Cookout party

Cookout party (Photo by Ground Picture on Shutterstock)

The sun is shining and there’s not a cloud in the sky, there’s only one natural response– and that’s to invite a few friends over and head out to your grill. While delicious meats, seafood and veggies are sure to wow your guests, equally as important are the side dishes that are served alongside them. Some might even argue that the best cookout sides can steal the spotlight as the real star of the show at your next barbeque. 

Outdoor gatherings with friends have always been popular amid the warmer months, but the global pandemic COVID-19 caused people to embrace it even more during the colder months of the year. A recent study found that one in two Americans would rather catch up with friends over a social picnic than at a crowded bar after the pandemic.

Three in four (75%) surveyed said the smell of barbecue brings back happy memories, so it’s no surprise that grilling outside comes in as the top cooking activity Americans have stuck with mid- and post-pandemic. Social gatherings al fresco also just put us in a good mood, and the research is there to back it up. Research indicates that two in three adults find barbeque gatherings therapeutic

While catching up with friends, sipping on delicious beverages, and enjoying beautiful weather are key components of a good barbeque, we all know the real reason we all go, and that’s the grub. Whether it’s your vegan friend who will make a whole meal of side dishes, or your health-conscious friend who is looking for something vegetable-heavy, there’s something for everyone. StudyFinds searched through 10 experts websites in search of the top five best cookout sides of all time. Happy eating!

The List: Best Barbecue Side Dishes, According to Experts

1. Creamy Potato Salad

Creamy, tangy, and carb-loaded, whether you go with a classic version or something more inventive, chefs agree that Potato Salad is one of the best side dishes to bring to your next cookout. “Potato salad is always a crowd-pleaser at barbecues, and this fresh and tangy version is seriously easy to put together in a rush. Plus, it’s mayonnaise-free, using a homemade vinaigrette to pack the punch instead,” Jamie Oliver writes about their recipe.

Potato salad
Potato salad (Photo by Brent Hofacker on Shutterstock)

If you’re looking for something that is going to stand out from the crowd, try switching the standard recipe up with new flavors, like one with some spice and a bite. “This potato salad spin pays homage to Caesar salad, applying its supremely likable creamy, garlicky savory dressing to itty-bitty boiled potatoes. If you want a more classic potato salad recipe, we have that too,” adds Bon Appetit about their recipe.

A tip from the experts? Start slowly with your mayonnaise or oil-based dressing, you want the salad to maintain its texture and crunch, while still being decadently delicious. Insanely Good Recipes swears by their potato salad: “Made with potatoes, eggs, mustard (instead of mayo), and pickles, this potato salad has a great texture to go along with the great flavorI love the extra kick you get from the mustard and pickles in here, though they don’t make it too overpowering.”

2. Mexican Street Corn Salad 

Sure, grilled corn on the cob with a slab of butter is undeniably delicious, but why not kick it up a notch? Mexican Street Corn salad combines everything you love about corn with tangy cheese, fresh lime, herbs and seasonings. “Whether you’re making carne asada or grilled fish tacos, you can’t go wrong with a side of corn. Especially when the corn is seasoned with chili powder and topped with Cotija cheese,” says The Pioneer Woman.

Mexican street corn salad
Mexican street corn salad (Photo by Brent Hofacker on Shutterstock)

Mexican Street Corn Salad is also a great dish as you can prepare a huge batch for your guests and dress it as soon as they arrive, making it ready to serve in no time at all. “Consider this a deconstructed elote (or Mexican street corn turned sala—a.k.a. esquites). Grill fresh corn, still in its husk, and then remove the kernels, which you’ll mix with cilantro, Cotija cheese, lime juice, and more,” explains Bon Appetit.

While purists would argue fresh corn is the only way to go, if you’re short on time or resources, feel free to sub in canned corn (preferably slightly sauteed for some color). “When it comes to mouthwatering, messy summer corn recipes, this delicious snack can’t be beat. It’s equal parts sweet, savory and a little bit tart, and you won’t be able to stop after one bite,” adds Good Housekeeping.

3. Mediterranean Pasta Salad

Pasta salad has everything you love about pasta, but keeps you cool amid those lingering sunny afternoons with crisp vegetables and a light citrus dressing. While there are quite literally endless variations of this beloved side dish, foodies agree that it’s hard to beat a Mediterranean take on the recipe with olives, feta, lemon and any add-ins you please. “Made with tomatoes, feta, and olives, it’s light, refreshing, and so tasty. Bring this side dish to your next cookout, and everyone will ask for the recipe!” raves Insanely Good Recipes.

Mediterranean pasta salad
Mediterranean pasta salad (Photo by Joshua Resnick on Shutterstock

As far as pasta choice goes, more traditional cooks might opt for fusilli or penne, but don’t shy away from trying an orzo variation, tiny greek pasta that soaks up an incredible amount of flavor as you scoop up a mouthful. “Orzo is a great alternative to the typical pasta salad. Try this Mediterranean version with tangy Kalamata olives and lots of feta,” says The Pioneer Woman.

4. Coleslaw

With all the heavy grilled meats and bowls of chips, you’re gonna want something with crisp, crunch, and tang to balance it all out. “Cool, crunchy, and refreshing, this classic coleslaw belongs on your barbecue plate. This easy BBQ side dish pairs well with just about any protein, from slow-cooker pulled pork to citrusy grilled chicken,” writes Epicurious.

Coleslaw
Coleslaw (Photo by Wow_Pho on Pixabay)

If you’re looking for something to leave an impression, many recipe developers recommend adding a bit of heat to your slaw with the addition of red pepper flakes or kimchi. “Easy, crisp slaw can be made a few hours ahead of time. It goes well with ribs and a cold beer, fried chicken or whatever summer feast sparks your fancy,” adds The New York Times.

While classic coleslaw will do just fine, this cook-out staple allows of endless add-ins like more veggies or even a sprinkle of cheese. “Enhance traditional coleslaw with this hot-and-sweet version. For a spicy side dish, use thinly sliced napa cabbage and bell peppers flavored with fresh cilantro, and red onion. Cayenne pepper adds even more heat, but you can add more or less depending on your preferences,” mentions Southern Living.

5. Mac and Cheese

Have you yet to meet a person who doesn’t like the classic combination of pasta, cheese and breadcrumbs? It’s impossible to beat and a sure way to leave your guests happy and well-fed. “Everyone’s happy when there’s mac and cheese on the table. This recipe is flexible too: Experiment with different cheeses, including aged ones, if you want a sharper cheesy punch. And feel free to add your favorite mix-ins, like raw or roasted broccoli or crumbled bacon,” notes Epicurious.

Two bowls of baked mac and cheese
Two bowls of baked mac and cheese (Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels)

Worried about feeding a crowd or short on time? This is one of the few side dish staples that will actually freeze well in case you’re hosting a larger event and need to prep in advance. “We kicked up mac and cheese with hot sauce, blue cheese crumbles and garlic for a hot and creamy side dish that goes perfectly with ribs, burgers, you name it,” adds Good Housekeeping.

And let’s not forget about the kids, as much as we love to indulge in adventurous foods, it can’t hurt to have one staple menu item for the little ones. “This classic dish belongs at every party. Mac and cheese will always be the most popular dish at any party, and this made-from-scratch recipe only takes three steps to complete. Choose pasta with plenty of nooks to absorb all the cheesy goodness,” points out Southern Living.

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Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations.

About Meaghan Babaker

Meaghan Babaker is a journalist and freelance writer previously based out of New York City while working for CBS New York, CBS Local and MSNBC. After moving to Geneva, Switzerland in 2016, she went on to write for Digital Luxury Group, The Travel Corporation and other international publications before joining the editorial team at StudyFinds.

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