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The weather may be patchy so far this summer, but that doesn’t mean your celebrations can’t shine.
We’ve rounded up tips from chef James Adams, beer expert Melissa Cole and wine expert Charles Metcalfe to help you choose the best food and drink for summer get-togethers.
They share insights on how to serve up a great-tasting feast, whether you’re firing up the barbecue or laying on a simple summer spread.
Plus, find out when it’s worth spending more and smart ways to make savings on supplies without compromising on taste.
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1. Elevate burgers with simple swaps
According to chef James Adams, a few small tweaks can take your burgers to the next level.
James recommends opting for brioche buns over standard burger buns. Cheap supermarket buns can, however, be improved by warming them through in the oven to activate the oils and give a spongier, more satisfying texture.
For cheeseburgers, James’ preferred choice is cheap American cheese slices as, unlike stronger cheese such as cheddar, they don’t overpower the other flavours.
If you aren’t a fan, try adding some caramelised onions with stronger cheeses to help balance them out.
Condiments to complement
We asked James to try some budget, branded and premium versions of ketchup and mayo to see if it’s worth spending more.
But with mayo, he advises making your own rather than buying a fancy version – it requires a little effort, but he says the results are a cut above ready made mayos – premium or otherwise.
If you’d rather stick with shop-bought, check out our guide to the best mayonnaise
2. It pays to pick good-quality meat
If you’re catering for a crowd, you might be tempted to save some money with budget bangers and burgers. But according to James, cheaper options can mean compromising on taste.
If top-tasting food is your priority, he reckons it’s worth spending more on high-quality products from an independent butchers or a premium supermarket brand.
Of the snapshot sample of budget, mid-range and premium burgers he tried for us, he was most impressed by those from The Ginger Pig (£5.60 for two, available from The Ginger Pig). Premium supermarket ranges are worth a try, too, although as he also thought M&S Full On Flavour burgers (£4 for two, available from Ocado) were a good option.
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3. Don’t end up with dry chicken
For delicious crispy skin and juicy meat, James recommends opting for chicken thighs if you’re having a barbecue.
Chicken breasts can dry out on the barbecue, so it’s best to marinade them before cooking to help soften the meat.
Use a meat thermometer to make sure the chicken is cooked through before serving – the internal temperature should be at least 75°C.
4. Consider cheaper alternatives to fancy fish
Monkfish and salmon are great for barbecues, but they tend to be pricey.
Instead, James suggests trying cheaper, oily fish such as mackerel or sardines. As well as saving you money, they also tend to be easier to cook on the barbecue.
If you’re buying from a fishmonger, ask them to butterfly the fish to remove the bones.
5. Make your salads sing
The oil you choose for your salad dressing can have a noticeable impact on the flavour, says James. He recommends using a good-quality extra virgin olive oil or, if you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, cold-pressed rapeseed oil.
To boost the flavour of your salads, add fresh herbs such as basil, parsley or dill. You can also try adding some toasted fennel, cumin or mustard seeds.
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6. Choose veggie options carefully
If you’re after a vegetarian burger that offers a convincing and flavoursome meat substitute, James thinks it can be worth spending a bit more – some of the best ones are hard to tell apart from a meat burger.
Vegetarian sausages and burgers should be barbecued on a low heat to prevent them drying out, says James. They tend to contain less fat compared with meat products, which means it can be easier to overcook them.
See our round-up of the best BBQ tongs for fuss-free burger flipping
7. Know which dips to make at home and which to buy
Ready made supermarket dips are convenient, but the flavour can sometimes be disappointing, according to James, so it’s worth investing a bit of time in making your own.
Making your own guacamole is a must, he says, as the preservatives added to supermarket guacamole to help maintain an appealing colour can affect the taste. You can whip up a guacamole at home in a matter of minutes with just a few ingredients.
Homemade salsa is also preferable to shop-bought, particularly as it’s so simple to make. But if you do choose to buy one, he suggests opting for a premium, slow-cooked salsa for the best flavour.
Houmous is easy to make at home if you have a decent food processer. But James says it’s only worth making it if you use high-quality ingredients, which can be expensive. If you opt for shop-bought, it’s worth upgrading to a premium brand, especially if you like a smooth, creamy texture.
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8. Let berries take centre stage
James recommends making the most of in-season berries with a light, fruity summer dessert.
Keep it simple with a selection of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries accompanied by Chantilly cream or vanilla ice cream, or add some meringue pieces for added crunch.
He says the best-quality berries can often be found at your local greengrocer and recommends buying organic if you can.
Frozen berries are a good cheaper alternative – stew them with a little sugar to make a compote and serve with ice cream for an easy-to-prep pud.
See our pick of the best vanilla ice cream for tasty summer desserts
9. Match the booze to the food
Putting a little thought into your drink selection goes a long way.
Beer expert Melissa Cole suggests the following for different barbecue fare:
- Simple staples For classic burgers and bangers, go with a lager. Think past a pale pilsner and give an amber style a go.
- Spicy style For spicy food, look for softer, slightly sweeter beer with low bitterness. Choose a classic German wheat beer or New England IPA (Neipa).
- Sweeter selections Sticky, sweet American-style barbecue fare benefits from a biting bitterness to balance it out.
- Chew the fat If you’re doing a long, slow cook of a very fat-rich cut, such as pork or lamb shoulder, a fruity, sour beer is perfect.
Best beers for BBQ foods – see the full story for more tips.
As for wine, expert Charles Metcalfe suggests opting for light, bright, fresh, fruity wines with lively acidity and steering clear of obvious oak and bigger, firmer reds.
Rosés, English sparkling wine and vinho verde are some of his top picks. If you do fancy a red, he says Beaujolais and Zweigelt pair well with summery foodstuffs.
Prefer a booze-free version? Check out our round-up of the best alcohol-free beer
10. Keep wines cool
Whether you’re drinking sparkling, white, rosé or red, Charles Metcalfe recommends chilling your wine before serving.
While it might not seem obvious for red wines, Charles explains that warm reds taste flabby, jammy and alcoholic in the sunshine, whereas fridge-temperature reds are likely to taste brighter.
Once out of the fridge, it’s important to keep wine in the shade. Sunlight can actively damage wine, especially fizz, making it taste sulphurous.
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11. Upgrade your summer spritzer
Spritzers are ideal if you’re after a lower-alcohol, refreshing drink to enjoy on a hot summers day. For maximum freshness, Charles recommends choosing a wine with good acidity and lots of flavour.
For a twist on the classic spritzer, he suggests replacing sparkling water with lemonade for added sweetness. You could also add a dash of pomegranate or cranberry juice for some colour.
Decorate with a slice of lemon or cucumber, a sprig of mint, lemon balm or lemon verbena, and serve over ice.
Looking for more summer drink recommendations?
Find out how supermarket rivals compared in our head to head taste tests: