Ask a Chef: How to Make Better Labor Day Side Dishes

Overhead view of friends dining at table outdoors
Overhead view of friends dining at table outdoorsThomas Barwick / Getty Images

Labor Day comes with a lot of great things: an extra day off work, weather usually hot enough to be pleasant without becoming overbearing, and most importantly, lots of meat on the grill. But there’s one thing we bet you’re not looking forward to as much: BBQ side dishes. Oh poor coleslaw, poor salad, poor beans, dressing themselves up in brightly colored bowls, awaiting your attention as you pass them over for a third hot dog. Or perhaps you decide some cabbage could be a healthy addition to your plate, and are welcomed by a bite of gooey shreds, destined to be pushed to the corner of your plate or loaded back into a tupperware and forgotten in the fridge.


It doesn’t have to be this way. Sides “make the meal well-rounded and let’s be honest, you don’t just want to eat brisket at a cook-out,” says Chef John Lewis of Lewis Barbecue, opening later this year in Charleston, SC. Okay, you may just want to eat brisket at a cook-out, but with the right sides it can make the meal. “Side dishes not only add color to your plate, but bright and fresh flavors that complement the richness of the meat.” You hear that? The meat could be better because of the side dishes. So, how to provide that balance? Growing up in Texas, Lewis had what he calls the “trinity” of sides: “a crunchy, light cole slaw; a creamy and rich potato salad; and a fresh, campfire-style pinto bean salad.” A variety of textures, flavors and ingredients means there’s something for every palate, and enough to balance a hearty serving of meat.

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The main problem with BBQ side dishes is they can be so disappointing–heavy, mayo-laden slaw and sickly-sweet canned beans are not what anyone craves. To make a good slaw, Lewis says keep it light. “For my cole slaw, I start with very fresh and crispy cabbage, and dress it with a sour cream, lots of lemon juice, and a hit of vinegar.” Something like potato salad can be a great vehicle to experiment with different flavor profiles, like using sriracha and fresh peppers, or garam masala. Lewis is a fan of buttermilk and bacon, buttermilk for its acidity, and bacon because…it’s bacon. The addition of whole grain mustard adds some extra bite and texture too.

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The best part is that all these sides can easily be served cold and made beforehand, and in fact, are often better when they’ve had a day to marinate together. That way, you can just plate them and focus on your meat, your guests, or just having another beer. Just don’t forget the bread. “One side dish for barbecue that’s often overlooked is just good, ole’ white bread,” says Lewis. “For me, it’s essential when eating good barbecue so you can sop up the great juices and sauces.” And luckily, you can just get that at the store.

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