Not making side dishes ahead of time. To the extent possible, you should choose side dishes that you can make a day or two ahead and that improve with time and refrigeration. (Think potato salad, baked beans, and slaws.) Guacamole, fruit salad, green salad, and anything else that’s prone to wilting or discoloring are not good choices.
Refrigerating tomatoes. Whether in a salad or on burgers or sandwiches, tomatoes make regular appearances on Labor Day. (As well they should, since early September is peak tomato season.) But many cooks make the dire error of refrigerating their tomatoes before using them in an effort to lengthen their shelf life. Refrigeration makes tomatoes grainy, mealy, and nearly inedible and is always the wrong decision.
Not giving the coals enough time to get hot. People who don’t grill often—i.e., most of us—tend to underestimate the time coal needs to get hot. After you light your coal, walk away and do something else: cut up some vegetables or form your burger patties. Charcoal needs about 20 minutes to get going. (This isn’t as much of an issue if you’re using a gas grill, which needs only about 10 minutes to get good and hot.)
Moving food around too much on the grill. Fear of scorching food leads many people to micromanage their burgers, chicken, fish, and veggies, turning and moving the pieces almost constantly. This will prevent food from searing and developing those attractive grill marks. Let your food sit on the grates undisturbed for a few minutes at a time instead of prodding it every 15 seconds.
Undercooking grilled vegetables. Grilled vegetables can be smoky, tender, and fantastic—but not if you undercook them. Few things are worse than rock-hard zucchini and eggplant slices, so cook them over moderate (not high) heat until they’re easy to pierce with a fork—about 10 minutes, usually.
Not using indirect grilling for chicken. Marinated chicken is a favorite for grilling—but improperly grilled bone-in poultry is charred on the outside while still raw on the inside. To make sure chicken gets fully cooked, use indirect grilling: light a fire on only one side of the grill, and cook your chicken on the other side with the grill’s lid down. When it’s cooked through, you can give it a few minutes directly over the flame to brown the surface.
Using store-bought ground beef for hamburgers. Packaged ground beef can contain meat from multiple cows—not to mention the dreaded pink slime. Buy your own high-quality chuck or sirloin and grind it yourself in a food processor—it’ll taste better, and you won’t have to cook it till it’s well done to feel like it’s safe to eat.
Choosing underripe watermelon. You can’t know till you cut into it whether the inside of watermelon will be mealy and sour or juicy and sweet—but you can maximize your chances of getting a good one by looking for a smooth, dark green melon with yellow patch on one side. (The patch indicates where it sat on the ground while ripening on the vine.) Serve watermelon plain—or, better yet, with feta.
Using store-bought pie crust. There’s nothing like a fruit pie to mark the end of summer—but taking the unneeded, expensive shortcut of using refrigerated pie crust is no way to celebrate a holiday that celebrates American industriousness. Making pie crust from scratch takes about 5 minutes, requires ingredients you probably already have on hand, and is in no way difficult—so just do it.
Being too ambitious. Labor Day is not the occasion for dozens of elegant, lavish dishes. A grilled main, a couple of sides, and a dessert should do it. Cooking for a crowd? Just double or triple your recipes. If you’re stressing out about your menu, you’re missing the point.
Any tips you'd like to add? Leave a comment and tell us what you've learned from your own forays into grilling. And tune into today's show for our interview with Slate's L.V. Anderson.