Well, unless you’re willing to pay an arm and a drumstick for your Thanksgiving protein this year, you basically have three alternatives:
1. Buy your turkey now
If you and your family have your hearts set on turkey, then time is of the essence. Already, 2022 turkey prices in the US have nearly doubled over last year, and prices will likely go up even more as Thanksgiving gets closer and supplies dwindle.
2. Look at alternative meats
Maybe this is the year to skip the tom altogether and grace your Thanksgiving table with a totally different kind of meat. Let’s be honest: many of your guests would probably prefer a succulent braised chicken to a traditional turkey. Chicken is still relatively affordable and easier to prepare, especially if you decide to spare yourself the trouble and just buy a rotisserie chicken this year.
Other meats that have been hits at our past Thanksgiving tables include short ribs, ham, and pork roast. If you want to stay true to history, duck, goose, and fish were probably on that first Pilgrim Thanksgiving table. (Passenger pigeon was also on the fare, but orders for passenger pigeon are no longer being filled.) Fish is an especially great choice to replace Thanksgiving turkey. Fall is the perfect time of year to enjoy fresh trout because their meat is at its peak flavor as they fatten up for winter.
3. Go Vegetarian
Finally, there’s always the option of going vegetarian for your Thanksgiving protein…unless you’re afraid of starting a holiday riot.
Every year, around this time, our father makes his famous Pumpkin Chipotle Chicken Chili.
Even though Dad is officially retired, he can be seen here in the kitchen practically every day making lunches for the team, helping out in a crunch, or sharing the awesome culinary expertise he gained over decades of catering. His Pumpkin Chipotle Chicken Chili is a favorite with the team here at Culinary Crafts: seriously, it is sooo good! It’s like a spicy, warm, welcoming Thanksgiving hug.
One of the key ingredients in Pumpkin Chipotle Chicken Chili—and in a lot of the other delicious, picante dishes Dad makes—is the combination of seasonings we refer to simply as “Ron’s Spice.” When you mix up a batch of the spice (see recipe below), we recommend making plenty of extra to keep on hand. It’s perfect for kicking up the flavor profile of fish, steak, chicken…basically any protein. The fire of the cayenne is balanced beautifully by the other sweet and savory spices. You’ll be amazed how many recipes will benefit from a little of Ron’s Spice.
Pumpkin Chipotle Chicken Chili
(Makes two gallons)
1 cup Ron’s Spice Blend (see directions below)
4 lb chicken tenders
1 large purple onion, diced
4 oz butter
2 chipotles, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 small can tomato paste
2 (28 oz) cans petite diced tomatoes
4 (15 oz) cans pumpkin
4 (15 oz) cans black beans, drained
4 cups chicken stock
4 cups sour cream
Dry brine the chicken tenders by rubbing them in ½ cup of Ron’s Spice and letting them rest for 1-2 hours.
In a large pot, sauté the chicken tenders over medium-high heat. Once browned, remove chicken from pot and dice into bite-size pieces.
Deglaze the pot with a few Tbsp of water or white wine. Add butter and onion to soak up all the flavor from the browned remains (the “fond”) left over in the pot. Add another ½ cup of Ron’s Spice and the diced chipotles. Let it all bloom together until chipotles are tender.
Add garlic and let it brown for 60 seconds. Add tomato paste and stir constantly for 2 minutes.
Add diced tomatoes, pumpkin, black beans, chicken stock, and browned chicken. Bring to simmer for 30 minutes, then remove from heat. Add 4 cups sour cream.
Ron’s Spice Blend
(Makes 2.5 cups)
8 Tbsp salt (kosher or any other kind without iodine or other chemical additives)
4 Tbsp white pepper
4 Tbsp black pepper
4 Tbsp brown sugar
4 Tbsp oregano
4 Tbsp chili powder
4 Tbsp smoked paprika
4 Tbsp garlic powder
4 Tbsp onion powder
1 Tbsp cayenne
Pro Tips: Any kind of salt will work so long as it has no iodine or other added chemicals. Also, feel free to kick up the heat level with as much cayenne as you and your guests can handle!
Peanut butter and jelly (or jam) sandwiches are icons of American childhood. In fact, the average American kid eats more than 1,500 PBJs before graduating high school and will consume almost 3,000 over their lifetime. The PBJ is a perennial favorite in school lunches and after-school snacks because it's delicious, quick, simple, and cheap to make. But it can be so much better with homemade brioche bread!
If you were like most kids, the sandwiches you grew up on were made with highly-processed, store-bought bread that was...unremarkable. Let’s be honest; the bread was just there to help get the jelly and the peanut butter into our mouths.
Well, it’s time for the PBJ to get an upgrade. Our Brioche Bread PBJ uses a rich, buttery bread that makes the perfect complement to the sweet and nutty goodness inside. And all of it—the bread, jam, and peanut butter—can be made at home fresh from scratch.
The star of this next-level PBJ sandwich is the brioche bread.
Brioche is made with eggs and butter, which puts it in the family of breads called viennoisseries, along with baguettes, croissants, Danish pastries, and sweet rolls. It’s so delicious that it’s practically a dessert sandwich! (In fact, this brioche dough can also be used to make mouth-watering doughnuts.)
A word of warning: before you tackle brioche, we strongly recommend using a stand mixer. Brioche dough needs to be kneaded a lot. The butter and egg yolk fat that give brioche its rich flavor also interfere with the ability of yeast to make the dough rise, so the dough is too sticky and thick to be kneaded by hand unless you’re looking for a major workout! Don’t even try using an electric hand mixer or you’ll risk burning out the motor.
Ingredients for Brioche (makes 1 loaf)
6 oz. water
1.2 oz. milk
0.5 Tbsp yeast
0.9 oz sugar
1 large egg
10 oz. bread flour
1 oz. all-purpose flour
0.75 tsp salt
1 oz. melted butter
Instructions for Brioche:
Add flours, sugar, yeast, and salt to a mixing bowl with a paddle attachment.
In a separate container, mix the milk, butter, and water. Stir and add the eggs. Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients in the bowl.
Mix on first speed until combined, then continue mixing on 2nd speed for 20 more minutes or until the dough clings to the paddle and the sides of the bowl are clean. Check the consistency of the dough. It should still feel a little bit tacky and have a smooth, glossy surface. You may have to add a little extra bread flour if the dough is too soft.
Flour your hands, then place the dough on a lightly floured flat surface. Shape the dough into a single loaf or, if you want to make bun-style sandwiches, divide the dough into six equal parts, then roll each portion into a ball. If you want to give your brioche loaf a weave or other decorative design, place your covered dough in the fridge and let it chill until it can be handled easily. Then you can shape in into whatever beautiful design strikes your fancy.
Place the dough into a greased loaf pan or, if you want roll-style sandwiches, divide it into six even dough balls and arrange them on a greased cookie sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place as the yeast does its magic! In 1-3 hours, the dough should at least double in size.
To give your brioche a gorgeous golden sheen, beat one egg and brush the egg wash lightly over the top of your dough.
Bake at 350 F for 10 minutes. Rotate the pan and continue baking for another 8-10 minutes or until golden brown and firm.
The jams we make take advantage of the natural sweetness of fresh fruits that are in season. Practically any berry or fruit will do, so feel free to experiment!
Ingredients for Jam (makes 2-3 cups)
8 cups fresh fruit—cleaned, seeded, and peeled
2 cups granulated sugar (Depending on how fresh and sweet your fruit is, you’ll want to use between 1/4 and 2/3 cup of sugar for each pound of fruit.)
1 Tbsp lemon juice (Fresh lemons vary in acidity, so it’s best to use bottled lemon juice.)
You can add pectin, but fruits already contain pectin naturally and will gel on their own. Add pectin if you like your jam to be thicker. (But if you add pectin, use a higher temperature to cook your jam so that the pectin will activate.)
Instructions for Jam
Place fruit, sugar, and lemon juice into a large pan. Heat on medium low, stirring to prevent scalding.
Continue to reduce jam until desired consistency is reached. At the right consistency, foam will stop forming on the surface of the jam. The best way to make sure your jam is done cooking is the frozen plate test.
Cool before use. Unused jam can be placed in labeled containers and stored in freezer or fridge. If you use glass jars, make sure the jars are heated or the jam is cooled before it’s poured into the jars.
Pro Tips: You can speed up the cooking process by using high heat, but you’ll need to stir constantly. Mashing the fruit in advance will also cut down the cooking time which also preserves more fresh flavor.
For peach jam, add 2 tsp cinnamon. For apple butter, use apple juice and add 1Tbsp cinnamon, 2 tsp ginger, and 2 tsp cloves, then simmer and puree.
You probably won’t save any money making your own peanut butter versus buying it at that store, but if you’ve come this far making homemade PBJs, don’t you want to go all the way?
Besides, our peanut butter is simple and delicious. A word of caution though: we recommend using a food processor, not a blender. Grinding peanuts into butter will heat up a machine’s motor, and most blenders aren’t up to the job.
Ingredients for Peanut Butter (makes 2-3 cups)
2-3 cups dry roasted peanuts (Don’t use more than 2 cups of peanuts unless your food processor is 7-cups or bigger)
Instructions for Peanut Butter
Make sure that peanuts are roasted and their skins are completely removed. Also remove the hearts of the peanuts, those tiny nubs between the two halves of the nut. They have a slightly bitter taste.
If you want your peanut butter to be chunky, place 1/3 cup of peanuts in food processor and pulse into small pieces. Set peanut pieces aside.
Place remaining peanuts into processor and run for 1 minutes. Do not add water. Scrape down the sides with a rubber spatula. Repeat this process until you reach the desired consistency.
Pay attention to your food processor’s motor. Don’t let it overheat! Give it a break as often as needed to let it cool down.
You’ll see your peanuts turn into a powder, then a dough, and then a paste. Don’t worry. Roasted peanuts will release their own oils, so be patient. Eventually, you’ll end up with smooth, creamy butter!
Once your butter is fully processed, you can add a pinch of salt to taste.
If you want even creamier butter, you can add a little vegetable oil to your processor. If you want your peanut butter chunky, remove your fully-processed butter from your food processor and gently stir in your peanut pieces from step 2.
Pro Tip: Some people love to add 1 ½ tsp honey. Or you might want to experiment with adding a little cocoa powder and powdered sugar. It’s your peanut butter; you’ve earned the right to go wild!
Best wishes for the new school year and all the school lunches ahead.
Last Saturday we catered a gorgeous wedding at Midway, Utah’s beautiful River Bottoms Ranch. During the photo shoot, one of the brides was having trouble keeping part of her dress in place. The planner had forgotten to bring fashion tape, so she approached a member of our team and asked him if, by any chance, he might have some tape to help fix a dress.
“Like this?” he offered, producing a roll of fashion tape.
The planner was stunned. “Why do you have that?” she marveled.
He smiled. “We try to be ready for anything. You wouldn’t believe the things we’ve seen.”
As Utah’s top full-service caterer over the past 35+ years, we’ve handled everything from wardrobe malfunctions to faulty plumbing to venue kitchen equipment that stopped working in the middle of service. We’ve weathered scorching heat and sudden snowstorms, dealt with misbehaving pets and misbehaving guests, helped moms with fussy babies, cleaned up messes, and met more emergency deadlines than Dinner Impossible.
Being ready for surprises is part of our job.
In fact, if you look inside one of our emergency kits you’ll see evidence of the surprises we've dealt with and the lessons we’ve learned over the years. Safety pins and bobby pins, fire extinguishers, feminine products, gaffers tape (even better than duct tape), sunscreen, breath mints, batteries, jumper cables, dryer sheets (great for repelling bugs), needles and thread, hair ties…the list goes on.
And, of course, you’ll also see plenty of those universal necessities: towels. (Douglas Adams wasn’t wrong.)
Being ready to handle any contingency is part of what makes us different from many other services that are called “catering” nowadays. Unlike food catering (where a restaurant or other company prepares the food, drops it off, and maybe helps serve and clean up afterwards), full-service catering covers every aspect of your event from planning and set-up to final take-down and clean-up. Hiring a full-service caterer means that, no matter what issues arise, you can relax knowing that it will be taken care of, and your day will go off without a hitch—or at least, if there are hitches, your guests will never know about them.
Our team has put out all manner of metaphorical fires over the years. We’ve scrubbed dance floors on hands and knees, shoveled guests out of snowbanks, and even thrown ourselves in front of sprinklers that turned on suddenly in the middle of a garden party. But the way we see it, full-service catering is about more than just being ready for emergencies. It’s a philosophy that governs what we do and but why we do it.
The Alfred Ethic
In the movie Batman Begins, Michael Caine’s character, Alfred, delivers a line that captures the essence of what we strive to be. At a low point in the movie, Batman/Bruce Wayne turns to his family’s butler and asks, “Why do you give a damn, Alfred? It’s not your family.”
Alfred replies, “I give a damn because a good man once made me responsible for what was most precious to him in the whole world.”
We feel a similar responsibility every time a client asks us to cater their corporate event or private party, or a couple hires us to handle their wedding. We are acutely aware that they are placing one of the most important days of their life in our hands, and we do everything we can to honor that trust.
In the entryway of our Pleasant Grove offices, next to the Best of State medals and trophies, hangs a reminder of why we do what we do at Culinary Crafts.
Whether we find ourselves getting grass stains out of a dress, retouching a guest’s hair, accommodating a guest’s dietary needs, preparing food boxes for the hungry couple to take home, or literally diving into the deep end of a pool to retrieve something a bridesmaid dropped, we try to be ready for anything because taking care of people is our mission. It’s what we love. Being a full-service caterer means doing what it takes to make sure our clients succeed and their visions come true. More than the awards, what makes us proud is the service we give.
Because to us, even if you’re not family, you’re family.
We love the growing trend—especially among millennials—of making pets part of the wedding celebration. After all, weddings are a time to be with family and loved ones, those who bring you joy and smiles, right? For those of us whose pets are bona fide members of the family, it doesn’t seem fair to leave them out of the big day just because they might drool a little and beg for scritches. At the same time, if you’re going to bring a pet, you need to keep your guests (furry and otherwise) comfortable and safe. Here are our top tips for how to involve pets in your wedding celebration.
Check the Rules
Before you sign with your venue, find out whether they allow animals. If they do, ask about any extra fees or rules for pets, as well as accommodations they can make for your four-legged friend. Can you bring your pet to familiarize her with the venue prior to the event? Is there a small space to the side where she can be taken if she gets tired, thirsty, or overstimulated?
Also, ask your planner or caterer about any state, county, or municipal laws regarding animals at social events. In Utah, for example, pets are banned from public common eating areas, but there are workarounds. With a bit of planning, you can avoid any health or safety concerns.
Assess Your Pet
As much as we love them, some pets don’t do well in the excitement and bustle of a wedding. A crowd of strangers, a new environment, a lot of noise and heat and waiting around on a leash…for some animals, weddings are a nightmare! Don’t put your pet (or yourself) through anything she can’t handle.
Determine Your Pet’s Participation
If your fur baby isn’t up for a full day of socializing, there may be other meaningful ways she can take part in the fun. Including pets in pictures is a great idea; you’ll always treasure those precious mementos. Depending on your pet’s temperament, you may also want to let her walk down the aisle or make her your ring-bunny, flower kitty, or mutt of honor. If attending the ceremony is too much to ask of your animal companion, consider other ways to make her presence felt. We’ve seen adorable likenesses of a beloved pet represented on save-the-date cards, signage, napkins, Chasing Tail beer cozies, party favors, and even the cake!
Receptions, though, are a different matter. The noise, congestion, and distractions of the reception are too much for any but the best-behaved pets.
Give a Heads Up
It’s important to give your guests fair warning that there will be a pet on the premises. Some guests may need to plan in advance in order to deal with allergies or fears of animals.
If you’re going to want pictures of your pet at the wedding, make sure you communicate that to your photographer and videographer well in advance. (It’s a good idea to ask whether they’ve worked with animals before and how they plan to get the kinds of shots you’re looking for.) Don’t forget to warn your florist too, since certain flowers, plants, and pesticides are toxic to pets.
Arrange for a Handler
Do not make the mistake of imagining that you can personally take care of your pet at your own wedding. Trust us: you will have way too much going on to be able to give your four-footed friend the attention she will need. Arrange with someone you and your pet trusts to watch her throughout the event. Provide your handler with clear instructions as well as any supplies or treats your pet may need. If your little darling will be there for more than a couple of hours, it might be considerate to trade off the handling duties between more than one guest. Just make sure that there’s never any uncertainty about who is responsible for your furry guest.
Prep Your Pet
If your venue allows it, take time to visit the site ahead of time with your pet. It’s especially helpful for dogs to get a chance to sniff around and get comfortable in the new place. If your pet will be playing a role in the ceremonies, give her and her handlers a chance to practice. The more you can reduce anxiety and distractions by planning ahead, the better for everyone. This includes introducing your pet to any other animals that are invited to the event. Be sure to let your pet time get accustomed to any special wedding attire (decorative collar, tuxedo, tutu, etc.) you may want her to wear.
And speaking of prepping your pet, make sure you’ve left yourself time for any washing and grooming your little diva will need to be looking and smelling her best.
Weddings were not designed with pets in mind, so think about any potential threats to your furry and non-furry guests. For example, some wedding foods are unhealthy or even toxic for animals: alcohol, chocolate, fried foods, fatty foods, meat with bones, coffee, grapes, and ice cream, to name a few. Make sure no well-meaning guest has a chance to poison your pet! Before the dining starts, it’s probably best to send her home—the pet, we mean, not the well-meaning guest.
Assess how your pet is likely to handle the attention of rambunctious children and adoring guests. Even animals who love to be petted may have their limits.
We mentioned that some flowers are toxic to animals. Lilies, for example, can be lethal to both cats and dogs. Daffodils and azaleas are also no-nos.
Be Ready with Plan B
Pets can be unpredictable, especially in new situations. Make sure you and your handler(s) know what to do if your pet suddenly turns sick, gets scared, or refuses to cooperate. Will someone be ready to pull them aside or take them home?
No matter how much you plan and prepare, animals will be animals. But isn’t that why we love them?
Whether you’re already an experienced sous vide chef or you’re ready to try out your brand new sous vide superpowers for the first time, here’s a fantastic recipe for you to try: Sous Vide Eggs Benedict with Hollandaise Sauce.
On one level, eggs Benedict is a super easy dish. Put Canadian bacon on a toasted English muffin, top it with a poached egg, drizzle it with Hollandaise sauce, and you’re golden! But every chef knows that it’s not that easy. With traditional poaching methods, it’s tricky to get eggs with the right combination of smooth, firm whites and creamy yolks. Hollandaise is even trickier; if you use too little heat, the sauce won’t thicken, but if you use too much, it will “break” and leave you with a goopy mess. Making eggs Benedict may be simple, but making it right has always been notoriously difficult.
With a sous vide immersion circulator, you’re guaranteed perfect eggs and fantastic Hollandaise sauce every time!
Ingredients for Hollandaise Sauce (makes four generous servings)
85 grams egg yolk (approximately 5 large egg yolks)
40 grams champagne vinegar
25 grams shallots, minced
60 grams water
20 grams lemon juice
3 grams salt
150 grams butter
Instructions for Hollandaise Sauce
Fill a pot or other heat-resistant container with at least four inches of water. Attach your immersion blender and set it to preheat your water bath to 167°F.
Heat vinegar and shallots in a small saucepan until you’ve reduced liquid by half.
Strain to remove shallots. Save the remaining liquid reduction.
Brown the butter.
Pro Tip: “Brown butter” is butter that has been heated just enough that its milk solids have turned brown. For a demonstration of how to brown butter, see here. With its nutty flavor and fantastic smell, brown butter is a chef's favorite little secret. You can make countless good recipes even better just be substituting it for regular butter! Try it over pancakes, in chocolate chip cookies, or in just about any recipe that calls for a butter-based sauce.
Pour the brown butter, yolk, water, lemon juice, vinegar reduction, and salt into a ziplock bag. (No need to vacuum seal this bad boy!)
When water bath has reached 167°, lower the bag into the water until the ingredients are submerged but the top of the bag is above water. Attach the top of the bag to the side of the container with a binder clip to hold it in place. Don’t let any water get into the bag. Leave the bag in the sous vide water for 30 minutes.
Pour the contents of the bag into a blender and blend until smooth. This step ensures that the sauce will be silky smooth.
Ingredients for Eggs Benedict (makes four servings)
2 English muffins, halved
4 slices Canadian bacon (you can substitute thick-cut ham, steak, prosciutto, crab, or a protein of your choice)
4 large eggs
2 T chopped chives or parsley
Hollandaise sauce (from recipe above)
Instructions for Eggs Benedict
Pour at least four inches of water into a pot or heat-resistant container. Attach your sous vide immersion circulator to the container and set its temperature to 167°F. (Since the eggs and Hollandaise sauce cook at the same temperature, you can prepare them simultaneously in the same water bath.)
When the water bath is at 167°, carefully place four large eggs into the bath. Leave them for 12 minutes, then remove them carefully with a slotted spoon and place them in a dish of ice water.
Pro Tip: The best method we’ve found for “poaching” eggs is the sous vide method used by America’s Test Kitchen: you can find step-by-step instructions here. It’s not really poaching, of course, because the eggs are cooked inside the shell, but it’s simple, foolproof, and guaranteed to give eggs exactly the texture we want.
This approach cooks the eggs at 167° for 12 minutes, which is much hotter than most eggs Benedict recipes recommend. Trust us, by cooking at a higher temp for a shorter time you’ll give the whites the perfect firmness without overcooking the yolks. Usually when you cook sous vide you set the temperature to exactly what you want and leave it—it’s practically impossible to overcook. But setting your temp to 167° means that you’ll need to pay attention and take the eggs out at 12 minutes or else they will overcook.
Fry your bacon in a pan over medium low heat. Carefully remove the bacon and set it on a paper towel to absorb excess grease. Scrape the pan clean, but leave a little bacon grease in the pan.
Toast the muffins in the pan, allowing them to soak up some of that blessed bacon goodness!
Assemble by placing your bacon on the muffins, carefully cracking your eggs and placing them on the bacon, and topping the whole glorious thing with your Hollandaise sauce and a sprinkle of chives or parsley.
Serve up your sous vide eggs Benedict and amaze your family and friends with your sous vide ninja skills!
Summer is the time for grilling tips and fantastic food!
In an earlier blog, I suggested several ways you can up your grilling game. We discussed the pros and cons of using a gas grill versus wood or charcoal, and I mentioned that all the grills I personally own are charcoal. Why? Even though there are some advantages to a gas grill (such as ease of start-up and cleanup), it will never match the taste and
temperatures you can reach with a charcoal grill. For me, it's worth dealing with the downsides
of charcoal in exchange for those deep, smoky flavors!
But how do you get the incredible taste that only a charcoal grill can achieve? It all starts with
mastering two things, Fuel and Fire.
At Culinary Crafts we always say that great food starts with great ingredients, and when it comes to grilling, charcoal isn’t just a heat source; it’s an ingredient. Unlike cooking in a microwave or oven (or even on a gas grill), the fuel you use in a charcoal grill will flavor your food dramatically, so it’s important to choose your fuel carefully.
My favorite fuel—at least for grilling steaks—is lump charcoal.
Lump charcoal is made by burning away all the sap and other volatile impurities in the wood, leaving thick black chunks of carbon. The water and gasses in the wood are also burned off, but not completely, which is why lump charcoal sometimes sparks and pops when you heat it, as little gas pockets expand and explode. It’s not dangerous, but it can get pretty exciting!
The main advantages to lump charcoal are
it gets hot quickly (in 10 to 15 minutes).
it reaches very high temperatures (up to 1400°F) which allows you to give food a
it burns more completely, leaving behind less ash.
it gives a clean, flavorful smokiness to your food.
The downsides to lump charcoal are that it’s a bit more expensive and it burns quickly, so you’ll need to keep adding charcoal for longer grills.
The most popular type of charcoal—the kind I use for barbequing or for lower-temp grills—is briquettes. Briquettes are basically crushed charcoal held together with starch. If they have no other additives, they’re called “natural” or “hardwood” briquettes. Briquettes can be made from many kinds of wood, but I mostly use mesquite for its strong, flavorful smoke. Hickory is also great. The bags you buy in the store don’t always list what wood it’s made from, but if the briquettes are dense (i.e. the bag feels heavy for its size), it’s probably good wood.
The main advantages of briquette charcoal are
it’s readily available.
it’s less expensive than lump charcoal.
it’s easy to fit onto your grill and move around to control your fire.
it gives a more consistent grilling temperature.
it burns longer (100 briquettes ought to let you grill for up to an hour).
The biggest disadvantage to briquettes is that they won’t burn nearly as hot as lump charcoal (briquettes max out around 800°F), but for barbequing and for grilling some foods that’s okay.
Briquettes can also be a little more difficult to light, but using a chimney starter will solve that problem. (See below.) If you want to give your charcoal some help by dousing it with lighter fluid, that’s okay too, so long as you leave plenty of time—at least 30 minutes—for the lighter fluid chemicals to burn away before you start to grill. Don’t ever add lighter fluid after the fuel is hot! Some brands of briquettes are pre-soaked in lighter fluid, but I don’t recommend ever using those types of briquettes. The chemicals will not completely burn away, and they will give your food a nasty flavor.
Unless you’re out in the wild and grilling over a campfire, using raw wood for your sole fuel is not ideal. Wood is full of tar and other contaminants that will produce a thick, dirty smoke when burned. Most people don’t like the flavors it adds to food. Scraps of construction lumber make even worse fuel for grilling because they’re treated with chemicals.
That said, there are ways that raw wood can be used in your grill to add great flavor. Pure wood chips, soaked in water, can be dropped directly on top of your charcoal to add aromatic flavors of your choice. I love the strong smoke from mesquite, hickory, or oak wood chips. Woods like cherry, apple, or plum add a nice fruity flavor, but stay away from soft woods like pine, cedar, or fir. Their smoke tastes terrible.
PRO GRILLING TIP: If you’re using a gas grill, you can still add smoky flavor to your food by burning woodchips in a smoker box or in a tinfoil packet with holes punch in it. Just place the foil packet over a heat source where it will slowly smoke and burn. You can also add dried rosemary or basil for another level of flavor. (Leave the stems on.) For a rich, fruity flavor, save and dry your grapevine cuttings and add them to your fuel.
Once you know what you’re going to be burning, it’s time to talk about how. The first concern, of course, is safety.
Set Up Safety
Set up your grill safely far away from potential fire hazards like structures or low-
hanging trees. (Anticipate possibilities like things falling or being blown around by wind.)
Position your grill where pets, children, or foot traffic won’t accidentally bump into it.
Think about the mess. I’m not just talking about the ash; I’m also talking about the mess from the food itself. For example, if you’re grilling meat, you’re always going to have drippings, so don’t set up your grill on any decorative or porous surface. Stay away from concrete, nice flooring, or patio wood if you can. Grass is good.
Arrange your tools and space ahead of time. When you’re holding a scorching-hot
chimney in one hand and tending to a sudden flare-up with the other, it’s too late to be thinking about where you’re going to safely put things down.
Don’t wear anything loose like a tie or dangling, long hair while you’re grilling.
Keep “helpful” neighbors and everyone else at a safe distance from your fire.
If you ignore our advice and use self-igniting briquettes, at least don’t use them in a chimney or with an electric coil starter.
Once your fire is going, never leave the grill unattended.
Be careful when opening the lid of your grill. When you turn or move meat, be especially alert for flareups from melting fat falling onto your coals.
Wear proper protective gear and don’t set hot items near flammables, where someone can accidentally touch them, or where they can be knocked over by the wind.
Have a functioning fire extinguisher and/or a water hose nearby, just in case.
When you’re grilling, you also need to be careful about the way you handle your food.
Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling food, especially raw meat.
Keep your plates and platters clean. Don’t put cooked foods onto the same plate with raw foods or where raw meat has been.
Keep your tools clean too. If you use a fork or tongs on raw meat, wash it thoroughly before you let it touch any cooked food.
Especially for less experienced grillers, it’s a good idea to use a meat thermometer to check your food and make sure it reaches the recommended internal temperature.
Don’t leave uncooked, perishable food sitting out (even to thaw) for more than 2 hours. In hot weather, don’t leave it out for 1 hour.
Don’t put grilled food into your fridge until it’s had time to cool off. Putting hot food into your fridge can change the temperature enough to make your other food spoil.
Planning Your Fire
Once you’ve set up your space to grill safely, it’s time to think about how you’re going to
arrange your fuel and build your fire.
A good fire takes planning. Think about what items you’ll be cooking and what temperatures each of them will need. You may also choose to leave room on your grill for wood chips and/or an aluminum pan to catch meat drippings. Personally, I like to let fat drip right onto the charcoal. I love the added flavor from the smoke of the burning fat, and I don’t mind dealing with the flames of an occasional flare-up by temporarily shifting my meat to a cooler zone.
You also need to plan out your grilling schedule. Charcoal takes time to heat, and after you put your hot coals onto the grill, you’ll need another 10-15 minutes to let the grill itself get hot before you start cooking. Coordinate your schedule so that your meats will be well-rested and your other food will be coming off hot and juicy right when everyone’s ready to eat.
Light It Up!
If you’re using briquettes, the best way to light them is to use a charcoal chimney. Open the air vents of your grill, remove the cooking grate, and set the chimney on the charcoal grate. Fill your chimney with charcoal. (One chimney full of briquettes should be enough to grill four thick steaks.) Use lighter fluid if you want, but as I said, a chimney makes lighter fluid unnecessary. Pile a wad of newspaper under the chimney and light the paper. The bottom briquettes will heat up and light the briquettes above them.
When the top coals in the chimney are lightly glowing or are flickering with flames, they’re ready. Using thick gloves and following the manufacturer’s instructions, carefully turn the chimney over to dump the briquettes onto your charcoal grate. Use a charcoal rake to arrange them according to your plan to create your temperature zones.
Replace your cooking grate and wait for it to heat up. By the time your briquettes finish turning ashy white, you shouldn’t have any more tall, yellow flames. You want your flames to be low and blue or red; that means that your fire is burning hotter and more efficiently. You should be seeing only a small amount of clear-ish colored smoke from your briquettes. The hotter your fire burns, the cleaner the smoke will be. Remember, thick, black smoke is dirty smoke, and no one wants that in their food.
After 10-15 minutes, check the temperature. To do the popular “hand test,” place your hand about four inches above your coals, approximately at the height where your food will be placed. (Don’t touch the grate, obviously.) See how long you can comfortably keep your hand there. If you can hold it there only 1 or 3 seconds, your grill is at a high cooking temp. 4 to 7 second means you’re at a medium heat, and 10 seconds or longer means you have a low temperature.
For grilling steaks, pork chops, burgers, or thin veggies you’ll want a high temperature. Medium heat is great for chicken, fish, or thickly-sliced veggies. For larger or tougher cuts like ribs or brisket, you’ll want to grill them at low heat for longer times.
If you need to decrease your heat, try cutting off some of the oxygen to your fire by partially or fully closing the grill’s air vents.
To turn up the heat, try increasing the airflow by opening the vents. Raking the coals or
breaking your charcoal into smaller pieces will increase the surface area that can burn, which will also raise the heat. Just be careful not to knock ash onto your food. If those methods don’t work to increase the heat, you probably just need to add more fuel.
Don’t worry if you encounter some difficulties building your fire, creating your grill zones, and keeping their temperatures constant. Learning to master fuel and fire takes practice. But now that you’ve got the basics, it’s time to turn our attention to the food.
That, my friends, is the subject of our next grilling lesson! Stay tuned.
Ten years ago, I set out to learn everything I could about making a perfect cup of coffee. I experimented with roasts, blends, and brewing styles from all over the world. I bought grinders, tampers, boilers, steamers…all the paraphernalia you can imagine. Most of that equipment is just décor in my home now, but a few of the lessons I learned, I still use. In this article, I want to boil down everything I learned into a few simple, affordable tips for brewing incredible coffee at home.
Use fresh beans.
How important is it to use fresh coffee beans? Let me put it this way: I’d rather have coffee improvised with a sock, an old pot, and a campfire if I get to grind my favorite beans fresh each morning, versus coffee from the latest expensive brewing machine using pre-ground, stale beans. As with all food, the ingredients matter much more than the tools.
Short science lesson: When beans are roasted, they go through a chemical change called the Malliard reaction. Not only does it turn the beans dark brown, it also creates aromatic compounds in the beans that give coffee its distinct taste and smell. But here’s the catch. The moment beans are roasted, those aromatic compounds start to fade away. After a few weeks the beans simply won’t smell or taste as good. Once beans have lost those compounds, there’s only one way to save the coffee: dump out that hot mess and start over with some fresh beans.
Have you noticed that beans off the grocery store shelf don’t print the date of when they were roasted? That’s because grocery store coffee is almost always past its freshness window. Sure, they can vacuum pack the beans and keep them fresh a little longer, but you can’t count on grocery store beans to be in their prime. Your best bet is to buy fresh-roasted whole beans from a local roaster. Or you can try one of the subscription services that will send you fresh-roasted beans every few weeks. If you’re feeling ambitious you can roast your own, but that’s the subject for another blog.
If beans are past their fresh date, they can still be used to make pretty good coffee if you cold brew them! But don’t waste your really good beans on cold brew. The best a cold brew will ever give you is pretty good coffee.
If you want an extraordinary experience with a coffee genius, visit John Piquet at Caffe D’Bolla. You’ll quickly see why I treasure all the time I’ve spent there! His regular menu on the wall only offers espresso drinks, but ask for the siphon menu. John roasts all his coffee in house. The nuanced flavors you'll experience in both the the espresso and the siphon coffee at Caffe D'bolla are because of the roasting. As John says, "It's the single most important aspect of my craft."
Grind your beans just before you brew.
Grinding beans greatly increases the amount of surface area that’s exposed. Exposing more surface area means you'll get a lot more flavor out of the ground beans when you brew them. Unfortunately, as soon as beans are ground, they’ll start losing their aromatic compounds at a much faster rate. So if you’re trying to get the best-tasting cup of coffee, it makes sense to grind them only when you’re ready to brew.
One piece of equipment that’s worth investing in is a burr grinder. Unlike regular blade grinders that just bash the beans into random-sized pieces, a burr grinder mills the beans between two grinding plates until the pieces are all a uniform size. With a regular grinder, you’ll have tiny bits of bean that get overexposed during the brew, giving the coffee a bitter, sludgy taste. At the same time you’ll also have larger pieces that won’t be exposed enough, adding a sour, acidic taste. If you use a burr grinder, all the bits will be the same size, so you can get a consistent flavor. You may have to try some practice runs to find the perfect grind for your machine, but whatever size of grounds you’re aiming for, a burr grinder will help you hit it precisely and consistently.
You can spend thousands of dollars on a burr grinder, but the Kinu hand grinder, at around $200, is my favorite. 1Zpresso and Helor make comparably great grinders. For lower budgets, the Hario Skerton Pro is a good ceramic grinder. It’s not the greatest, but at around $60, it may be the best value for the price.
Use the right water temperature.
To extract the best flavors out of your coffee, you should brew with water between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. Below 195 degrees, you won’t get enough flavor from the coffee. Above 205 you’ll scorch the beans and get bitter chemicals that should have been left in the beans. Perfect brewing involves finding that temperature “sweet” spot.
If you’re boiling your own water, you may need to let it cool a bit before you start your brew. Remember, water naturally boils at 212 degrees at sea level, and the boiling point gradually decreases as you go up in elevation. If you live above 4,000 feet in elevation (as we do here in Utah), you can pour boiling water straight over your beans, since our water boils at 204 degrees. The lower your elevation is below 4,000 feet, the longer you’ll need to let your water cool before you brew.
One thing I learned from John Piquet is that the taste of coffee changes at different temperatures. If you drink your coffee too hot, it may smell great but it won’t taste its best. John encourages his customers to begin sipping their coffee when it cools to around 155 degrees, which is the first point the flavors can truly dominate the heat. Then enjoy the changing range of flavors as the coffee gradually cools.
Find the right ratio of coffee to water.
In addition to temperature, the amount of water you use also affects the brewing process. The more water you use, the weaker the coffee will be. Finding the right balance of coffee and water (a.k.a. the “brew ratio”) is key to making a perfect cup of coffee.
Personally, I use 240 grams of water for every 15 grams of coffee, a ratio of 16:1. You’ll want to experiment with that ratio depending on how rich you want your coffee to be. As you’re experimenting, try to be as consistent as possible in your measurements. This brings us to the second piece of equipment that’s worth investing in, a digital scale. It’s impossible to control exactly how much ground coffee fits into a scoop, but a digital scale will allow you to measure by weight, giving you a precise and accurate measurement every time.
There’s an ongoing debate about what kind of water (tap, bottled, filtered, etc.) makes the best coffee. My two cents: unless you’re doing espresso, the type of water usually doesn’t make much difference. But I don’t recommend using distilled water. Just like food is enhanced by a little salt, a perfect brew needs a small amount of minerals in the water, ideally around 150 parts per million. Distilled water is too pure and will make your coffee taste bland.
Bloom your coffee.
If you grind fresh beans just before you brew, you might notice that the coffee grounds appear to bubble when they first touch water. What you’re seeing is CO2 gas escaping from the beans, a phenomenon called “the bloom.” If you don't get rid of that gas before you start your brew, the CO2 can form a kind of blanket around the coffee grounds, preventing them from brewing properly. To bloom your beans, pour a little water over the grounds. Then give them a gentle stir so that all the grounds get wet, and wait for about 30 seconds for the gas to leave. Use about twice as much water as there is coffee grounds. In other words, if you’re starting with 40 grams of grounds, use about 80 grams of water in your bloom.
Over the years, I tried a lot of techniques and technologies in my quest to brew the perfect cup. Most of them turned out to be more time-consuming or expensive than they’re worth. But these five tips I’ve discussed are simple, tried, and true, and I guarantee that if you give them a try, you’ll taste a dramatic difference. I should warn you that once you’ve tasted how good your home-brewed coffee can be, it may spoil you. You’ll have a hard time forking over $6 at Starbucks when, for 50 cents, you can brew something much better at home.
Planning a wedding in the midst of a pandemic presents unique challenges but also incredible opportunities. If you hear wedding bells in the near future, here are some hints for how to create a safe and sensational celebration.
Think big by thinking small
You may have to get innovative. Hot tip: Micro-weddings are the new posh. By trimming the guest list you can reduce crowding while relaxing your budget at the same time. Brides are starting to realize what mind-blowing experiences they can create for 20 guests instead of 200. In the last year we’ve seen small weddings in the middle of the Salt Flats and light tunnels created in the middle of a forest. We've served 10 course meals and even catered a dinner under a waterfall. With a smaller number of intimate friends and family, you’re free to open your imagination and entertain your most elusive dreams.
Weigh and minimize risks in advance
You owe it to your guests to identify risk factors and take reasonable precautions to minimize them. If asking Grandma to fly in from out of state poses too much risk, consider setting up a Zoom or Google hangout for guests who can’t attend in person. For those who do come, think about ways to encourage social distancing and reduce traffic congestion. A lot of couples are finding incredible outdoor venues. But if you need to be inside, implement a crowd-control design that prevents “clumping.” Consider providing private dining areas for your guests such as bubble tents, igloos, or simple separate table-spaces. Traditional self-service buffets can be replaced by safer options like boxed meals or a dessert drive-thru. Recently, a charcuterie served in pre-portioned bamboo cones was a huge hit.
Whatever safety plan you choose for your celebration, as the host it’s up to you to communicate your expectations to your guests. A classy insert with your invitation can let people know in advance whether they’ll need to do a temperature check on arrival, show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, wear a mask, or whatever precautions you decide are appropriate. Don’t worry about pleasing everyone: you can’t. Everyone’s situation is different. If you communicate clearly and let people know what to expect, they’ll be able to make their own choices about how to celebrate your day with you.
Invitations, favors, and place cards are all pretty standard for a wedding. But the pandemic blew open a door for creating new items to customize! Masks, sanitizer, soap, towels, water, or even social distancing/selfie sticks can be practical and personal. Our favorite customized gifts are fun “in sickness and health packages” which sometimes include a hangover kit.
The best way to enjoy your big day while staying safe is to hire a social coordinator. Your event planner or day-of coordinator may be perfect for the job. Along with a trained catering team, your social coordinator will direct traffic, answer questions, and make sure that everyone has a safe and spectacular experience. Meanwhile, you'll be free to relax and enjoy the day you've planned and waited for so long.
To make donuts: Preheat oven to 350°. Grease pan and set aside.
Sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
In a separate bowl, mix together sour cream, melted butter, and sugars until combined. Stir in vanilla and one egg at a time.
Gently fold the flour mixture into wet ingredients and mix by hand just until combined.
Fill a piping bag with batter and fill donut pan 2/3 of the way full.
Bake for 12 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool for 3-5 minutes, then remove from pan.
To make the ganache: In a small saucepan, bring cream to a boil. Remove from heat and add chocolate. Stir until smooth. Set aside for 15-20 minutes until ganache has cooled and thickened a bit.
To make the buttercream for decoration: In a mixing bowl, mix together butter and sugar, add milk and vanilla. Mix on high for 3 minutes. Put into a piping bag and cut a very small hole at the end. Set aside.
To assemble chocolate reindeer donuts: Dip donuts into the ganache, then place on a cooling rack until ganache sets.
Place eyes, and cranberry in the center as the nose.
Break/cut pretzels in half, length-wise for antlers.