The Definitive Ranking of Cookout Sides
The simplest side comes out on top.
The perfect cookout requires syncing a ton of moving pieces into harmony. You've got to make sure your main dishes are on point. You need a solid guest list, preferably comprised of people who like to play yard games. And it's essential to make sure that your side dishes aren't just afterthoughts.
But not all cookout sides are created equal. Some reek of laziness, while others fall victim to the sun. But some can transform an otherwise mediocre spread into a thing of greatness. Here are 22 common cookout sides, ranked from worst to best.
22. A Green Salad
Oh come on. If you really didn't want to try, you should have been honest and brought a bag of chips instead of leaving a bunch of oil-covered leaves to wilt in the sun.
21. Bean Salad
Salads as a whole have a bad rep. Maybe they're unfairly relegated to the bottom of the list. But in the case of beans, unless they're baked, they do not belong anywhere near my paper plate.
20. Grilled Artichokes
You're trying too hard. It's not working. Actually, maybe try harder.
19. Quinoa Salad
While the healthier take on the cold "salad" is often delicious and appreciated, there's no way that anything on your plate will make it to your mouth without a little oily speck of quinoa on it, and it's just not worth the risk.
18. Couscous Salad
As with quinoa, there’s no way anything that shares a plate with couscous is going to get into your mouth without some little grains on it, which isn’t necessarily bad but it's not good either. So why is it ranked higher than quinoa? Because it’s the food so nice they named it twice, and the dad joke possibilities are endless.
The chances that these are going to end up looking like translucent, unfurled, slightly charred hunks are far too high for you to waste time hand-cutting each and every strip and slicing your hand for something nobody's really going to eat.
If you get it fresh out of the cooler, this is essential, especially alongside some pulled pork or a juicy burger. But once it comes out to the table, you're working with a ticking time bomb, one that tends to sweat creamy bullets all over the plate. And when you get to the bottom, it's basically like some horrifying soup just waiting to ruin your buns. Coleslaw is a race: one that's worth running if you're fast, but not for the fun run that is grazing all day on a cookout spread.
15. Potato Salad
When potato salad is homemade (or at least bought from a fancy deli or upscale grocery), it's magic. Especially if it's German because that means there is bacon in it. But there's always the danger that somebody half-assed it, offering up a saucy pile of half-cooked potato chunks or, worse, just hit up Costco on the way over and called it a day. So beware.
14. Collard Greens
If you find yourself at a party where somebody made some homemade, pork-laden collards, you should devour scoop after scoop of that soul-food staple. If you find yourself at a party where some wannabe cook not equipped with a generation-spanning recipe decided to wing it, you're getting a mouthful of bitter, wet disappointment.
13. Deviled Eggs
Nothing like some whipped up egg innards baking in the sun to make your table smell like the sulfur pits at Yellowstone! Like many of the lower ranked items on this list: Get 'em while they're cold or don't get 'em at all.
12. Grilled Potatoes
Wrap 'em in foil and toss them to the side of the grill. Huzzah! One of the better BBQ sides! Or, more commonly, accidental crispy mashed potatoes. Either way, they get a pass.
11. Pasta Salad
It's one of the most un-screw-up-able dishes there is. It doesn't matter what pasta you even pick. Penne? Great! Orzo? Oh, you fancy! Just cover it with a little oil or even dressing out of the bottle, chuck in some meat and cheese, and you've got a winner.
10. Caprese Salad
When tomatoes are in season ---whether grape, heirloom, cherry, whatever -- there's nothing quite as refreshing as a bowl of cold red fruit tossed in dressing, maybe gussied up with cheese. Just don't let it get warm and mushy: Nobody wants to eat accidental pasta sauce with a hot dog.
It's almost impossible to mess up cornbread. Even if you buy it pre-made at a grocery store, it's pretty damn good.
8. Baked Beans
Back in the pioneer days, baked beans were as synonymous with outdoor cooking as dying of dysentery was with the Oregon Trail. Even out of the can, they're magic. But if they're amped up with bacon or smoked meats, they're somehow better. Yeah, they're a bit of a mess, but who cares: If a side's gonna get your bun soggy, make it baked beans.
7. Fruit Salad
Fresh, delicious fruit salad is the perfect complement to any cookout, offering up a nice counterpart to all the savory stuff, plus a little extra garnish for your sangria (side note: sangria totally counts as fruit salad). Now if only 90% of fruit salads didn't come looking like somebody was trying to get rid of a truckload of nasty cantaloupe...
6. Corn on the Cob
It's a classic for a reason, and represents the only time when you don't get super grossed out when you take a bite of something and get what appears to be hair in your mouth. If it's there, you're eating it. And it's really, really hard to screw up.
A big ol' pile of biscuits -- whether from a can, a box, a bakery, or mama's old recipe -- has infinite utility. You can use them to make improvised sandwiches out of things sweet and savory. You can munch on them without dressing them up. Later, when you've had too much sangria (fruit salad!), they're essential in soaking up the booze.
Making a simple pleasure like corn on the cob even better is actually, well, simple: Grill it, hit it with chile, salt the shit out of it, butter it, slick it with mayo, cover it in cotija, and spray it with lime. Suddenly, you'll have your hands on one of the best BBQ sides there is.
3. Mac and Cheese
What with all the dairy fat and casserole-like qualities, mac and cheese doesn’t really seem like it’s engineered for cookouts, but it doesn’t matter. Bring a pan of it, and that pan will inevitably be gone well before the elements render it questionable. And who are we kidding, even if it HAD been sitting out, you’d still eat it. Such is the undeniable power of mac and cheese.
Chop it up and put it on a bowl. Pour booze in it. Cut it into slabs, salt it, and put it on the grill. No matter what you do with a watermelon, it makes every cookout infinitely better. Oh, sure, you're probably gonna get juice all over your plate. But who cares. Everybody loves watermelon.
1. A Big-Ass Bag of Chips
It sounds so simple. Or lazy even... especially when you show up to a spread that everybody else spent all day preparing. But chips are absolutely the perfect side. They will all be eaten, probably before anything else. You can leave them out in the sun all day and nothing bad will happen to them. They go with everything. Vegetarians and carnivores alike will devour them. Nobody has ever -- ever -- put a bag of chips on the back of the table because they know nobody will eat them. Clear eyes. Salty fingers. Can't fail. Especially if you pair them with a good side of onion dip.
Food Stylist: Jen Beauchesne