University Park, Pa. -- Memorial Day marked the unofficial kick-off of barbecue season, and with three of every four U.S. households owning a grill, it's safe to say that barbecue is big business.
Americans indulge in cookouts nearly 3 billion times a year, according to a meat specialist in Penn State State's College of Agricultural Sciences, who said the watchword for 2010 is variety.
Chris Raines, assistant professor of meat science and technology in the college's dairy and animal science department, said while trends run the gamut from luxury grills to the medical benefits of marinades, three significant developments can be identified:
--"Head-to-Tail" Barbecuing. Spinning off of a high-end gourmet cooking movement, this involves new or different cuts of meat, including some unusual ones. As the name indicates, Raines said, just about any part of the animal could end up on the grill.
"It's the idea of being able to use the whole animal," he said. "Not just muscle meat cuts but variety meats as well -- experimenting with variations of grilled tongue, liver, heart, sweet breads -- as well as other variety meats that people are trying and liking. Many people also are experimenting with goat, lamb and bison, and with new cuts of beef, like hanger steaks or Denver steaks.
"They're looking for the best ways to prepare them, whether it's smoking, barbecuing or grilling. This is definitely more of a gourmet or 'foodie' trend that you might be reading about in the food section of the newspaper."
--Gourmet Burgers. Continuing from past years, many people are trying new ways of making ground-meat burgers tastier and more distinctive by seeing what else they can put on the bun with it.
"They're experimenting with ground poultry, veal, pork and beef and mixing it all together," Raines said. "Some people are putting bits of bacon, onions or peppers in the ground meat."
--"Middle Meats" Promotion. Raines said consumers also may be enjoying higher-quality rib eye and strip steaks and loin cuts this summer, thanks to national supermarket promotions for several upper-midsection beef cuts.
"Because of some market cycles and fluctuations, prices for meat cuts that usually are more costly are being reduced in these promotions," Raines explained. "Larger chain stores are pushing the middle meats, and it may be an opportunity for consumers to get what might be a higher-quality steak at a lower cost than in years past.
"So, there might be special offers or recipes going out to the public, especially on major holiday weekends where barbecuing is very popular."
Raines said barbecuing and grilling occupy an interesting position in the culture and history of the nation.
"There are so many cultural and regional identities associated with barbecue -- you can have Texas style, Kansas City style, Memphis style or Carolina style," he said. "Pennsylvania producers raise a lot of sheep and goats that go to ethnic markets along the East Coast, and that reflects that population segment, while the South has pork barbecue. Throughout the country, different cuts and meats are culturally significant.
"What started as a poor man's food has developed into a wonderful product with a social aspect of preparing it at home and encouraging a social gathering. Families can take a lower-cost item like a pork shoulder and turn it into a tasty meal that enables you to stretch family food dollars and build connections with family and friends. People who wouldn't throw a formal dinner party would have a barbecue where you bring the kids and don't wear a necktie."
Men grill almost twice as much as women, and hamburgers, steak, hot dogs and chicken breasts are the most popular foods. The slower cooking of barbecuing favors more pork items such as spare ribs, pulled pork or pork shoulder, while chicken, beef steaks and burgers predominate as grilling meat. You can find more useful meat facts on Raines' "Meat is Neat" blog at http://meatisneat.wordpress.com/