For the most primal, basic cooking method, live-fire grilling is pretty easy to screw up for cooks of any skill level. Fortunately, the mistakes are equally easy to avoid. Here’s a roundup of the most common grilling pitfalls, and quick fixes to help you steer clear.
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Credit: Photo: Jennifer Causey

1. You don’t clean the grill rack properly.

You wouldn’t consider cooking on a dirty stovetop, so why is a carbon-coated grill rack okay? After every use, food we cook on the grill rack leaves behind charred particles that will affect the taste of food that cooks on it and cause it to stick. The grill brush used to be the answer, but errant wire bristles have ruined cookouts from coast to coast in recent years. One good solution: Use some scrunched up foil: Grip the foil ball with tongs and scrape it over the rack while it preheats over the coals (carbon buildup releases much easier over heat).

2. You don’t oil the grill rack.

A dry grill rack, just like a dry sauté pan, will make your food stick. The fix: Give the rack a good rubdown with a paper towel dabbed with canola or avocado oil, two neutral oils that can handle higher heat. A super-thin coating will be effective as long as it’s even.

3. You use quick-light briquettes and/or lighter fluid.

Statistically speaking, you’re probably doing this. (If you’re even using a charcoal grill, which you’re probably not.) Briquettes contain additives and lighter fluid, residues you don’t want clinging to your food. And of course lighter fluid contains lots of lighter fluid. The better way: Go for natural lump charcoal. Used to be only hardcore barbecuers would use clean-burning lump charcoal, but you can find it in any supermarket now. Then fill the bottom of a chimney starter with some crumpled newspaper, fill the top with lump charcoal and light the newspaper—within about 20 minutes, you’re good to go.

4. You don’t let the grill rack heat enough before adding food.

You know how your chicken breast will stick to a steel pan that’s not fully preheated? Same principle here. Even a well-oiled grate will cause food to cling if the metal is too cool. This one’s totally hands-off: Give the grate a few minutes over hot flames before you start cooking.

5. You cook over too much flame.

Those TV commercials that show juicy steaks being tickled by tall flames on a grill? That’s bad. Yes, it looks cool, but the flames are called flare-ups in this context, and leave nasty-tasting carbon residue on the food. Even worse, the inside stays raw even as the outside is overcooked. First steps: Don’t mound your coals too high, and don’t start grilling until the coals have ashed over. If your food has come out of an oil-based marinade, or has layers of animal fat on it like with meat and poultry, the food fat will drip onto the coals and cause the flames to leap up occasionally. A tall flame here and there isn’t cause for alarm, but your food should never be engulfed. One quick fix is to keep a spray bottle of water handy, set to stream mode. Give errant flames a quick spritz to tame them instantly.  

6. Your fire isn’t hot enough.

You didn’t light enough coals. Or maybe you did, but let them burn too long before you started grilling, and now you’re Parker Posey fanning a sad, pale chicken wing that will never, ever finish cooking. You need: a second chimney starter. The moment you recognize you don’t have enough firepower, start up a second chimney of coals and soon enough you’re cooking. A backup chimney is also a must for longer grilling sessions, like barbecuing pork shoulders and rib racks, or all-day cookouts.

7. You don’t build an indirect fire.

Solving this one effectively fixes problems 5 and 6 as well. Indirect fire creates multiple temperature zones on your grill, so stuff that needs a high-heat sear can go over super-hot flames, and things that take a while can go over the cooler part to roast with the lid on. Much of what you grill can actually benefit from a little of each. Two ways to set up an indirect fire: Pile coals evenly over one half of the grill, leaving the other half empty; or divide the coals on opposite sides of the grill, leaving an empty strip along the center.

8. You overload the grill with food.

Just like crowding a pan on the stovetop, no good can come from this. The food won’t cook properly, it’s harder to turn, and you’re likely to get stressed out trying to keep track of it all. Work in batches, but strategically: If you have items like chopped vegetables that need high heat for a shorter amount of time, start with those. When they’re done, clear the grill and fire up your longer-cooking protein. The opposite can work well, too—cook the protein and pull it to rest, then set veggies over the cooler part of the grill, cover it, and let them slow-roast for a while without worrying that they’re going to burn.

9. You add sweet sauces and glazes too early.

When sugar cooks over an open flame, it caramelizes, then burns. Fast. Any sugary flavorings—barbecue sauces, jammy glazes, teriyaki-type marinades—these things need to be brushed onto food just for the last few minutes of cooking. The flavor won’t penetrate the food any more by adding it sooner.

10.  Your meat is never cooked to the right temperature.

Most of us have far less experience working the grill than the stovetop. Combined with the variable nature of live-fire cooking, and the many backyard distractions—guests, wine, family, cocktails, children, beer, ponies—it’s tricky to keep track of your protein, and harder still to nail the doneness. The simplest, most foolproof method: an instant-read thermometer. Takes all the guesswork out of it.