When I think of fall, I think of college football and 90,000 of my closest friends cheering for the Gators in a sea of orange and blue. But what comes before kick-off is often the most fun! Tailgating and all of its glory is big business in Gainesville. Whether fans have game tickets or not, there are tailgate parties all over town where they enjoy delectable delights from tables and tailgates decked out in Gator memorabilia.
There are traditional foods you come to expect when tailgating, although it can sometimes be tricky to prepare them ahead of time or keep them fresh when you want to eat. I talked with the esteemed Chef Briton Dumas from Embers Bar and Grill about his tips for making your tailgate a success.
First, determine your menu and what type of cooking you want to do. What does your location and time allow? Most tailgating typically involves grilling meats of some description. Preparing the meat prior to cooking it is key to ensuring a great taste. Be sure to take your meat out of the refrigerator 30 minutes prior to cooking in order to bring it to room temperature.
If you want to use a marinade, Dumas recommends staying away from ones containing sugar, honey or sweet bases. Go with a salt, water and vinegar brine instead. Also, be sure to dry the meat off before putting it on the grill to avoid flare-ups. Not preheating your grill to avoid the meat sticking to the grates is the number one mistake people make. You can’t rush it, Dumas says.
With any type of grill, the most important thing to remember not only for taste preference, but also for food safety, is temperature. Dumas says a digital meat thermometer is an absolute must, for cooking and for keeping the food heated if it is sitting out at a tailgate. Burgers, for example, need to be served at internal temperature of 165 degrees. They can be kept out, but once they have been at a temperature of 140 degrees for more than four hours, they should be thrown away.
Something most people don’t realize is that meat is still cooking once it has been taken off the flame. To avoid overcooking, you should cook your meat to about 10-15 degrees below your target temperature. Then allow it to rest for 2-5 minutes to cook through and retake the temperature to ensure it is at the ideal point. Consult a meat temperature chart for best results. Do not attempt to take the meat’s temperature while it is still on the grill, Dumas warns; the risk of getting burned as well as an inaccurate result is high. Instead, use a spatula to remove from the grill and put it on a plate before placing the thermometer into the meat for a reading. You can place the meat back on the flame for about 30 seconds prior to serving if the meat has cooled too much.
Not preheating your grill to avoid the meat sticking to the grates is the number one mistake people make.
If you have an early game time or cannot devote the time on game day to cook it through, you aren’t totally out of luck. Burgers can be cooked the day before and served in a warm beef stock or wrapped in foil and kept warm in a chafing dish. You can also precook the meat and just flash it on location. Remember, the more tender cuts of meat should be cooked quicker at a higher temperature and tougher meats will taste best if slow-cooked over a lower heat. Dumas admits his favorite pre-game meal is ribs, dry rubbed with his secret ingredient of smoked paprika and slow-cooked over wood for about 2 ½ hours.
Chef Dumas’ Game Day Grilling Tips
If you are grilling meat it is best to do this the day of for best results and proper temperature. Taste preference will play into what type of grill you use. His preference is cooking on a wood grill like he uses in the restaurant, but this does take a lot of time and preparation to do on location. Its unique flavor is achieved from its high heat cooking. Preparation of the wood for this takes about 45 minutes to achieve, much like a campfire. It is necessary to get the white-hot grill required, so you don’t get a smoky flavor in your meat while still achieving that sought after char.
A gas grill is the easiest way to go with the least amount of prep time. This will work if you are cooking in your backyard or if you need to bring the grill with you to your tailgate spot (just don’t forget the gas tank and take proper precautions while transporting it). When cooking with gas, preheating on high for five minutes should suffice. If gas flavor is an issue for you, Dumas recommends smoker boxes that can be purchased at a home improvement or hardware store. These allow the use of soaked wood chips with your gas grill that will give food that wood flavor you are seeking.
The last grilling option is a charcoal grill. The most important thing to remember with charcoal is that you must allow time for the coals to get hot and burn down before placing your meat on the grill. The coals should burn down for 15-30 minutes and be white-hot, not black, before cooking. Also, don’t scatter the coals all over, it will cause flare-ups. Instead keep them in a mound in the middle and sear the meat first over the hot spot, then move it off to the side to finish the cooking process.