The Definitive Ranking of Cookout Sides
The perfect cookout involves 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. Some fall victim to the sun. And some can transform a decent spread into a thing of greatness. Here are 30 common cookout sides, ranked from worst to best.
30. 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.
29. Ants on a Log
Points for nostalgia, we guess. But also, come on. The odds that you also brought a box of snakes and call them fireworks are pretty high at this point.
28. Bean Salad
We're glad that you've contributed to the collective ratings of Food Network and Cooking Channel, but unless they're baked, a big-ass bowl of cold beans looks more like a garnish on a Bon Appétit spread than something that belongs on a paper plate.
27. Ambrosia Salad
It's fun to remember that scene in Edward Scissorhands when all the neighborhood ladies feed Johnny Depp a bunch of goopy fruit salad with whipped cream and marshmallows and God knows what… until you realize he looks kind of repulsed. We blame ambrosia salad for the travesties of Mortdecai.
26. Corn salad
The weakest of all corn variants at the cookout.
25. Grilled Eggplant
Hey, if you can do them right -- maybe with a little balsamic? -- then you're great. And you're in the minority. Because nine times out of 10, these look like some sort of surrealist take on a floppy burger patty from a bad cartoon.
You're trying too hard. It's not working. Actually, maybe try harder.
23. 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 we just can't abide.
22. 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 unless you’re also loaded up on watermelon. 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 of Fruit by the Foot are far to high for you to waste time hand-cutting each and every strip and slicing your hand for something nobody's really going to eat.
Corn's great, but it suffers when it's paired up with nobody's favorite vegetable, the lima bean. We're glad your grandmother shared this recipe with you, but we'd honestly rather just hear you talk about how great she was while we eat non-tainted corn.
19. Grilled Potatoes
Wrap 'em in foil and toss them to the side of the grill. Huzzah! Crispy home fries! Or, more commonly, accidental crispy mashed potatoes. Either way, they get a pass. Barely.
These things are delicious and versatile, yes. They can just be bacon-wrapped jalapeños. Or somebody can stuff them with cheese and call them poppers. Or incorporate chicken into them. Or call them something gross, like Kermit Fingers. The only thing that really takes these down is the labor involved. If you’re the one making them, they’re going to take you an inordinate amount of effort. And if you’re just eating them, whoever made them is going to go on and on and on about how much of a pain in the ass they were to make. Probably while calling them Kermit Fingers. Hey, who the hell invited Rick anyway?
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.
16. Potato Salad
Homemade -- or at least bought from a fancy deli or upscale grocery -- it's magic, especially if it's German. 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. There will always be leftover potato salad. It will always go to waste.
This seems like a great idea if, say, you’re friends with a fantastic baker or a legit Italian chef. But you’re probably not, so the chances of this just being a bunch of chopped-up Jimmy Johns day-old bread tossed in oil and dried basil is pretty high.
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 generations-spanning recipe decided to wing it, you're getting a mouthful of bitter, wet disappointment.
Chances are, the minute these hit the grill, they're dropping down into the coals like the souls of sinners forged in some Dantean BBQ nightmare. Either that, or they're completely shriveled. But on the off chance that the person running the grill treats them with care and TLC, these are among the best sides you can put on your plate. It's a pretty big "if" though.
12. Deviled Eggs
Nothing like some whipped up egg innards baking in the sun to make your table smell like the sulfur pits at Yellowstone! Get 'em while they're cold.
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, a little seasoning, maybe chuck in some meat and cheese, and you've got a winner. We've never tried it, but we have a feeling that it'd even be good if you just threw some leftover spaghetti in a bowl with cubed chunks of pizza slices. Maybe that's why we're seldom invited to cookouts.
10. Tomato Salad
Whoever invented caprese salad deserves a Nobel Prize for... something. Peace, maybe? 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. Hell, even if you get it at a grocery store, it's pretty damn good. It can absorb flavors like a sponge and somehow become better. Burger juice? Yup. Watermelon drippings? Absolutely. Some salad dressing courtesy of that lazy store-bought, Newman's Own-soaked monstrosity somebody brought... actually, you can ruin cornbread. But it's not cornbread's fault.
8. Baked Beans
Back in the pioneer days, baked beans were as synonymous with outdoor cooking as dying of dysentery was to the Oregon Trail. Even out of the can, they're magic, though if they're gussied 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-ass cantaloupe...
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. Also, it's pretty fun to throw at people.
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. And if they fall victim to becoming stale, you can incorporate them into a makeshift yard game. Biscuits aren't creative, but their applications sure as hell are.
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 cheese, and drizzle with lime. You will never want to grill corn any other way, and you instantly look like you're more cultured than you actually are.
3. Mac & Cheese
What with all the dairy fat and casserole-like qualities, mac & cheese doesn’t really seem like it’s ideally 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 & 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 everything infinitely better. Oh, sure, you're probably gonna get juice all over your plate. And all over your hands, which you will inevitably forget to wash, only to wake up covered in ants. But who cares. Everybody loves watermelon. Especially ants. And ants gotta picnic, too.
It sounds so simple, lazy even... especially when you show up to a spread that everybody's spent all day preparing. But chips -- potato, nacho, whatever -- 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.
Food Stylist: Jen Beauchesne