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Get the most bang for your buck during this year’s July 4 cookout

As social distancing restrictions are lifted, people are gearing up for Independence Day cookouts and barbeques and, as always, looking for bargains. 

If you’re sticking to a budget this July 4, Stacy Zuelly, officially an assistant professor of animal sciences but unofficially known as the resident grill master, offered some tips for stretching your dollar.  

If you’re looking to go the traditional route and grill some meat products, Zuelly said lower quality meats at a lower cost can do well on the grill when paired with the right marinade. 

“You can marinate meat to tenderize it a lot, if you know your marinades,” she added, which luckily, Zuelly does.  

There are three categories of marinades; dairy, acidic and tropical fruit. Dairy marinades, that commonly use buttermilk or yogurt, often have less flavor and don’t perform much tenderizing. Acidic marinades, with vinegar or citrus bases, help break down the meat and tenderize it. Meat can sit in an acidic marinade for no more than 12 hours. The best marinades, however, for tenderizing meats are those with tropical fruits, specifically pineapple, kiwi, papaya or figs. However, meat should only be in these marinades for 4 hours or less as over marinating can cause too much protein breakdown and result in a mushy texture. 

“In addition to offering a great taste and being somewhat acidic, these four fruits have a natural enzyme that really breaks down meat proteins,” Zuelly explained. “You know how your mouth sometimes feels sandblasted after eating pineapple or kiwi? That’s because of this enzyme.”  

Stacy Zuelly grills out on campus. Photo by Charles Jischke. Stacy Zuelly grills out on campus. Photo by Charles Jischke.

Additionally, when marinating it’s best to cut the meat up into chunks so the liquids have an opportunity to interact with more surface area. For this reason, grilling a lower quality meat for kebabs or a stir fry is ideal. When you add in veggies and starches, a little meat can go a long way, Zuelly said.  

While it’s traditional to throw burgers or hot dogs on the grill for an Independence Day celebration, Zuelly recommended getting creative. Bratwursts instead of hot dogs, for example, are a crowd pleaser, and there are many different types and flavors available. To ensure the meat is cooked and to add flavor, Zuelly said she likes to boil the sausages first in a beer and water mixture (around 50/50 with a dark beer) until they are almost cooked (the internal temperature should reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit) and then put them on the grill.  

“If you stick a raw brat on the grill you can often overcook the outside while waiting for the inside to get up to temperature,” she continued. “When you boil it first you cut down on time but enhance flavor and texture.”  

And don’t be afraid to try meat substitutes! There are many burgers out there that are vegan and vegetarian friendly, both those that imitate meat and those, like bean burgers, that don’t. At most events, Zuelly advised, there is usually someone avoiding meat for whatever reason, so it’s nice to offer an alternative.  

There are also some creative, budget-friendly options for making sides on the grill. Zuelly recommended throwing tropical fruit on the grill - pineapple and most stone fruits are ideal - which can make a delicious side dish or even dessert. A sharp flavor of fruit offers a perfect complement to a richer main course.  

Many grilled vegetables make a great addition to any meal. Bell peppers, onions and corn are traditional, but Zuelly also recommended tossing lettuce on the grill. It’s becoming more popular, she said, to make salads with a grilled green base for extra flavor.   

One investment anyone planning to grill out needs to make, Zuelly recommended, is to buy a meat thermometer. Even if you’re not grilling meat, many products will have recommendations for an optimal internal temperature.  

“The best thing you can do for your family and guests is use a meat thermometer when grilling out,” Zuelly said. “Nothing ruins a holiday like food poisoning.”  

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