Incinerated (or raw) meat, lighter fluid-spiked food, and falling-apart fish can really put a damper on a summer barbecue. Our tips will help get things in order.
Grilling faux pas are just like other kitchen mistakes, except fire is involved—meaning burnt burgers and singed arm hair,
too. Follow our grilling tips to make sure you don’t make these mistakes.
Our first grilling oops is: You coat grill racks with cooking spray while they're over the fire.
THE RESULT: Torched food
THE FIX: Just don’t do it. Sudden flare-ups will not only scorch the food, but they’ll also put you at risk for getting burned. For safe grilling, carefully remove the grill racks from the fire, and then coat them with cooking spray or use a paper towel coated in oil to easily grease them without leaving behind an oily mess. Coating the food with cooking spray or oil will also help keep it from sticking to the grates without causing any safety hazards. Choose an oil with a high smoke point (such as peanut oil).
THE RESULT: You incinerate the food.
THE FIX: Whether you’re grilling with gas or charcoal, a steady, hot fire is crucial. Once the grill is turned on (or the coals are dumped beneath the grate), always close the lid and allow the grill to get hot. An eager griller may be tempted to skip this step, but if the heat doesn’t have time to stabilize at the correct temperature, food will burn before it cooks through. As a general rule, allow about 10 minutes for a gas grill to heat up and about 30 to 40 minutes for charcoal.
THE RESULT: The fire fizzles out.
THE FIX: With larger cuts of meat that require hours over indirect heat, maintaining the coals is crucial. To keep the fire at a steady temperature over a long period of time, you’ll need to add new coals while cooking. It depends on the grill and the type of charcoal, but in general, you’ll need to add about 10 to 15 briquettes every 45 minutes to an hour. Standard briquettes take about 20 minutes to heat up, so plan ahead and add them 20 minutes before you need them. Or try using lump charcoal instead of more common briquettes. Lump charcoal burns hotter and faster, and as a bonus, you’ll avoid the fillers and binders used in briquettes. Of course, with gas grills, none of this is an issue.
THE RESULT: Food that’s flavored with a hint of chemicals.
THE FIX: When stomachs are rumbling, a hit of lighter fluid on the coals to give them a jump start can seem like an easy shortcut. Resist. The time you save with lighter fluid isn’t worth the bitter taste it leaves behind, and no sauce, marinade, or rub can hide it. To start a charcoal fire, all you need is a chimney starter and some newspaper. Stuff the newspaper in the bottom of the chimney starter, place charcoal in the top, and light the paper. The coals will be ready in about 30 minutes.
THE RESULT: Meat that’s both charred and undercooked, with a sooty residue to boot.
THE FIX: Maintaining an even, powerful heat is important for great grilling, and cooking over embers is the key to an even heat. As a rule, charcoal and wood fires should be burned down to glowing embers before food ever touches the grate. Allow about 30 minutes from the time you light the fire, and wait until the coals have a bright-red glow with a gray, ashy look. It may take some time, but don’t rush: Cooking over flames will scorch food quickly and unevenly, leaving you with charred and inedible results.
THE RESULT: The food sticks.
THE FIX: If you’re prying food off the grill every time, chances are there’s one crucial thing you aren’t doing: cleaning that grill. Before and after each grill session, clean the grates thoroughly with a wire brush. (A brass-bristle brush is best, since steel bristles can damage the enamel finish of some grates. Make sure the bristles are in good repair—you don’t want wayward bristles making their way into the food.) Each time you grill, preheat the rack with all burners on high for 10 to 15 minutes to incinerate any remaining residue from the last cookout, making it easy to clean off. Then, brush the grates vigorously with a grill brush so they’re smooth and free from any stuck-on food. Finally, make sure to oil both the grates and the food. Cleaning the grill isn’t just to prevent sticking. You’ll also get the best flavors when you’re not incorporating leftover bits from previous cookouts.
THE RESULT: You can’t manipulate the heat.
THE FIX: Most food cooks best with a combination of direct and indirect heat—but even when you plan on cooking over direct heat only, don’t cover 100% of the grill. It’s always a good idea to leave yourself an open space so you can reposition food if flare-ups occur. You should aim to have no more than two-thirds of the grill covered.
THE RESULT: Flare-ups.
THE FIX: Most flare-ups are caused by fat dripping onto the fire, which makes them easy to avoid. Carefully trimming all excess fat from the outside of meats before putting them on the grill or opting for leaner cuts of ground beef when making burgers will prevent most flare-ups. Flames are inevitable, however, so when cooking fattier cuts or burgers made with ground meat higher in fat, be prepared with an area of indirect heat where you can move food to safety. Kill a flare-up with a quick spritz of water. Be sparing: Anything more than a mist could cause ashes to float onto the food.
THE RESULT: Singed arm hairs—or worse.
THE FIX: A good pair of long-handled tongs will be the hardest-working tool in your grilling arsenal, so invest in a pair that’s comfortable and sturdy. The long handles are key: Grills can be deceptively hot, so you’ll want to keep a safe distance. Short tongs leave your hands vulnerable to sudden flare-ups. And never use forks or utensils with sharp edges—piercing meats allows flavorful juices to escape.
THE RESULT: The skewers blacken and burn.
THE FIX: The kebabs may be perfectly cooked masterpieces, but the presentation is less than stellar when the skewers are blackened, sooty sticks. This is an easy fix: Soak the skewers in water for about 30 minutes before assembling the kebabs for beautiful results. You can also freeze the skewers in a bag after soaking them so they’re ready to go when you are.
THE RESULT: Tough, dense burgers.
THE FIX: Your own two hands are the ideal tools for shaping burgers, but too much manhandling will leave you with a finished product that’s tough, not tender. For perfect patties, use a light touch and be careful not to compact the meat as you shape the patties. Work the ingredients evenly and lightly, enough to form a sturdy patty but no longer than necessary. Use your thumb to make a small indentation in the center of each patty before tossing it on the grill. Burgers swell in the middle as they heat up, so this trick will help them hold their shape and cook evenly.
THE RESULT: A raw center.
THE FIX: Choosing the best cut of meat depends on many factors: the recipe, your price range, the occasion. One major factor is your dinner deadline. If you want to get a meal on the table quickly, then a pork shoulder isn’t the ideal cut. It’s a thick piece of meat that takes hours to cook properly. If time isn’t on your side, opt for smaller cuts like pork tenderloin, pork chops, chicken breasts and thighs, and fish fillets that will cook quickly over medium-high to high heat.
THE RESULT: Fish and seafood are overly salty and tough; meats are mushy and grainy.
THE FIX: Marinating is a simple and effective way to impart all kinds of flavors. But like many things, it’s best in moderation. Acidic marinades made with citrus, wine, and vinegar can compromise the texture and overwhelm the subtle flavors of the meat if left on too long. In general, small or delicate foods need only 15 to 30 minutes to soak up the flavors, and even the toughest cuts of meat don’t need more than 12 hours. Salt and other delicate seasonings tend to get lost in a strong marinade. Get the most out of seasonings by adding them directly to the meat after marinating, not to the marinade. Plan ahead (but not too far ahead) to avoid an overmarinated mess.
THE RESULT: Dried-out, tough meat with barely-there grill marks.
THE FIX: It’s hard to resist poking and prodding meat to try to check on how it’s doing. But when the fire is good and hot and the food is cooking, step away: Once a piece of meat is on the grill, avoid moving it before it’s ready so the outside develops a good char. To test when a burger is ready to flip, slip the edge of a spatula under the edge of the burger and lift up gently. If the meat is sticking to the grate, let it be and try again a minute later. If the grate is properly cleaned and oiled, the food should lift up easily when it’s ready to flip.
THE RESULT: Unattractive presentation (who wants a steak with a big slice down the middle?) and dry meat.
THE FIX: Put down that knife! Juices settle in the center of a piece of meat as it cooks, and they need time to redistribute after coming off the grill. When you slice into meat to check doneness, all those yummy juices seep right out. Allow at least 5 to 10 minutes for meat to rest before cutting into it, and test for doneness with a meat thermometer instead of a knife. Place the thermometer in the thickest part of the meat, and for an accurate reading, make sure you’re not touching bone, fat, gristle, or the filling in stuffed meat. Always err on the side of undercooking. You can easily throw it back on the grill for a few minutes, but once it’s overcooked, there’s no going back.
THE RESULT: Sugary sauces scorch.
THE FIX: Sugar burns very quickly over high heat. When grilling with sweet, sugar-based sauces (several kinds of barbecue sauces fall into this category), always add them at the end of the cooking time (within the last 15 to 20 minutes), or use them when cooking over indirect heat. When using leftover marinade, don’t baste during the last 5 minutes of grill time, or you might not allow enough time for the heat to kill any bacteria that may be present.
THE RESULT: Small items fall through the grate.
THE FIX: Grilling isn’t just for hefty hunks of meat. Everything from asparagus to scallops can benefit from time on the grill, so don’t let the grate hold you back. Skewers are often helpful, but they aren’t your only option. A grill basket is the easiest way to infuse small bites with smoky flavor. Choose a nonstick version, and you can simply toss in smaller or more delicate food for hassle-free grilling.
THE RESULT: Smoked meats that aren’t that smoky.
THE FIX: Smoking meat requires cooking over a lower temperature (200° to 225°) for a longer period of time, giving the food time to absorb all those delicious, smoky flavors. On a gas grill, it can be impossible to get the heat down to the ideal smoking temperature range. In that case, smoke on the lowest heat level the grill can maintain, and reduce the cooking time. To get the most smoke, soak wood chips in water for 30 minutes, and then place the drained chips on the hot coals. Heat the wood chips for 10 minutes or until they start letting off smoke before putting food on the grill. On a gas grill, place the soaked chips in a smoker box or on a piece of heavy-duty foil, loosely fold it up, and then poke about six holes in the top to allow smoke to escape. Turn on the burner at one end of the grill, and arrange the pouch close to that burner. Place an aluminum foil pan filled with water on the unheated side of the grill, replace the grill racks and arrange the food on the rack directly above the aluminum foil pan. Still not smoky enough? Try experimenting with stronger-flavored woods such as oak or mesquite. Avoid soft woods like pine, spruce, or other evergreens, which will produce a sooty, unpleasant smoke.
The Result: Charred skin and rare meat in the thickest part of the breast.
The Fix: Prevent flare-ups that char the skin by manipulating heat. First, establish two temperature zones: Set one side of a gas grill to medium-high and the other to low, or build a fire on one side of a charcoal grill. (Make sure your grate is clean and oiled to prevent sticking.) Start the chicken, skin-side up, on the low- or no-heat side, and cover the grill. After a few minutes, when the fat starts to render, flip the meat, skin-side down. Point the breasts' thicker ends toward the hot side to help them cook evenly. Cover and grill for about 25 minutes. When the meat is done (165° at the thickest part of the breast), crisp the skin on the hot side for a minute or two, moving it as needed to avoid flare-ups. Wait until the last few minutes to brush on barbecue sauce: The sugars in the sauce will char quickly.
The Result: Fillets that cling to the grill rack and break into little pieces when you try to flip them.
The Fix: Stickage prevention is a process, and it starts at the store. Skip delicate, flaky fish like tilapia, cod, or flounder, and go with firmer-fleshed fish, such as salmon, tuna, or swordfish. Pat the fillets dry with paper towels before grill time.
Now prep the grill. Set the rack over a hot fire for five minutes to burn away lingering debris, then scrub thoroughly with a grill brush. Carefully lift the rack and coat with cooking spray. Don't spray into the fire; if you can't remove the rack, swab it with oil using wadded paper towels held with tongs. But don't use the tongs for the fish: A spatula is less likely to tear the fillets. Let the fillets cook undisturbed for a few minutes. When they're ready to flip, they'll release cleanly.
The Result: A dried out burger that sticks to the grill.
The Fix: A well-made turkey burger is a delicious, lower-fat backyard grill treat, but if you don't compensate for the leanness of the meat, you could be eating turkey-flavored particleboard. Mostly it's a matter of getting the patty off the grill before it dries out (or sticks and falls apart)—a job made trickier by the need to cook poultry to 165°. So, to avoid sawdust syndrome, add a little fat to the meat. Yes, add fat. This might seem counterproductive, but it's not if you use a fat that's heart-healthy.
The fat in question? Olive oil. Stirring in two tablespoons olive oil per pound of ground turkey keeps the burgers moist and juicy and also helps them form a nicely browned crust on the outside that won't stick to the grill.