To us, barbecue pretty much means summertime. Always has, always will. But these days, manning the grill looks a lot different than it did in our dads’ heyday. For one thing, a lot of us are looking for barbecue that goes beyond the old burgers-and-dogs standards. And another thing? Broadening the kinds of food you cook over an open flame can not just be healthier, it can be more delicious if you hit up the produce section during your pre-cookout grocery run. “Barbecue isn’t exclusive to meat,” says Terry A. Sargent, the chef/owner of Grass VBQ Joint in Atlanta, Southern Living‘s Chef of the Year 2021, and the author of Vegan Barbecue. “You can enjoy that same great barbecue smoky flavor with plant-based ingredients.” Below, a guide to upping your BBQ game with three of his straight-from-the-smoker secrets.
Spice things up
You could plop your food on the grill without seasoning, but… why, when a little prep work can take you from “pretty good” to best barbecue ever? “Spices, rubs, marinades, etc, are all your friends,” Sargent says. “Grilling or not, seasoning and/or marinating your food is key. Just a sprinkle of salt can change the dynamic of a dish.”
Temperature control matters for whatever you’re cooking, but it’s especially important for vegetables. Sargent and his team smoke their food at a 120-degree temperature that prevents overcooking and creates a seriously rich flavor. “At the end of the day, I want that smoky flavor to come through—not necessarily the char or toasted elements,” he says. “For instance, the natural sugars in fruit combined with the smoke flavor from a cherry wood can provide something amazing. Or the hickory, when it’s married with the robust flavor of an heirloom tomato on the grill, can make for a yummy gazpacho.”
Think beyond zucchini
Even if you eat meat, someone at the party might not—and most people like vegetables. Skip the sad ’90s gardenburger and silken tofu (the latter will soak up too much smoke and taste like a fireplace, Sargent says). Instead, reach for fresh produce that’ll cook up with flavor. Standbys like summer squash and tomatoes work great for shish kebobs, but Sargent encourages people to get a little more daring. Summer fruits, for instance, grill up nicely—especially those with pits, he says. (Don’t miss the smoked peaches with rum whip recipe in his book.) Watermelon and citrus can hold up under heat, too. Experiment. Live a little. And save a place for us at the cookout.