There’s perhaps no more iconic American holiday - apart from Thanksgiving - than the Fourth of July. A celebration of the declaration of independence from the British Empire in 1776, the nationally-celebrated day is a holiday in its purest form; a day during which families, friends and loved ones gather for eating, drinking, and fireworks displays. And since it occurs smack in the middle of the northern hemisphere summer, celebrations tend to be taken outdoors. And so, the great American tradition of barbecuing and tailgating has become the default for Fourth of July festivities.
Foods that can be mass-grilled, baked, prepared in advance and which can hold up to a July sun are crowd favourites. Things like burgers and hot dogs are classic fare, accompanied by crunchy potato salads and coleslaws. The American flag colours are creatively thrown in wherever possible, leading to many dessert and drinks concoctions of varying shades of red, white, and blue. Check out these whopping statistics for fun facts on just how much Americans spend on foods for Independence Day. And keep on reading to find out exactly what goes on a Fourth of July menu.
Sliders are essentially mini burgers. They’re prepared in a slightly different way from regular burgers: instead of being formed into patties and then griddled, these smaller versions are shaped into small meatballs and smashed once on the griddle. Because of the smaller surface area, the meat patties get more seared overall and absorb more oil (meaning you wouldn’t be able to get a very distinct rare-to-well done range on these guys). Much like its larger older sibling, sliders are blank canvases for any type of topping; try a bacon & avocado slider or caramelised onion & blue cheese for classic variations. You could even use small nuggets of fried chicken for a honey mustard fried chicken slider, or a crab cake slider with scallions and aioli.
Of course, no Fourth of July celebration would be complete without at least a few burger choices. The all-time favourite for any barbecue or picnic, burgers are the ideal handheld food that’ll satisfy your hunger and fuel your energy for hours of socialising. Not to mention they’re easy to make en-masse. There are tons of recipes to choose from, so you’ll have to figure out what you and your guests like best. There’s the all-american classic cheeseburger with bibb lettuce and cheddar or american cheese, an all-around pleaser - but you could also get a bit more adventurous with bbq sauce and bacon, blue cheese & cranberry chutney, or chorizo and pesto. And while beef burgers may be the classic default, you can of course diversify your bun filling and go down the route of a tangy and sweet pulled pork burger made with beer and paired with coleslaw. Or for the veggies in your group, go for a fried tofu cutlet that’ll be reminiscent of chicken but entirely meat free.
BBQ grilled chicken
Chicken may be one of the most ubiquitous meats, appealing to all and versatile to boot. There are many ways to have chicken on the barbecue, from fun wings to juicy thighs, and even breasts can be done up with fantastic flavour. When grilling chicken, it’s important to remember that your grill should be preheated enough so that it’s very hot before putting on your chicken. Otherwise you risk drying out your food in an attempt to compensate for the longer time it’ll need to develop that signature grill-mark charring. And remember to baste your chicken while it’s cooking with more marinade or sauce, to impart more of the flavour and develop better caramelisation. A lime and honey bbq sauce works wonders for example, as does an olive oil and basil dressing. For something different, go for sesame drumsticks, kebabs, or even chop up grilled chicken for a couscous salad.
It’s said that 150 million hot dogs get eaten on the Fourth of July. The affiliation is so strong that famed hot dog chain Nathan’s even hosts a Hot Dog Eating Contest on Independence Day each year on Coney Island. While various folklore asserts that the tradition goes back to 1916, the contest only began in 1972 and it was only by the 1980s that it started being hosted on Independence Day specifically. Hot dogs come plain or topped with mustard and ketchup, but you can also jazz them up with toppings like baked beans, cheddar cheese, or sauerkraut.
Salad is a bit of a misnomer in this case - pasta salad is really just a cold pasta dish, typically made with a mayonnaise sauce and still just as delicious. You definitely want to choose a shorter pasta rather than a spaghetti or linguine, which would be too finicky to eat. Go for a fusilli, orzo, or penne for your base. Toss with a pesto sauce and add green beans and sundried tomatoes for the Italian version. Or, go for a meatier style with bits of parma ham or tuna. Macaroni salad is a classic, with celery, carrots, and a dill-mayonnaise base (miracle whip also works). Cold, satisfying, and easy to eat is the ticket here.
Crunchy, refreshing potato salad is always a welcome addition to the menu. And there are so many ways to interpret the potato salad, you’ll definitely have your pick. Make sure to choose waxy potatoes which hold their shape wonderfully, and complement with tangy and vinegar-y additions like pickles, vinegar sauce, and mustard. Some even add hard boiled eggs for a potato and egg-salad fusion. Have a look at these recipes for more upscaled inspiration.
Corn on the cob
Corn, a plant native to the Americas, appears at almost every barbecue and with good reason. It’s super easy to prepare and delicious to eat. You’ll want to make sure you choose corn ears that are plump and blemish-free for maximum flavour. And while the traditional way of grilling, salting and buttering is fantastic, there are a few more creative ways to prepare corn on the cob too. Mexico eats their corn with paprika, chile, lime, cotija cheese and mayo; you could also deep fry your corn in cornmeal or even wrap in bacon.
There’s a reason there are so many cold, salty, tangy dishes to complement the rich and greasy ones above. And coleslaw is a perfect foil to the heavy, carb-y burgers and hot dogs. Best to shred your own cabbage before slathering in a mayo-based dressing (and don’t skimp on the vinegar), and add some carrots for extra texture and flavour. You may want to wait to dress the vegetables until the last minute so that they don’t get too limp.
Panzanella is not only great for using up leftover bread, but it’s easy to whip together and ahead of time (only getting better the longer it sits). Try one of these panzanella recipes - either go classic with tomatoes, garlic, and basil; try a rendition of a greek salad with cucumbers, red onion, lemon and black olives; or add zingy capers and parsley for more kick. Top tip: make sure to adequately toast your bread so it’ll soak up the oil and vinaigrette well.
Watermelon salads and drinks
If you want to go for a lighter salad, opt for a watermelon salad, the perfect mix between sweet and savoury. Cube up watermelon and pair it with feta and basil for a delicious mix. Or just add black olives. If you’d rather have your watermelon in a drink, simply blitz it up with lemonade or use watermelon juice as a replacement for mixers in cocktails. It goes exceptionally well in mojitos or martinis.
Red, white and blue strawberry shortcake
And to finish off your Fourth of July picnic, there’s perhaps nothing that screams Independence Day more than a red, white and blue strawberry shortcake. It’s easy to put together and only consists of yellow cake with white frosting and red and blue fruits in the shape of the flag on the top. If shortcake isn’t your favourite, you can always choose a classic american flag cake with different coloured cake layers sandwiched in between white frosting, or a red, white and blue trifle.