skilled food artists, and they can guide you toward absolute maximum deliciousness.” Speaking of which…

Ask for fatty cuts. Once the butcher is your buddy, request more marbled cuts of meat. “I did a brisket earlier this summer, and it was good but it didn’t have enough fat cap to it,” Kinsman said wistfully. “The flavor was totally there, but it was just a little bit dry.” If you’re not keen on the texture of fat, don’t worry—much of it melts off during the cooking process, and unwanted excess fat can always be trimmed before serving.

Make sure your equipment is up to snuff. Kinsman learned a particularly painful lesson a few years back when she elected to use a handheld meat thermometer when the built-in thermometer in her grill broke. “In a hilarious comedy of errors, it flipped up through the air and landed down my dress. I still have this little C-shaped burn mark from it,” she recalled. “I was trying to ‘cowboy it’ with my equipment, and I realized, no, you have to be fairly meticulous with your equipment and not just try to rig something up.”

Lesson learned! But the incident hardly scared her off grilling. ”If you’re grilling, it’s a party! Enjoy that and don’t get hung up in the minutiae of it.”