Pull out the cozy throws and keep the grill going as temperatures dip.

By Kelsey Ogletree
October 20, 2020
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As summer fades out and sweater weather falls upon us, it’s usually the time to bring parties indoors. This year, things look different. The CDC is still recommending gatherings be held outdoors, keeping in accordance with state and local guidelines. But lower temperatures don’t have to mean less fun. In fact, autumn can be one of the best times to host a get-together outside. “Fall weather lends itself perfectly to creating welcoming and entertaining outdoor spaces,” says Shayla Copas, an Arkansas-based interior designer and author of “Four Seasons of Entertaining.”

For one, you don’t have to spend a fortune on decor; you can let Mother Nature do the work for you. If you live in an area with beautiful fall foliage, use pretty branches and leaves placed in a simple container to make a big impact. When it comes to food, don’t put away your grill. There are many ways you can continue to use this outdoor cooking station through the winter when taking proper safety precautions. Read on for your guide to safe entertaining outdoors through this fall and beyond.

Our 6 Top Tips for Grilling in Colder Temperatures

Grills are an extremely versatile piece of equipment that can be utilized year-round, especially this year, when we’re all eating more at home. But when grilling outdoors in colder temperatures, you may want to stay away from items that can take a longer time to cook—such as thick steaks—because cooler weather means your grill won’t hold heat as well as it does in warmer temperatures, says John Manion, chef/owner of El Che Steakhouse & Bar in Chicago. Instead, try grilling seafood (like trout or oysters) or veggies, such as broccolini, butternut squash or wilted greens.

If you don’t want to give up your New York strips for the season, we get it. Luckily, there’s an easy work-around: make sure you're using cast-iron grates (such as these). “These get hot extremely fast and stay hot for a long time,” explains Doug MacFarland, executive chef at Brasada Ranch in Powell Butte, Ore. Most gas grills come with cast iron grates, but others do have stainless steel or aluminum grates instead—switching them out for cast-iron also will give your meat a nicer color (think perfect sear marks) and help you to be more consistent with your heat.

When it’s cold out, the person manning the grill should have a designated “grill coat” that is OK for getting dirty or smoky while working around the grill, Manion adds. Fingerless gloves are also a great accessory to have for winter grilling.

For outdoor entertaining, plan on slightly longer grilling times in cold temperatures, says Cole Hansen, corporate chef with Johnsonville Sausage in Wisconsin. You’ll need to use more charcoal than usual when it’s cool outside, and also be sure to preheat gas grills in advance to the grates will become hot. Now is a good time to stock up on charcoal and propane, Hansen adds, as stores don’t stock as much of them in colder months.

One fun idea is to make grilling part of the entertainment of your get-together. Kevin Draper, executive chef at Bin Fifty-Four Steak & Cellar in Chapel Hill, N.C., likes to use his grill as a smoker—cooking items like beef brisket or pork butt—for a longer time at lower temperatures in colder weather. “Once everyone has bundled up, I invite guests to step outside on the patio, with a drink of course, to gather around the grill and check the status of whatever I’m smoking,” he says. “It almost acts like a fire pit, and guests feel involved in the cooking process.”

Of course, it’s key to keep safety in mind whenever you’re grilling, but especially in colder temperatures. Fires involving grills cause an average of $149 million in property damage annually, according to a report from the National Fire Protection Association. It may be tempting to move your grill into the garage when it’s chilly or snowing, but don’t do it—even if the garage door is open. Gas grills can produce carbon monoxide, the odorless gas that can be deadly for both people and pets, so this is highly dangerous, says Sharon Cooksey, a fire safety educator with Kidde. You should always keep grills at least 10 feet from your home and keep at 3-foot safety zone around the grilling area to keep guests and pets safe. Always keep a fire extinguisher within easy reach, as well, for safety.

How to Winterize Your Grill

When using your grill in the winter, there are a few things you should keep in mind to keep it functioning at its best. The main thing is to keep it cleaned and oiled, says Manion. You can use vegetable or canola oil to keep the grates lubricated throughout cold weather, similar to how you’d maintain a cast iron pan. If you live in an area with snow and ice and are using salt on your deck or patio, be careful to not let it touch your grill as salt can damage the metal. And finally, it goes without saying that you should keep your grill under a cover to prevent rust, adds Manion.

To truly winterize your grill, there are a few steps you should take, says Paul Katz, corporate executive chef with Bottleneck Management restaurant group in Chicago. Turn your grill to 500 degrees for 20 minutes with the cover closed to let any large debris burn off, making it easier to clean the grates. Turn off and let it cool slightly, then use a clean grill brush to scrape off any food left behind. After the grill has completely cooled, use some soapy water and elbow grease to get the grates sparkling clean (taking care to rinse well). Use a cleaner designed for stainless steel to clean your grill’s exterior and give it a nice shine. If you don’t have one already, purchase a grill cover (or if yours is faded or torn, get a new one) to prolong your grill’s life.

What Should You Grill in Colder Temperatures?

Think beyond the grates when grilling this fall and winter. You can bring in your cast-iron kitchen tools to make some incredible dishes on the grill, says MacFarland—like seafood paella. This dish is traditionally made on the stove in a paella pan, but you can do it in a cast-iron pan that’s at least 12 inches wide on a propane or charcoal grill.

Turkey is also fantastic on the grill, says Hansen. Even better? Grilled turkey requires little effort before and during grilling time, helping Thanksgiving come together in a snap.

Don’t forget about fall vegetables. Your grill is an excellent way to cook pumpkin or butternut squash; dice them up and cook them on a grill pan, then blend them to make a slightly smoky pumpkin puree (perfect for using in savory fall recipes like turkey-pumpkin chili) or even butternut squash soup. Other ideas to try on your grill: Whole roasted cauliflower, grilled eggplant or roasted parsnips and carrots with sage.

You can also take traditional comfort foods, like lasagna, simply swapping out your oven for the grill, says John Lewis of Lewis Barbecue in Charleston, S.C.  When making casseroles such as this, simply follow the same directions you would for cooking it in the oven, using a disposable aluminum pan instead of a baking dish. Be sure to keep a close eye on the temperature to ensure heat stays consistent inside the grill.

Finally, there’s nothing as cozy as grilling up a warm dessert. Using a cast iron skillet set atop the grates is an ideal way to make sweet endings like flourless chocolate skillet cake or perfect-for-fall skillet apple cranberry crisp.

Don't Forget to Set up a Comfortable Outdoor Entertaining Scape

First things first. A few strands of outdoor lights can do wonders for setting a mood. Additionally, “a fire pit or fire tables offer a beautiful glow that give an outdoor space an elevated level of ambiance,” Copas says. Plus, you can create an activity around the fire—such as a s’mores station or even simple grilled hot dogs—for a more rustic feel. Fire kettles, such as these by Georgia-based Sea Island Forge, are a great idea because they not only add warmth for guests, but you can cook over them, too. Now is also a perfect time to break out the cozy fall throws and pillows to add an extra layer of warmth — place them in large baskets around areas where people will congregate. And if you’ll be entertaining often through the winter, you may want to invest in a propane patio heater or two—find our buyer's guide here.

RELATEDHow to Stay Safe Outdoors While Using Space Heaters and Fire Pits (Plus Other Ways to Stay Warm This Fall and Winter)

When hosting guests this fall, keep your guest list small, says Courtney Whitmore, founder of entertaining blog Pizzazzerie and author of the new book The Southern Entertainer’s Cookbook. This will keep everyone as safe as possible during these unusual times, and also create a more intimate feel,” she says. You should also take care to space everyone out as much as possible, spreading out place settings on your tablescape at least a few feet apart if possible—even if it feels awkward at first. If anything, “it will leave you with extra elbow room to add more glowing candles and delicious fall treats,” Whitemore adds.

Incorporating an activity like pumpkin carving or pumpkin decorating (less messy!) is a fun way for guests to spend time together while keeping socially distanced, Copas adds. Try creating different stations with markers, glitter, ribbons and other embellishments, then give an award for the best pumpkin of the night, she suggests.

Of course, no party is complete without incredible food. As the temperatures drop, your menu should become warmer and heartier, Copas says. Steer away from cold cocktails and try serving a warm beverage, such as hot cider kept warm with spices in a slow cooker. For food, think about what nature is producing this time of year—apples, pears, sweet potatoes—and how you can incorporate that bounty into dishes. You can also think beyond the plated meal and try making charcuterie boards (individually sized and plated, for safety) or try the grazing table trend, where you incorporate a variety of meats, cheese, vegetables, dips, sliders and sweet treats, says Whitmore.