Fourth of July Checklist

With the anticipation of fireworks, parades and red-white-and-blue jello desserts, we can get sidetracked while planning a holiday cookout, fiesta, barbecue -- whatever you may call it. Details are tough when pulling off a celebration of the outdoor variety, to boot.

Below is a list of 10 things to remember amid all the hubbub. And please, share your tips in the comments area below.

1. It's hot out there.

The forecast is calling for temperatures in the mid 90s. That means the "keep-cold-food-cold and hot-things-hot" rule is of particular importance. The last thing you want to interrupt your fireworks show is a visit to the emergency room for food poisoning.

Simply put, if you're at home, keep meat in the fridge until ready to use and keep prepared food indoors (preferably with the A/C on), even when it's time to serve up. Arrange your spread buffet-style on the kitchen table instead. If you're feasting at the park, beach or other outdoor venue, keep food stored in a cooler, nice and chilly with lots of ice.

For details, consult the food safety guidelines issued by the USDA.

2. A grill works best when it's clean, hot and lubed.

Clean: Use a stick, wire brush or even an old t-shirt - anything to clean that built-up carbon and food residue on the grill grate so that you don't taste the old with the new. Stuck-on bits in this case do NOT enhance a dish and instead contribute to flare-ups and make turning food more difficult.

Hot: Start your fire about 30 minutes before cooking, allowing coals to take on a gray ash coating. That means the grill is good and hot. Consider moving coals around to distribute heat or build two different-sized piles of coals -- one high heat, one medium-low - to allow for more flexibility while grilling.

Lubed: Coat the grate with oil spray or brushed-on oil to help minimize sticking. Do this AWAY from an open fire.

Eco-consideration: Charcoal grillers, a chimney starter, which costs about $15, eliminates the need for lighter fluid, which is made from petroleum distillates and has been found to be a contributing factor in ground-level ozone pollution. State agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommend the chimney as an easy way to do your eco-part.

3. Good meat is cooked meat.
Cook meat to a safe temperature, and buy an instant read thermometer to avoid the guesswork. This is no time to practice your psychic powers; food safety is too important.

Fish is the easiest to gauge without a thermometer, as the flesh changes in appearance, from translucent to opaque, when it's fully cooked. This translates to about 130 degrees.

Pork, beef and lamb can be cooked to varying degrees, depending on preference. Keep in mind the following temperature checkpoints: Medium rare is 125 or so; medium is 135ish and well-done is 160 degrees.

Chicken, on the other hand, must be cooked thoroughly, to a ballpark of 160-165 degrees.

For meat and poultry, let rest a few minutes on a work surface (preferably indoors) before slicing and serving.

4. Be wise when you accessorize.

Use tongs rather than a fork to turn. Hold back the urge to stab your meat, allowing juices to run out, and instead, mindfully tong-grab that meat by the corner and turn on other side. You'll thank me later.

Wooden skewers and planks: Soak about 1 hour in advance to avoid a bonfire.

Grill baskets and woks: Oil up to help minimize sticking.

5. Vegetarians celebrate Fourth of July, too.

Remember that we live in a diverse society and that diversity applies to our dietary preferences and habits. Chances are you've got at least one vegetarian attending your feast, which requires menu accommodations that go beyond a bag of chips and a hamburger bun.

Coordinate with your guests and allow them to bring something while you prepare a dish that is veg-friendly as well. Have a separate grill on hand for veggie stuff or schedule the vegetarian grilling before the brontosaurus burgers. Please play nice!

6. Do the catering math.

Before heading out to the store, tally up the number of expected guests to help with your grocery list. My rule of thumb for entertaining is 4-6 ounces per person for meat (main dish) and non-lettuce side dishes (mixed greens are more difficult to gauge). For example: 10 people means 60 ounces of chicken, which translates into just under four pounds. At the store, have a look at what four pounds looks like and make a decision accordingly.
Be realistic; if you've got a few rugby players coming over for chow, you probably need to increase amounts by a few ounces per person.

7. Lighten up, will ya?
The world will not end if you don't use mayonnaise in every side dish at your Fourth feast.
Your heart will thank you for giving it a cholesterol break, for starters.
Potato salad actually tastes good without the white goop, by the way, and vinegar slaw is a lovely way to cut against the fat of the meat. Cucumbers are delightfully cool in a puddle of rice wine, chili flakes, sesame oil and soy sauce.

And finally, there's nothing more repulsive than the smell of mayo baking in the sun.

8. Moderation is everything.
In the spirit of the holiday, we tend to get excited and perhaps overly enthusiastic in the food and drink department. I'm all for living in the moment, but do consider how too much chow can make one feel like a beached whale the next day, when it's time to return to work. But who knows, maybe you enjoy popping antacids.

9. Which leads me to alcohol.
Not everyone drinks, and that doesn't just mean your six-year-old niece. As host, you can help curtail alcoholic intake by being smart in the amounts you offer and the way you tend bar.
A bottle of wine, for example, yields about four glasses.
The average mixed drink contains about 2 ounces (1/4 cup) of booze.
Have plenty of unspiked stuff available - be it soda and mixers, iced tea or lemonade.

10. Which leads me to my final point: Inevitably, someone at your Fourth bash will get toe-up drunk.
Identify a designated driver early on, and if that's not a possibility, call a cab. Whatever it takes to keep that person from getting behind the wheel, do it!

Here's to a delicious and safe Fourth of July!

By Kim ODonnel |  July 3, 2006; 10:45 AM ET Backyard Cooking , Entertaining
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On the final note: Don't worry about cab costs. Call SoberRide at 1-800-200-TAXI (8294). It will run from 4pm - 4am and will cover cab fares up to $50.

It's safe, free and there is no shame in using it. So USE IT!


Posted by: Greg | July 3, 2006 11:51 AM

Also add chilled sliced fruit to your platters! Watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, and/or pineapple will be cold, juicy and sweet; the perfect finish to the perfect 7/4 party!

Posted by: Jennifer K. | July 3, 2006 2:06 PM

"And finally, there's nothing more repulsive than the smell of mayo baking in the sun."

Kim, you made me blow diet coke into my nose!!! (And now my nose hurts ...)

Posted by: pat | July 3, 2006 5:00 PM

These are all great reminders! Now if only the author could be there at my 4th of July party in Seattle to dispense more of her good ideas but the tips from the blog will have to do. =)
Happy 4th to all.

Posted by: leslie | July 4, 2006 11:24 AM

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