NEXT WEEK, grills everywhere will emerge from beneath their dusty covers, ready for service.
Gas guzzlers, charcoal kings, heavenly hickory smokers - an army of cookers ready to do battle for Memorial Day, the official kickoff to the grilling season.
But before you light up Old Faithful, even if you think you're a pro, take a backyard barbecue crash course - Sweet Lucy's style.
In August 2003, little-known Sweet Lucy's Smokehouse duo Jim and Brooke Higgins walked away with top honors in the first Daily News Lunch Truck Competition.
Since then, they've moved from curbside barbecue to a monstrous restaurant and catering facility on State Road in the Northeast, where the former gourmet chefs have created a barbecue empire so addictive, customers need their fixes every day. (www.sweetlucys.com, 7500 State Road, 215-331-3112.)
From pork butt to chicken, salmon to turkey, there's nothing the couple won't tackle in a smoker, grill or barbecue.
So we asked them to share their secret recipes and tips for grilling like pros. Here's their smokin' advice for cooks who are just getting started or are already backyard warriors.
_ Bigger isn't necessarily better.
The Higginses love charcoal units for smoking and grilling, but if you insist on getting a gas grill (they admit they're easier) a giant model with extra burners and a countertop doesn't mean it's better. Look for a model with about 40,000 BTUs for a good backyard performer. "The side burner is a waste," said Brooke Higgins. "I never use one. I'd rather have the extra grill space."
_ Keep it simple.
If you're wowed by grill lights, long-range thermometers, fancy fish pans and more, beware: They don't make you any better at the grill. Despite churning out hundreds of pounds of meat a day, the Higginses still stick with the most basic tools.
Aside from the obvious good knife set, Jim Higgins suggests "get good professional tongs."
Also on the Higgenses list:
1. A run-of-the-mill digital grill thermometer. Not a $50 model, one for about $14 at Bed Bath & Beyond or a kitchen store will do. But be sure to keep the thermometer calibrated, or it's useless. To find out how, go to www.ehow.
2. A small mop for applying barbecue sauce or for spraying meats with vinegars. "No, not a floor mop, a small one," said Jim Higgins. ($8.49, www.barbecue-store.com.)
3. A basting brush. This is also crucial for applying sauces and spices to smaller cuts of meat. Just make sure you find one without bristles that shed onto the meat. Try a silicone version, $12.99-19.99, www.wmbounds
_ Don't be afraid of seasoning. Lots of it.
The average barbecue connoisseur would be stunned to know how much salt and pepper - and usually that's about it - go onto the average cut of cooked meat before hitting the grill.
"Salt and pepper go a long way," said Brooke Higgins, who learned the ropes with chef great Todd English at Olives in Boston before becoming a barbecue maven. "And use kosher salt, a lot of it." The taste of kosher salt is preferred to table salt, which contains iodine, and can affect the taste of the meat.
_ Use fresh rather than dried herbs, and add fresh ingredients at the start of cooking. Always.
From meats to side dishes, dried herbs, even in rubs, aren't as good as rubbing down meat with the fresh versions of basil, thyme and rosemary. And when it's time to make fresh marinades, choose freshly squeezed citrus juice, instead of concentrated bottled versions, or store-bought dressings. "It makes such a big difference," said Brooke Higgins.
Finally, don't ruin a perfect cut of meat by soaking it with barbecue sauce at the beginning of the cooking process. The sugar in the sauce, most often molasses, will char the meat almost immediately.
Instead, rub the meat with dried ingredients and fresh herbs, then apply sauce only in the last five minutes of cooking, over a lower flame. *