The 7 hottest grilling trends

These are the cookout upgrades you'll be making this summer, thanks to innovative chefs.

Summer grilling used to be synonymous with suburban dads in jorts, but now some of the coolest chefs across the country are heating up the cookout scene with creative approaches to outdoor cookouts (read: no more medium-well burgers). “Grilling reveals new flavors in all sorts of food, whether it’s by caramelizing the natural sugars in fruits and vegetables or adding a smoky element to meats or greens,” says Ryder Zetts, the executive chef at Archetype in Napa, who boasts a well-used wood-fired grill at his restaurant. To that end, we’ve rounded up some of the grill trends they’re firing up this summer.

finish your seafood boil on the grill

Take a cue from Angie Mar, chef at New York City celeb-magnet Beatrice Inn, who makes the most of rooftop grilling in New York City by inviting friends over and tossing partially-blanched whole crabs and spatchcocked lobsters on the grill along with corn on the cob. “It imparts a bit of charred flavor in the seafood meat and adds sexy grill marks to everything,” says Mar. Once that’s done, she brushes thick slices of sourdough bread with olive oil and toasts that over the flames. “It soaks up some of that seafood flavor and is just the most delicious bread you’ll ever taste.”

use essential oils instead of spices

Sam Talbot, chef at Pig + Poet restaurant in Camden, Maine, rebels against overly complicated spice rubs or marinades. For him, a spritz of essential oils from Aftelier in Berkeley, California, adds more lasting fresh flavor than anything else in the pantry. “They capture the concentrated essence of a flavor that permeates the entire dish,” says Talbot. He uses a spritz of sweet basil on a steak before grilling, for example, or the essence of ginger on a fish about to hit the flames.

introduce unexpected veggies

Just when we thought we were over the whole kale thing, charred kale hit the scene. At his restaurant, Zetts tosses the beloved leafy green with some olive oil and salt and then sprinkles it with some water; it blackens on the edges while the water helps it steam through and soften. Zetts also takes sugar snap peas to the grill -- the grates of his wood-burning restaurant grill are close together so snap peas won’t slip through, but you can get the same effect at home with a perforated metal or mesh pan made especially for the grill. Then, when your high-heat cooking is done for the night, put a fork-pricked eggplant directly on the still-hot coals and let it roast for 30 or 45 minutes, suggests Zetts, who scoops out the smoky eggplant flesh to top a chickpea crepe along with ricotta and fresh herbs at his restaurant. It would be equally delicious in a homemade baba ghanoush dip.

a new rule of thumb: smoke before fire

“Not everyone in New York City has space of permits for an open-fire grill,” says Mar, who speaks from experience: Beatrice Inn operates on an indoor propane grill, the kind long maligned for not adding that signature charred, smoky flavor. But, Mar cold smokes meats like rib eye steak or a whole leg of lamb before adding that signature char on the grill. “You have more control this way, and are sure to get a lot of smoky flavor without overcooking the meat,” says Mar. Get the same effect at home with a smoking gun filled with hickory wood or applewood chips, recommends Mar.

think beyond tuna and salmon

Step aside salmon fillets: Chefs are welcoming a wider variety of fish to the grill this summer. Sardines have more omega-3 fatty acids than salmon, and it’s those same oils that make them ideal for the grill. “They’re rich and flavorful and the perfect size to grill quickly,” says Zetts, the chef at Archetype. He wraps whole sardines in thinly sliced bacon, then grills them for about 60 seconds a side. “The bacon gets really crispy on the grill and the fish stays moist and tender.”

seal in flavor

“For a while there cooks were going crazy for sous vide everything,” says Talbot, which means plenty of people have a vacuum sealer, the first step in sous vide cooking, stashed away somewhere. Talbot uses his to seal cuts of meat with aromatics for a new kind of marinade. “I’ll seal steak with razor-thin slivers of local green garlic, shallots, carrots, red wine vinegar and lemon zest, then let it sit for two hours,” says Talbot, who says this technique deepens the flavor without affecting the texture of the meat like a long marinade might.

create savory-sweet desserts

Think beyond the usual grilled pineapple rings: This summer, Chef Mar is throwing strawberries on the grill to add a new twist to strawberry shortcake. “I love that sweet-savory balance in desserts, and grilling strawberries adds a certain complexity to them that rounds out the dish,” says Mar. She halves the strawberries lengthwise, tosses them in a bit of oil, then places them cut-side down on a 550-degree grill for about 30 seconds. “It caramelizes the sugar to add a bit of sweetness but, because you’re not cooking it all the way through, also preserves that freshness.” Try it with stone fruits like peaches or nectarines too, suggests Mar.