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Gourmet Grilling on a Budget

photo: Velo Steve

When you fire up the grill over Memorial Day weekend, it doesn’t take much cash or effort to add a little gourmet flair.

“Anything is fantastic grilled, if it’s done the right way,” says Todd Miller, the executive chef of STK in New York. All you need is a hot grill and a quick foray into your pantry for ingredients to make a marinade, rub, brine, or basting sauce. The benefits: all meats and veggies get a boost of flavor, and even cheap, tough cuts like skirt steak become tender and juicy. Using a rub, meats get a nice crust to seal in moisture before grilling.

You won’t need much advance preparation, either. Done right, marinating can take as few as 15 minutes before grilling. Poke a fork into the meat or vegetables to aid in absorption, and turn them occasionally so every part soaks up flavor. You can also inject the meat with the marinade or brine, says Laura McIntosh, the host of “Bringing it Home With Laura McIntosh,” who recently served as a guest judge for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. (An injector costs about $6.)

For safe grilling, dispose of any leftover marinade or other preparation that has been in contact with raw meat (and so, in contact with bacteria). If you want to baste with the marinade, too, put some aside before adding raw food.

What’s in the mix?

Home cooks have plenty of leeway to get creative using the ingredients currently in their kitchen. For most recipes, you’ll need one or two base ingredients, with others added to fit your taste. The key ingredient of a marinade is an acid base, such as vinegar or lemon juice, says Robyn Medlin, aka Grill Grrrl. That helps tenderize the meat. More suggestions: wine, tomatoes and the pulp of citrus fruits. Most spice rubs consist of a sugar, salt and pepper base, as well as “transition” spices such as paprika or thyme that help blend it all together, Medlin says.

Depending on what you add, be careful marinating for more than a few hours, Miller says. Left too long, tenderizing acids like vinegar will actually “cook” the meat, while absorbed salt from a rub can become overpowering.

Try these easy mixes to dress up naked grill fare, or use them as a jumping off point for your own special blends:

Italian dressing marinade

Good with: All meats and veggies

Italian dressings (the oil-based, not creamy blends) have all the garlic, herbs and spices needed for an easy marinade. For an extra kick, blend equal amounts of dressing and barbecue sauce, suggests Chef Brian Lewis, creator of Herman T’s BBQ Sauce Mix. The resulting mixture is a great marinade or basting sauce for steaks and burgers.

Shaun’s Home-Spiced Catsup

Good with: Beef

San Diego Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips and Barrie Lynn Krich, aka The Cheese Impresario, came up with a doctored ketchup that makes for a great topper and basting sauce for steaks and burgers. Mix a cup and a half ketchup, one or two finely chopped and seeded Jalapenos, one fresh chopped garlic clove, one-quarter teaspoon ground cumin, an ounce of wine (red or white), a half-ounce of apple-cider vinegar and black pepper to taste. For Phillips’ version, double the Jalapenos, for four total. “I like spicy things,” he says.

Spicy dry rub

Good with: Beef, lamb, poultry

Chef Thomas Dunklin of Red Star Tavern in Portland makes a basic spice mix depending of paprika, cayenne, thyme, onion powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Add cumin and/or rosemary for lamb or poultry and brown sugar for ribs or brisket.

Coca-Cola marinade

Good with: Chicken

“It makes for the most moist, delicious chicken you’ve ever grilled,” says Barbara Green of Cornelius, North Carolina. Her recipe: mix a half-cup kosher salt and one liter of Coke in a Ziploc bag and marinate chicken overnight. The next day drain it and rub with a mix of brown sugar, kosher salt, garlic powder, black pepper, dry mustard, and paprika.

Latin Flair marinade

Good with: Chicken, beef

Andrea Correale, the owner of New York-based catering and event design firm Elegant Affairs, mixes one cup orange juice, the juice and pulp of a lime, one tablespoon chopped cilantro, one packet Goya Sazon seasoning with saffron, and one teaspoon garlic powder. She likes the blend as a tenderizer for otherwise tough skirt steak.

Truffle-infused paste

Good with: Beef, chicken

Phillips and Krinch use a blend of freshly ground cumin, coriander and ginger mixed with a little olive oil and garlic — just enough to make the dry ingredients stick together. (Phillips likes a drizzle of truffle oil, too.) “You have something magical,” Krinch says.

Balsamic marinade

Good with: Veggies

French Lick Resort Chef Robbie Bellew’s recipe calls for one cup brown sugar, a tablespoon chopped fresh garlic, one cup balsamic vinegar, a quarter-cup Worcestershire sauce, a teaspoon steak seasoning and a half-cup olive oil. Bellew uses the blend for portabella mushrooms, marinating cleaned caps for two hours before grilling. “They will act like a sponge and draw the flavor inside,” he says.

Brine

Good with: Pork, poultry

Mix a dry rub mix with salt, sugar and enough water to cover the meat, Dunklin suggests. Overnight brining helps retain moisture in the meat while it is cooking. (Brining is also usually recommended for roasting turkey at Thanksgiving time.)

Asian-inspired marinade

Good with: Chicken, tuna, pork, beef

Frugal Foodie makes an Asian marinade of soy sauce, olive oil, ground ginger, red pepper flakes and chopped garlic. For extra heat, add a dash of chili oil. (Frugal Foodie doesn’t like licorice flavors, but when Mr. Foodie makes this on his own, he adds star anise to the mix, too.)

Charged-up BBQ sauce

Good with: Beef

For a fancier marinade or basting sauce for steaks and burgers, add extras to your favorite bottled barbecue sauce, Miller says. His suggestions: red wine vinegar, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce and a little honey or brown sugar.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.