Watching our favorite team gut it out on the gridiron is great and all, but if we’re being completely honest? Scoring tickets for the big game is more about the tailgates than the tackles. As football season returns, the grills come out, the beer gets chilled and the parking lot parties get kicked into high gear.
And while you’ll want to keep some face masks and a big ol’ bottle of hand sanitizer close by, this is also the time to plan your menu, stock up on supplies and get all the gear you’ll need for a successful tailgate party. For a little coaching on our next tailgate playbook, we turned to John Currence — an Oxford, Mississippi-based James Beard Award-winning chef and “Top Chef Masters” contestant, whose book “Tailgreat” pays homage to the pregaming tradition — and Susie Bulloch, whose website Hey Grill Hey offers a slew of barbecue recipes along with a signature line of rubs and sauces.
Tailgating tips and tricks
‘Tailgreat: How to Crush It at Tailgating’ by John Currence (starting at $14.99; amazon.com)
Currence’s tailgating cookbook is packed with recipes sure to score a touchdown with your guests. From breakfast ideas (Shrimp and Cheese Grit Soufflé, anyone?) to snacks (Korean BBQ Wings for the win!) to dips (Chili and Cheese Frito Pie, please) to po’boys, sliders, tacos, ribs and hand pies, we honestly don’t even care who’s playing. Bring on the party!
Yes, hot dogs, hamburgers and brats are tailgate no-brainers. But with a little forethought, it’s easy to elevate your next party before the big game. “I love to precook wings about three-fourths of the way, drizzle them with oil and then finish them on the grill before tossing them with whatever I choose to dress them with,” Currence says. “And marinated vegetables on the grill for just a touch of flavor — but leaving them with most of their raw texture — is always a crowd-pleaser.”
Cuisinart Nonstick Grill Wok ($17.74, originally $19.99; amazon.com)
Keep your kabobs and skewers from falling through the grill grate with this highly rated wok made of nonstick perforated steel.
Anything handheld is the way to go when it comes to a successful tailgate, according to Bulloch. “I love making a batch of smoked deviled eggs before the tailgate — they’re always a huge hit,” she says. “Then, when the crew is all assembled, I fire up the grill for some Grilled Buffalo Chicken Skewers — all of that classic Buffalo chicken flavor on a tailgate-friendly stick. Nobody can resist the smell of them on the grill, and we always pick up a few extra guests who follow their noses to our setup.”
Jomverl 12-Piece Kabob Metal Skewers ($5.99, originally $6.99; amazon.com)
This pack of 12 stainless steel kabob skewers gets rave reviews for being reusable and long-lasting, sturdy and, at 14 inches, long enough to hold a great amount of meat and veggies.
“My goal with any tailgate is to only pack what is necessary, and premade sauces and seasonings make that task so much easier,” Bulloch says. “If you pack a few seasonings and sauces that can cover your flavor bases, then you can avoid loading up 12 jars of individual spices and unnecessary condiments.”
Some versatile faves from her Hey Grill Hey line that work for everything you throw on the grill, from classic burgers to fajitas, include Beef Rub, Chicken Rub and Fiesta Rub, along with Whiskey Peach BBQ Sauce, Texas Style BBQ Sauce and Maple Bourbon Grilling Glaze.
Hey Grill Hey Beef Rub ($7.99; heygrillhey.com)
Bulloch’s all-purpose beef seasoning mixes salt, pepper and six other spices, perfect for topping burgers, steaks, veggies and more. It’s also an award winner, nabbing first place honors at the National Barbecue Association’s 2020 awards.
Grills for tailgating
Very little about tailgating, according to Currence, is simple or convenient, so using tools that make the job easier is important. “As much as I hate to say it, gas grills make the most sense for a tailgate, as dealing with burn-down charcoal is always a challenge in a space that is not yours,” he says. “I suggest looking for something lightweight and easy to handle that cools down quickly.”
Check out our guide to cleaning grills here.
Cuisinart Chef’s-Style Propane Tabletop Grill ($174.64, originally $219.99; amazon.com)
Currence is a fan of Cuisinart’s top-rated tabletop propane chef’s grill that comes with two burners and an electronic ignition and requires zero assembly. “It’s all stainless and very slick-looking and super easy to clean,” he says.
Coleman RoadTrip 285 Portable Stand-Up Propane Grill ($219.99, originally $269.99; amazon.com)
Currence also recommends Coleman’s RoadTrip series of stand-alone grills, noting their high performance. This propane model features three adjustable burners, a large grilling area, quick-fold legs, wheels and a push-button ignition, plus an integrated thermometer for easy monitoring.
According to Bulloch, portability and capacity are key to finding a great tailgating grill. “You want a grill that’s easy to move but has enough cooking space to fit more than two hot dogs and one ear of corn,” she says. “As far as portability, I look for grills that are self-contained, meaning I don’t need to pack up a bunch of additional pieces to assemble it at the tailgate.”
Bulloch calls this PKGO her current favorite tailgate grill. “I’ve hauled this grill all over the place this summer and have loved the versatility,” she says. “The PKGO actually opens up and splits in half to double that grill grate real estate. Charcoal-fueled with super thick walls means that you can grill hot and fast or even smoke low and slow, all without needing propane or electricity.”
Food storage and accessories
One major piece of the successful tailgate party puzzle: how best to keep food and drinks hot or cold. “I always pack a few small coolers instead of one large one,” Bulloch says. “One cold cooler is for raw meats. You always want to keep that separate from your drinks or fresh fruits and vegetables. Pick something that is one solid piece of plastic inside so it is easy to sanitize when you get home.”
Check out more of our favorite coolers here.
Igloo Profile 28-Quart Cooler ($39.99; amazon.com)
Thousands of Amazon reviewers love this classic cooler that comes with wheels (perfect for toting to your tailgate site), telescoping handles that make it a breeze to pull or push, pouring spouts to get rid of melted ice with little fuss and plenty of room to pack meat or beverages.
Bulloch prefers to load a second cooler with drinks and anything ready to eat cold, while a third cooler is for hot items. “I usually use this to transport hot items I’ve made at home, from briskets to smoked ribs or pulled pork,” she says, noting she lines the cooler with towels to keep meat at the perfect hot serving temperature for hours.
Coleman PowerChill Hot/Cold Portable Thermoelectric 40-Quart Cooler ($161.24, originally $169.99; amazon.com)
Have food you need to keep hot during your tailgate? This cooler has a warming mode to keep your meats, dips or sides at least 40 degrees warmer than the temp outside. Want to use it as a refrigeration unit? No sweat: It’ll stay around 30 degrees and, instead of ice, just plug it into your car’s power adapter.
Currence likes to wrap bricks in aluminum foil, heating them to 400 degrees, then places them in the bottom of a cooler, covering them with a towel and layering the food on top to keep it warm. “To keep things cold,” he adds, “fill Ziploc bags with water and freeze them flat for layering on your cold food. This keeps your food cold without all the mess of melted ice.”
More than 2,500 reviewers on Amazon give this Yeti cooler 5 stars for its ruggedness, outstanding ability to keep things ice-cold for hours and leakproof, easy drainage. This model holds up to 20 cans with a two-to-one ice-to-can ratio and comes with a standard dry goods basket. “Simply put, Yeti is 100% unparalleled,” Currence says.
ThermoWorks Thermapen One ($105; thermoworks.com)
“Any time I’m leaving home to cook, whether it’s to tailgate or teach a barbecue class, I always make sure to pack two things: my instant read thermometer and a portable knife set,” Bulloch says. “My favorite thermometer is the Thermapen One. It gives an incredibly accurate read-out in one second. A quick reading may not seem important until your hand is holding a thermometer over a hot grill. Having accurate and fast temperature readings means that you can cook anything while you’re tailgating without worrying about under- or over-cooking your food.”
Camp Chef 9-Piece Professional Knife Set ($49.99; amazon.com)
Bulloch says this nine-piece knife set, complete with a chef, bread, paring, fillet and utility knife, plus a carving fork, shears, cutting board and carry case, has a permanent spot in her tailgating kit, calling it “sharp, versatile and not too precious.”
MasterCanopy Pop-Up Canopy Tent ($159.95, originally $204.95; amazon.com)
Mark your space while proving your tailgating guests with plenty of shade with this highly rated pop-up canopy that will shield you from rain, wind and sun as you pre-game. Water-resistant with 50-plus UV protection fabric, it’s super sturdy and comes with a wheeled rolled bag for easy transport.
ABCCanopy Outddor Canopy Tent with Sun Wall ($95.95, originally $129.95; amazon.com)
Get ample coverage, including two removable side walls with this pop-up tent that gets rave reviews for being easy to assemble, with no tools required, its waterproof, sun-resistant fabric and rugged roller bag.
Coleman Instant Beach Canopy ($159.99, originally $229.99; amazon.com)
Snag some serious savings on this hexagon-shaped 13-by-13-foot beach canopy that also works in the grass or on concrete for tailgate parties. Easy to set up in just three minutes, it includes two-way roof vents for better air circulation as well as a wheeled carry bag.
KingCamp SUV/Truck/Car Tent Canopy ($129.99, originally $174.99; target.com)
When tailgating space is tight, pull out this lightweight and portable awning that attaches to your vehicle, giving you plenty of shade without needing to take up multiple parking spots. Prefer to ground it? It comes with steel poles to allow that too.
Benches, chairs and tables for tailgating
Sierra Designs Oversized Folding Chair ($37.99; target.com)
You’ll need to provide some seating if you plan to tailgate all day and this chair gets top ratings for its wide seat (it holds up to 300 pounds), cup holder and media pocket and overall comfort.
Dallas Cowboys Rawlings Tailgate 4.0 Chair ($39.99; nflshop.com)
Support your favorite football team with a logo’d chair from the NFL Shop, the league’s official store. Each chair features adjustable arm rests and two cup holders and folds up to pack away easily before kick off. Find your favorite team here.
Iowa Hawkeyes Fitted Tailgate Table Cover ($14.99; fanatics.com)
Cheer on your college team with this popular, fitted table cover that measures 6-feet-by-3-inches and stretches over your tailgate table with elastic corners and adhesive strips. Click here for more teams.
Camco Deluxe Folding Grill Table ($75.11, originally $92.98; amazon.com)
Give yourself some food-prep space at your next tailgate with this highly rated table that’s sturdy, handy and easy to assemble. The large tabletop, plus two side shelves and a lower shelf, along with hooks and a paper towel holder will keep all your supplies handy.
Yaheetech Folding Portable Sport Seats ($119.99, originally $129.99; amazon.com)
Provide six seats with this foldable bench that’s an Amazon bestseller. Easy to set up in just seconds, each seat can hold up to 200 pounds, it comes with a carry bag for easy storage and sidebags at either end can hold water bottles, phones and more.