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14 Professional Chefs Reveal the Secret Ingredients to Their Favorite Barbecue Sides

These simple tricks will make summer’s must-haves even more delicious.

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Woman basting meat on barbecue with fresh herbs10'000 Hours/Getty Images

Summer’s best surprises

Burgers, franks, and brats get a lot of fanfare during the warmer months as folks fire up their grills for a season of barbecued goodness. But if you ask us, even if those main dishes turn out perfect every time, they’d be nothing without summer’s classic side dishes. We’re talking potato salad, coleslaw, pasta salad, and all the other delectable sides that fill out the rest of a seasonal plate. Tried-and-true versions of these picnic-perfect staples are always welcome, but so are contemporary or creative spins on old favorites. Who better to offer up their unique takes on beloved barbecue sides than professional chefs? Here, they generously share the secret ingredients that make their dishes pop.

AnchoviesCourtesy Clare Langan, via amazon.com

Anchovies

One of the more polarizing ingredients out there is the anchovy. People seem to either love anchovies or be completely grossed out by just the thought of them. But it’s one of the secret ingredients that will make you a better cook, and Chef Clare Langan, the culinary trend director at Cost Plus World Market, makes a case for the tiny fish. “The secret ingredient to many of my summer side dishes—including pasta salad, bean salad, and my Mustard Potato Salad—are anchovies,” she says. “I like to finely mince or blend an anchovy into my vinaigrettes. They add a much-needed jolt of umami, or savory flavor. If you think you don’t like anchovies, start with half a fillet and then work up. [And] taste the dish before adding a lot of extra salt. The anchovies have a good amount on their own.” If you don’t want to touch the anchovies, an anchovy paste, like this one from Cento, is another option to get that hit of umami.

BBQ sauceCourtesy Sweet Baby Rays, via amazon.com

Barbecue sauce

OK, we know what you’re thinking. How the heck is barbecue sauce a secret ingredient during barbecue season? Hear us out—or, rather, hear out a certified nutritionist who uses the stuff in an unexpected way. You might also want to use it on a few things you wouldn’t expect to grill—but really should. “People often think of barbecue sauce as a complement for grilled meat, but it also makes a fantastic dip for grilled vegetables,” says Danielle Shea Tan. “Sweet Baby Ray’s recently came out with a new No Sugar Added barbecue sauce that contains only 15 calories, 1 gram of sugar, and 1 net carb per serving.” Tan likes to fill grilling baskets with zucchini, summer squash, bell peppers, and eggplant, then pair them with a leafy green salad topped with walnuts and fresh strawberries.

Chow chowCourtesy Krystal Yoseph, via amazon.com

Chow chow

If you aren’t from the South, you may be thinking, “Chow what?” According to Chef Josh Valentine, chow chow is a pickle relish that, while mostly Southern, can be found on the East Coast. “It can be sweet or spicy with the addition of hot peppers,” he explains. “Chow chow is a great secret weapon. It goes well on everything from a charcuterie board to cheese, hot dogs, and hamburgers. It can even be fancy served with an oyster on the half shell.” At his new restaurant, Livegrass Butcher + Bistro in Edmond, Oklahoma, he adds chow chow to both the Southern (aka “the Pern”) Burger and the Okie Pig Sandwich.

To make his own spin on chow chow, Valentine uses a mix of green cabbage, onions, green tomatoes, green bell peppers, and jalapeños. He starts by salting the mixture aggressively and letting it sit overnight. Next, he rinses and drains the mix, and makes a sweet pickling liquid with sugar, apple cider vinegar, turmeric, and mustard seeds. He brings the liquid to a boil, then pours over the veggies. Chow chow is best when left to marinate for a couple of days in the fridge. If you’re short on time or just always want some on hand, pick up these hot and sweet options from Mrs. Campbell’s.

Sriracha Jalapeno ButterCourtesy Bennetts Butter Co., via bennettsbutter.com

Sriracha jalapeño butter

The mere thought of corn on the cob makes us nostalgic for summer when we’re in another season. It’s delicious whether you boil it or grill it, and believe it or not, there’s a way to make it even better. Chef Austin Orwasher, who cofounded Bennett’s Butter Co. with his sister Bess, gives his version a spicy kick with a compound butter instead of the traditional variety you probably have in stick form in your fridge. Compound butter might sound fancy, but it really just describes a mixture of butter and other ingredients (garlic, honey, fresh herbs). For his summer sides, Orwasher particularly loves Bennett’s Butter Co.’s Sriracha Jalapeño Butter. “It’s the winning combination of heat, sweet, and salt, and is the simplest yet most delicious hack to upgrade an otherwise basic side dish,” he says.

WatermelonCourtesy Maxcel Hardy, http://spicesbychefmax-com.3dcartstores.com

Watermelon

Yes, again with a secret ingredient you say already screams summer. Sure, there’s nothing quite like taking a bite out of a giant triangle of perfectly ripe watermelon on a hot summer day. But have you considered using it in a salad? “Watermelon is my favorite fruit, so I love to sneak it into recipes,” says Chef Max Hardy. “It can be used in so many ways. Watermelon in a salad during a summer barbecue is a fantastic addition that will wow your guests. It is excellent with a champagne vinaigrette, feta, arugula, shallots, and fresh edible greens from the garden or your farmers market.”

Here’s how Hardy whips up his favorite: Toss watermelon, shallots, arugula, and feta in a mixing bowl. For the dressing, combine his own Chef Max Every Day Love (All Purpose) Spice Blend, olive oil, honey, champagne vinaigrette, and Dijon mustard in blender until smooth. Place the dressing and salad in a fridge to chill for 25 minutes before combining and enjoying.

RosemaryCourtesy Mareya Ibrahim, Getty Images

Rosemary

If you love to cook with herbs, then you will fully appreciate Chef Mareya Ibrahim’s secret ingredient. She’s always looking for fresh ways to impart lots of flavor to her dishes and to avoid mistakes even seasoned cooks can make. “While it might taste good to have a little char on your food, it’s not necessarily good for you,” says the founder of Eat Cleaner. “That’s why fresh rosemary is my secret ingredient for grilling safely and deliciously. Soak rosemary branches in water for 30 minutes and place on top of your cooked meats and veggies. Rosemary can help combat the free radicals created by that char that can be cancer-causing. Adding fresh rosemary can also help with preventing bacteria infection from foodborne pathogens.” Specifically, Ibrahim likes to use the herb with her Rosemary Garlic Lemon Chicken and Veggie Skewers.

TofuCourtesy Jayne Morehouse, Getty Images

Tofu

You don’t have to be vegetarian to appreciate the many benefits of tofu. For starters, it could help you stop eating meat once a week and lead to some pretty significant changes in your health and the environment. Need more convincing? Chuck Underwood of Brand New Vegan uses it to make a tofu feta, the secret ingredient in his unbelievable Vegan Greek Salad. “Tofu easily takes on flavor, so you can make it taste like whatever you want. In this case, it also has the texture of feta, so it’s perfect,” he says. “I think most people are afraid of tofu because they think all soy is GMO—not so—or because they think it tastes bland, but it can really take on an awesome flavor if it’s marinated.” Underwood says he’s tried many different brands of tofu, and as long as you choose one that is firm and organic, you’re good to go.

Charred lemonCourtesy Lindsey Parker, Getty Images

Charred lemon

Got lemons? Then you, too, can make charred lemon the secret ingredient in a summer salad and whip up a truly unforgettable summer side dish. Chef Javier Montaño, of Vara Winery + Distillery in Albuquerque, New Mexico, adds a charred lemon yogurt to his Fried Okra and Heirloom Tomato Salad. “It’s like summertime on a plate,” he says. How do you achieve a char on a lemon? If you have your grill already fired up, it’s easy. Cut the lemon in half and place it cut side down on the grill grates until you notice a caramelization on the peel and the surface of the fruit. Remove from the heat, and allow it to cool before chopping it up in a fine dice and adding it to plain yogurt to create a luscious, smoky citrus dressing for any salad.

Vegan mayoCourtesy Danika Brysha, via amazon.com

Vegan mayo

If you’ve never tried vegan mayo before, now is the time. The condiment is the secret ingredient in Model Meals founder Danika Brysha’s Wild Salmon and Caramelized Onion Collard Wraps, for which she loves Primal Kitchen’s New Rosemary Vegan Mayo. “One of my favorite summer appetizers or side dishes is anything in a collard wrap. This recipe features wild salmon and caramelized onions tossed in Primal Kitchen Rosemary Garlic Vegan Mayo, but the dish is so versatile that you can really mix up the filling to be anything you love,” says Brysha. “Another favorite way to prepare these is with tons of grilled vegetables and the Primal Kitchen Golden BBQ dipping sauce. These fancy little finger foods are always a favorite and much easier to make than you’d think.” In case you were wondering, here’s how long condiments really last.

Secret seasoning blendCourtesy Bobbys BBQ, via eatbobbys.com

Secret seasoning blend

Spices last a while in your pantry, but there’s a good chance you’ll use this one so much, it’ll be gone before you know it! Bobby’s All-Purpose Seasoning is the secret ingredient in Bobby’s Cole Slaw, a guest favorite at Bobby’s BBQ in Fountain Inn, South Carolina. “We wanted to use our seasoning to give it a signature twist, keep it simple and easy to make, and not make it too sweet or too savory,” say Bobby’s owners, Octavius and Sarah Nelson. “We tried a few different combinations until we all agreed this one was perfect! Neither one of us had ever really been a ‘coleslaw person,’ but we absolutely love ours!” Whip up a batch at home with these simple ingredients: 1/2 cup of mayo, 2 tbsp white vinegar, 1.5 tsp Bobby’s All Purpose Seasoning, 1.5 tsp white sugar, and 6 cups of shredded cabbage and carrots. Voilà!

Miso butterCourtesy Yunnie Kim Morena, via amazon.com

Miso butter

Everything is better with butter, right? How about miso butter? That’s what chef and restaurateur Yunnie Kim Morena uses on her grilled corn on the cob to make you go mmmmm. “One of my favorite things about cooking in the summer is all of the great produce that is available,” she says. “Corn is one of my family’s favorites and so is anything with umami flavor, which is exactly what you get when mixing miso butter and sweet corn. The sweetness from the corn, the creaminess from the butter, and the salty umami flavor from the miso is a winning combo. Make extra—it stores refrigerated up to a week—and use it for rice, steaks, and tossed in roasted veggies.” Check out Morena’s recipe for corn on the cob with miso butter, as well as these other ways to cook with miso paste.

Creole seasoningCourtesy Rhonda Plummer, via cater2usf.com

Creole seasoning

Many of us aren’t able to travel this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t journey to other parts of the country with our cooking. Just ask Chef Rhonda Plummer, author of the upcoming book Soul in the City, who loves to mix up refreshing salads on hot summer days. “One of my all-time favorites is my grilled corn and arugula salad,” she says. “When making this salad, I love to toss it together in a creole vinaigrette, which is the staple and focal point of the salad. Each time I make it, however, I add different ingredients that can take it from being a simple summer salad to the main course. Pictured here is the traditional grilled corn and arugula salad tossed in creole vinaigrette and topped with heirloom tomatoes and butter lettuce.”

To make her creole vinaigrette, Plummer whisks together the following: 3/4 cup white wine or apple cider vinegar, 1/2 cup creole mustard, 1/3 cup honey, 1.5 tsp Cater2uSFF creole spice blend (her personal mixture), 1/2 tsp salt, and 1.5 cups oil blend (containing two parts canola, 1 part extra virgin olive oil, and one part avocado oil).

GuavaCourtesy Bill Hansen Catering, via amazon.com

Guava

Sure, chicken wings can be considered a main course, but it’s barbecue season and we like to think of them as a protein-rich appetizer or side. While there are lots of delicious recipes for chicken wings out there, Chef Dewey LoSasso makes some amazing Guava BBQ Chicken Wings with the secret ingredient being not-so-secret because it’s in the name—it’s guava!

“My recipe for grilled chicken wings combines guava, charred serrano chili, and sea salt,” explains LoSasso, the executive chef at Bill Hansen Catering in South Florida. “The sweetness of the guava counterbalances the sea salt for perfectly crispy summer chicken wings. Guava grows quite well in Florida, and we love keeping it local when we can. For this dish, we use grilled celery, as well as a miso dip. It’s our playful take on the typical chicken wing appetizer. This dish pairs well with a chilled glass of Perrier-Jouët Champagne Grand Brut. Wings, barbecue, and bubbles—it captures the essence of summer.” Can’t get your hands on fresh guava? Try it in jam form!

BeerCourtesy D.G. Yuengling and Son, Inc., via yuengling.com

Beer

Brewskis and barbecue pair as easily as peanut butter and jelly, so it should be no surprise that the secret ingredient in Chef Kelsey Barnard Clark’s to-die-for mac and cheese is beer. More specifically, it’s Yuengling Lager Beer. “As a chef, I am constantly seeking out unique ingredients for new dishes,” she explains. “As a lifelong Yuengling fan, I was inspired by America’s oldest brewery’s variety of beers and their bold, iconic, and complex characteristics. I love using Yuengling Traditional Lager as the secret ingredient in my Yuengling Traditional Lager Beer Mac and Cheese—it’s always a fan favorite at my barbecues. [The lager’s] roasted caramel malt adds a subtle sweetness, and the crisp hops help deliver that unexpected mouthful of flavor with each bite. I always have people asking me, ‘What is in this?!'”

Clark adds just one cup of the lager to her cheese sauce to add that rich flavor. To make it yourself, combine two tablespoons of butter and two tablespoons of flour in a large saucepan, and cook over medium heat for about a minute before whisking in a cup of whole milk and a cup of lager. Simmer the mixture until it becomes thick, about 8 to 10 minutes. Then, add 1 cup of grated sharp cheddar, 1 cup of grated smoked gouda, and a teaspoon of salt, melting the cheeses into a luscious sauce before adding 2 cups of the cooked pasta noodles of your choice. Now, it’s time to think about dessert! Check out these 13 secret ingredients for irresistible cookies.