Chattanooga-area meat experts offer advice for your Fourth of July cookouts

For many Americans, the Fourth of July may be the blowout cookout of the year, the day a crowd shows up in the backyard looking for food. (We'll assume you know these people.)

The size of your guest list may determine what goes on the grill - maybe chicken, steaks or brisket if you're feeling generous. If you're like most Americans, you'll go with the budget-friendly crowd-pleasers - hamburgers and hot dogs.

To help you prepare, we checked in with experts at four local butcher shops:

> Donnie Rains, owner of Don's Meat Shop in Hixson.

> Andrew Tucker, chef de cuisine at Main Street Meats, a butcher shop and cafe on Chattanooga's Southside.

> Brittany Berger, who runs the grinder at Rusty's Meat Market in Rossville.

> Chris Bilbra, owner of Spek Artisan Meats, a craft butcher shop and deli at Cambridge Square in Ooltewah.

(READ MORE: Memorable dishes for Fourth of July festivities)

Here are 10 tips from the pros to get the best results for your Fourth of July feast. They've focused mostly on hamburgers, in keeping with tradition.

As Bilbra explains: "People have been doing it this way for 100 years, and they want to keep doing it."

1. Don't put off your food purchases. "The biggest tip is don't wait until the last minute to buy your stuff," says Rains. "Whatever you want to do, be thinking about it now (not day of)."

2. Buy the best meat you can afford. "All of our meat has no additives, no preservatives, no fillers. It's ground fresh every day. It's going to taste really good anyway (no matter how it's cooked)," says Berger.

The other pros second that sentiment for the meats at their shops. If you're buying at a supermarket, ask for the meat manager's advice.

3. Let the flavor of the meat shine through. "A lot of people will go for a lot of rubs and marinades, but if you buy good-quality meat you don't need all that seasoning," says Tucker. "Just a little salt and pepper, and throw it on the grill."

4. Choose hamburger meat with some fat in it. Berger suggests an 80/20 blend. "That makes for a good, juicy burger," she says. "It's enough fat to keep it juicy," but not so much that the fat cooks out and the remaining beef patty "shrivels up to nothing."

5. Pat out thicker patties if you're cooking to medium doneness. "Thinner patties may not get hot enough to kill any bacteria," Rains explains. "Thicker patties are on the grill longer so the inside temperature has a chance to rise." For safety, he recommends serving burgers more toward the done side when you're cooking for a crowd. Watch the juices to check for doneness. "When the juices run clear, they're done," says Rains.

6. Use a meat thermometer. Bilbra says the best way to be sure of the doneness of the meat is to check the internal temperature with a thermometer. Prices and quality vary widely, but Food Network recently chose a ThermoPro Meat Thermometer With Long Probe as its best budget buy. It's available for about $10 on Amazon. Bilbra suggests cooking hamburger patties to medium well, about 155 degrees.

7. Get your timing right. "Cook it right before you serve it," Berger recommends. Beyond the obvious safety concerns, food that sits out dries out. The Food and Drug Administration has a "two-hour rule" that calls for discarding any perishables left at room temperature for longer than two hours.

8. Make room for more than the mainstays. Hamburgers and hot dogs may be expected, but Tucker suggests adding a few extras to the meat menu. Even better cuts can be served economically. "Maybe some nice steaks, sliced up and served family style," he says. "And I really like sausages on the grill."

9. Put some thought into the sides. Don't just open a bag of chips. When it comes to the Fourth of July meal, "having a lot of really good sides can make it or break it," Tucker says. Many fruits and vegetables get an extra depth of flavor when grilled. Tucker suggests any fresh produce in season, such as corn, squash, zucchini and onions - "maybe even throw a tomato on there," he says. For a sweet finish include peaches, melons, pineapples and pears, any fruit that's fairly firm and can hold its shape over the coals.

10. Keep it simple. "I think the best advice I can give is don't overthink it," says Tucker. "Just remember that people aren't there to be impressed. They just want to eat."

Contact Lisa Denton at or 423-757-6281.