Picture it: a beautiful late summer afternoon, clear skies, and the conversation and company of good friends and family. Nearby, the scent of sizzling meat wafts from your backyard grill and into everyone’s nostrils. Mouth watering, you announce that dinner is ready, and pass around the plates of hamburger patties, hot dogs, bratwurst, and grilled vegetables you’ve been standing over for the last hour.
You proudly bite into a brat and immediately wince. It’s charred, flaky, and has a faint odor of gasoline that lingers on your taste buds. Around you, everyone’s smiles suddenly seem forced. Your guests are beset by a sudden onset of coughing, during which everyone conspicuously uses their napkins to wipe their mouths. People start remembering pressing commitments they previously forgot about, but in the rush to leave, you swear you hear someone mention ordering pizza.
No, that burnt-on gunk doesn’t make food taste better.
Don’t let this happen to you! No matter how seasoned a grillmaster you are, it’s possible you’re making the same mistakes as a barbecuing newbie. Luckily, we’re here to help. We asked Steven Raichlen, Barbecue Hall of Famer and star of PBS’ “Project Smoke,” about some of the most common grilling mistakes people often make. Below are some some frequent mistakes you might not be aware you’re making, along with some tips on how to avoid them from the man himself.
Mistake 1: Not Knowing Where to Start
The first step begins long before you get anywhere near the grill—it starts in the supermarket aisle. No matter how good at grilling you think you are, you can’t magically make a bad cut of meat or a genetically enhanced ear of corn taste better. For best taste, ditch the processed foods and use organically grown, locally sourced beef, pork, poultry, fish, and vegetables.
People fall into this trap because they often shop for price over quality, Raichlen says. “Your grilling will only be as good as your raw materials: grass fed beef, heritage pork, organic chicken and veggies, wild seafood.” It may be more expensive, but can you really put a price on quality?
Mistake 2: Ignoring the Wisdom of the Boy Scouts
The Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared,” and this is a great tenet to live by in grilling. You may have remembered to prepare your meat so it’s ready to throw on the grill, but what about cutting all of your vegetables and making sure your sauces and seasonings are ready to go?
Anticipate everything you might need from start to finish, and make sure you have it all before any food actually touches the heat. Nothing is worse than letting your food burn as you rush inside to grab something you should've already grabbed.
And don’t forget the charcoal! “Always keep an extra bag of charcoal or an extra propane cylinder on hand,” Raichlen says. “I know it’s obvious, but we’ve all run out of gas at some point.”
Mistake 3: Using Lighter Fluid
Sure, lumping a bunch of coal together, dousing it in lighter fluid, and throwing in a match may seem like the easiest way to get a good flame going. But think about it: all that really happens is the production of a giant fireball that dies out in a matter of seconds. In order to keep the heat going, you’re forced to dump even more lighter fluid on the coals, which will be gone again in a matter of seconds (and can cause a dangerous flare-up). Not only that, but lighter fluid can linger on your food and leave an unpleasant aftertaste.
For best results, forget the lighter fluid. Get a chimney starter and let the charcoal light slowly, from the bottom up. If you don’t have a chimney starter, build a pyramid around a ball of paper and let the coals light that way.
This will ensure a more evenly distributed heat that will make your briquettes last throughout your entire cooking time. Plus, your food won’t smell or taste like butane, which is always a plus.
Mistake 4: Building a Monolithic Fire
Another common misconception is that you want to spread your coals as wide as possible and use the entire grill surface for the same type of cooking. “To control the heat, you need a tiered fire, with a hot zone for searing, a medium zone for cooking, and a fire-free section of the grill as a safety zone,” Raichlen says. That safety zone is “where you move the food when you get flare-ups.”
It’s also crucial to know how to use the heat to your advantage. Direct heat is best for searing steaks, burgers and vegetables in a matter of minutes. Thicker cuts of meat that need more time should be placed to the sides, where they can sizzle over indirect heat.
Then there’s foregoing the grate altogether: “One very cool technique I can’t praise enough is ‘caveman” grilling,’ in which you grill directly on the embers,” Raichlen says. “Obviously, this has to be a charcoal grill. Ideally, you do this on a natural lump charcoal. It’s great for steaks, lobster, veggies, etc.”
Mistake 5: Starting Too Early
You may be eager to throw your food on the grill as soon as you can, but avoid that temptation. Grilling is a long game, and charcoal usually needs at least 20 minutes to properly heat through. If any briquettes are still black, they aren’t ready. You want an ash gray color and a dim red glow of heat in the center of the briquette pyramid.
Then there’s the temperature to maintain throughout cooking. For slower cooked meals, the heat needs to be around 200 degrees. For everything else, you want your heat in the 300-400 degree range. More oxygen flow means hotter coals, and restricting oxygen means less heat, so use your grill’s vents wisely. Just make sure you don’t put the fire out completely!
Mistake 6: Trying to Stay Occupied
Once you have the food on the grill, it all comes down to skill in how you handle it. One thing newbies often do because they’re bored is flip and move their food around too often. But flipping too often can result in unevenly cooked meat or cause food to stick to the grates. Let your food sit for at least 5 minutes on each side.
Also, avoid the temptation to press your patties (even though makes that satisfying ssssss sound). Pressing on meat will only squeeze the juices out of it and result in a much drier patty or steak.
Finally, Raichlen suggests not overcrowding the grill grate. “Leave at least 25 percent of the grate food-free,” he says. “That way, if you get flare ups or your food starts to burn, you have room to maneuver or move it.”
Mistake 7: Playing Guesswork With the Temperature
Undercooking meat can result in food poisoning. Overcooking meat can result in poor taste. What’s more, it can be very easy to confuse confuse grilled with burnt. “The former is dark brown and delicious. The latter is jet black and not so delicious,” Raichlen says. “The whole trick with grilling is to get as close to burnt as possible without actually burning the food.”
Since this can be a very fine line to walk, take the guesswork out of the equation by investing in a food temperature thermometer (and bookmarking this page). This will ensure you’re cooking your meat to the right temperature every time, and not playing fast and loose with your (or your guest’s) health.
Mistake 8: Getting Over-Eager With the Sauce
Barbecue sauce is part of the fun of barbecuing, but many people make the mistake of adding sauces and other seasonings long before the food is ready to come off the grill. “Don’t apply barbecue sauce or other sweet sauce or glaze too early,” says Raichlen. “It will burn before the meat is cooked.”
It’s better to add sauce over indirect heat just a few minutes before your food is done cooking. This way, it will add a delicious layer of taste to your food rather than charring or flaking.
Mistake 9: Getting Impatient
Another temptation people often make is cutting into that cut of steak as soon as it comes off the grates. Yes, you’re hungry and want to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Don’t do it! Cutting meats open too soon will release the juices, and while it might look nice and appetizing, doing this too early can dry the meat out.
You’ve come so far, and another few minutes won’t hurt anything. Why waste all of that hard work just because you’re impatient?
Mistake 10: Leaving a Mess Behind
Cleaning your grill isn’t just about maintaining a long-lasting grill (although that’s important, too). It’s also for your health. Proper cleaning of your grill prevents a buildup of carcinogens, helps you avoid illness from bacteria and viruses, and makes your food taste better.
The best time to clean a grill is always after, not before, grilling takes place. For a deep clean, wait until the grate has cooled and soak it into a tub with hot water and regular dish soap as you scrub down the inner hood and walls with a grill brush and sponge.
Even better, Raichlen says, is to ”clean up as you go along: a professional’s grill will always be clean and ready for the next grill session,” he says, adding, “No, that burnt-on gunk doesn’t make food taste better.”