Tips for the Ultimate Labor Day Barbecue

Learn how to cook the perfect hamburger or steak this holiday weekend.

June 29, 2010, 5:30 PM

Sept. 2, 2010— -- Labor Day is a time to honor our country's workers, head to the beach and soak in the last days of summer. It's also a time to fire up the grill, heat up some meat (or vegetables for those vegetarians out there) and spend some time with friends, family and neighbors.

So to help you create a barbecue that will be the talk of the block and remembered for years, we reached out to chef Scott Popovic, who spent 13 years at various restaurants and now works for Certified Angus Beef promoting their brand of meat.

Whether it be burgers or steaks that you are grilling up this holiday weekend, a few simple tips can bring out the flavor and wow your guests.

"As I was growing up, we had steaks and burgers a lot on the grill," Popovic said. So it's fitting that today he's paid to give advice on grilling. "It's really that nostalgia. It really takes me back to my family."

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Best Labor Day Hamburgers

When cooking burgers for the holiday, the first major decision point starts at the supermarket. Picking the right type of ground beef can make or break your barbecue. And the most expensive is not necessarily the best when it comes to ground beef, Popovic said.

The key to ground beef is the fat-to-leanness ratio.

With a good steak, you want to see marbling, those white specs of intra-muscular fat between the red meat. With ground beef, you can't see that fat, but ensuring the right mix is important.

"As you cook that steak or burger, the fat actually melts away and keeps the meat juicy and favorable," Popovic said.

Ground sirloin, which is one of the most expensive cuts, might sound like a great idea for your burger. But at nearly 90 percent lean, Popovic said, you will be losing out on flavor. On the flip side, be aware of fatty chuck meat. If you get something that's only 70 percent lean, there is too much fat and it tends to create flames in the grill.

"They look really cool but they impart a gassy flavor to the food," Popovic said.

So, just like Goldilocks, the perfect mix is right in the middle. Popovic recommends an 80-percent lean ground chuck (about $1.49 to $3.49 per pound).

Best Labor Day Burgers

Now that you have selected a meat type and a fattiness, it is time to select the quality of the beef. The United States Department of Agriculture grades various meats for a variety of standards, including how much marbling there is.

Prime is the best grade given by the USDA but is hard for most consumers to find. Less than 3 percent of beef qualifies as USDA prime. It is most often found in high-end steakhouses touting exclusive, high-quality beef. For burgers, there is no need to splurge on prime, if you could even find it.

Next up is choice, which is typically the highest grade you are going to find in your grocery store.

Select has limited marbling and is often less tender than choice and prime grades. You are most likely to find this at your local store, unless you seek out the higher choice.

Now, if that wasn't confusing enough, there are other certifications you can find on the meat. The most common is Certified Angus Beef.

Angus is a breed of cow and 30,000 farmers and ranchers have teamed up to give their cows a brand: Certified Angus Beef. The USDA adds 10 more specifications to its review of meat to see if it meets the Certified Angus standards. Those include tenderness, appealing appearance and uniform and consistent size.

Popovic said that by purchasing meat certified by his association customers know they are getting a consistent, high-quality product.

When shopping, you should buy meat and poultry last, right before checkout, according to the USDA. Separate raw meat and poultry from other food in your shopping cart. To guard against cross-contamination -- which can happen when raw meat or poultry juices drip on other food -- put packages of raw meat and poultry into plastic bags.

Make the grocery store the last stop before heading home so that the perishable food can be taken quickly to your refrigerator.

Completely thaw meat and poultry before grilling so it cooks more evenly, the USDA says. Use the refrigerator for slow, safe thawing or thaw sealed packages in cold water. You can use the microwave to defrost food only if it will be placed immediately on the grill, but you might lose out on taste that way.

Labor Day Grilling Tips

All right, enough preparation. Now it's time to grill.

With burgers, you don't want to mess around. Cook your meat thoroughly.

"I'm all about eating a rare steak or a steak tartar," Popovic said. But not for burgers. "It's a food safety issue. You want to be safe rather than sorry."

The best way to tell when your food is done is to pick up an instant-read thermometer (they cost anywhere from $2 to $20). When the burger reaches 160 degrees, it's done.

"What chefs do is look at the juices as it is cooking. When they start to come out clear, that's an indication that it's medium well, or well done," Popovic said.

Try not to move the burgers around too often. Be patient. It's tempting to want to hurry them along, but resist the urge to poke them or smash them down -- that will allow the juices to escape.

Finally, don't be afraid to experiment with your burger. Consider a twist on the American classic. Try one of these combinations:

Best Labor Day Steaks

Hamburgers might be great, but not for everybody. For those who want a really exceptional barbecue, pick up some juicy steaks.

Again here, look at the grading of meat. Prime is going to be virtually impossible to find. Popovic warns not to go below choice.

"You always want to start with the best product," he said. "If you downgrade, you are not going to have an enjoyable eating experience."

With any lesser-quality meat, you are going to have to marinate it and pierce the meat to tenderize it. Those holes will also cause the beef to lose its juice and flavor.

"Even if you are on a budget, there are high-quality products out there," Popovic said, noting that a flat-iron steak offers great taste at a good price.

The type of steak you pick "really depends on your personal flavor" he said. A ribeye, for instance, is a "manly, manly steak." A filet mignon or tenderloin is softer.

"Look at the labeling and talk to your butchers and managers," Popovic advises.

Ribeyes go for about $12.99 to $13.99 a pound, New York strip steaks about $11.99 a pound and filet mignon for $17.99 a pound.

Now when you get to the grill, heat it up really hot, throw the steak on and just season with salt and pepper. That highlights the flavor of the steak. With a good cut of meat, nothing else is needed. And Popovic said to season from high above so the spices will evenly disperse.

Sear the steak so its gets a nice hard crust, but the inside stays soft and chewy.

"A lot of times you see a lot of people move around a steak a lot," Popovic said. "The juices fall off, into the flames and you're losing all that flavor."

Don't use a fork because it pierces the meat and forces out the juices. Use tongs.

Again take out that instant-read thermometer: 130 to 140 degrees will be really rare, 145 for medium rare and well done is 160 and above.

Let the steak rest after it comes off the grill. That redistributes all the juices and will actually cook the meat for another 5 degrees.

Finally, eat and enjoy.

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