Men tend to pride themselves on their grills.
No, not those. We mean their grilling skills, and it's this very pride that sometimes makes it hard for them to accept advice or, heaven forbid, criticism. That's a shame. There are some pretty wonky grilling methods out there, and that means whole families are having to scrape by without ever truly knowing the pleasure of a perfectly grilled pork steak.
That's why we've compiled some of the most pernicious grilling mistakes out there. It's a public service, really. If you see yourself in any of these errors, don't feel too bad about it. Just make room in your heart for change. You'll be competition-ready in no time.
1. You never brush your grates.
Contrary to (apparently) popular belief, grill grates are not self-cleaning. Bits of charred flesh get stuck to them every time you have a backyard cookout, and if you don't remove them, they will remain to attach themselves to your next rack of ribs. Trust us; ancient charred meat is not a pleasant flavor.
Invest in a decent grill brush and don't be afraid to use it. We find that the best time to clean the grate is just before we cook, not after, when we'll be busy hanging out with friends and family. Light the coals and scrub the hot metal. Those icky bits will fly right off.
2. You don't give the grates time to heat up.
Fire isn't the only source of heat on your grill. You know those gorgeous rows of sear marks that you aspire to bring to every burger? Those only happen with the grill grates themselves have time to get as hot as the fire.
Experts recommend covering the grill for five or 10 minutes after lighting the fire. That should give the metal time to heat up to a nice temperature. Hot grates mean less sticking and more searing, and that'll make all the difference in the world.
3. You use lighter fluid to get the fire started.
Mmmmm, butane! Actually, lighter fluid marketed to barbecue grillers is more often made of mineral spirits, methanol, and/or ethanol. It's still not something that you want flavoring your dinner.
The solution is to get yourself a chimney starter. These metal columns channel flames upwards into a pile of coals. Once they're lit, you can dump them into your grill and wait for them to gray. No more chemical flavoring on your burgers.
4. You aren't cooking your burgers cold.
This helpful tip and several others are included in this video on how to grill the perfect burger:
5. You fail to use two-zone cooking.
The most basic technique in cooking over flame is known as two-zone grilling, or the direct-indirect method. It involves pushing coals to cover just one half of the grill so that you have a super hot area and, nearby, a relatively cool area to cook on.
Some meats cook through before their exteriors burn, and these taste best cooked over direct heat. Steaks, hamburgers, and seafood are good candidates for direct grilling. Other meats, such as chicken, really need a long, slow grilling over indirect heat.
Two-zone grilling. Once you try it, you'll never look back.
6. You use lump charcoal when briquettes are the better choice.
We love lump charcoal. We're not in that camp that insists that charcoal briquettes add a "funny taste" to food, at least not when they're free of lighter fluid or other accelerants. It's just that the quick, hot flames that come from lump charcoal seem to be built to sear steaks.
Lump charcoal isn't great for everything, though. You're better off using briquettes for chicken and vegetables. Briquettes don't burn as hot as lump charcoal, but they stay hot for way longer. If you plan to use indirect heat for anything you're grilling, you might be better off with briquettes rather than lump charcoal.
7. You refuse to invest in a digital grill thermometer.
There is an easy and reliable way to tell if food has reached a temperature that's safe for consumption, and it's not just poking the meat to see what its juices look like. Why gamble when there's such a simple solution?
Grill thermometers can measure the actual cooking heat of the grill, help grillers plan their creations, but they can also tell you how hot the core of a piece of meat has become. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees for steaks. Chicken should reach 165 degrees throughout, the agency says. In fact, almost everything should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees according to the DHHS. Thermometers are way better at pinpointing the temperature inside a cut of meat than the human finger is. Just go get one.
8. You cook all meat until there's no pink left anywhere.
Pink chicken is a bad deal. Don't eat or serve that. But, according to the DHSS again, any red meat might retain some pink tissue even after reaching a safe minimum temperature.
That includes pork. This is just another reason why a thermometer is a sound investment for every backyard chef. There's also the doneness test, as shown in the video below:
9. You spread the coals too soon.
Fire can cook anything, the theory goes, and sometimes inexperienced grillers take the presence of flames to mean that the grill is ready for some burgers. Not so fast.
Charcoal really does need to develop a coating of gray ash before you start grilling over it. Otherwise, the heat will be incredibly uneven. A tongue of flame might even lash out and burn your valuable cut of beef to a crisp if you begin cooking too soon. Wait until your coals have that gray coating and spread them evenly over the hot side of your grill.
10. You never grill vegetables.
Grilling and meat go hand in hand, but you're not doing yourself any favors if you've never eaten grilled asparagus or an ear of grilled corn. Zucchini is another favorite, and it develops beautiful grill marks when prepared correctly.
As an added bonus, grilled vegetables will give your vegetarian friends something to munch on during the barbecue.
11. You never rest your steaks.
The notion of resting steaks can get contentious. We won't get into the debate over resting steaks after cooking them, but before slicing them, except to say that the DHSS instructs us to rest cuts of beef, veal, and lamb. The answer has less to do with flavor or juiciness than it has to do with food safety.
"During the rest time, [the meat's] temperature remains constant or continues to rise, which destroys harmful germs," the agency writes on a website that it runs, Foodsafety.gov.
12. You apply barbecue sauce way too early.
Barbecue sauce doesn't really "seep into" meat. The meat won't inhale the sauce over time. The best you can do is coat a piece of meat in barbecue sauce, and that's best done toward the ending of the cooking process.
Otherwise, the sugars in the barbecue sauce will caramelize and then burn, giving the entire cut a bitter, charred flavor that's not pleasant for anyone.
13. You never learned how to use the vents.
Fire feeds on oxygen. Vents control airflow into the grill. In a way, then, those vents are like the control knob on your fire. Learn to use them.
For instance, when you're going low and slow, as with chicken or ribs, you'll want to close most or all of the vents. Depending on the grill, the fire will probably still get enough oxygen to persist with closed vents, although experimenting with vents is one of the great joys of grill ownership.
When you want to sear the heck out of a half-pound burger, open the vents to turn up the flames. Honestly, the first two skills every grill-owner should learn are to create a two-zone cooking area and to control the vents. Everything else is just a tweak.
14. You don't add any moisture to chicken.
Left on its own, chicken dries to a husk during the low-and-slow cooking that it requires to reach the safe minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees without transforming the surface into a sheet of carbon.
Brine the chicken, use a marinade, or continuously baste the meat throughout the cooking process to keep it moist and delicious.
15. You let the fire touch your meat.
We hope you like the taste of soot. Flare-ups are a natural part of any grilling experience, but you need to stand ready to react. If a tongue of flame shoots out at your burger, move the burger. This is one of the many reasons why two-zone grilling is essential.
The alternative is to let certain portions of your masterpiece turn into dry, bitter ash, while others remain raw. Leave enough space on the grill and be ready to move items from the hot side to the cool side at a moment's notice.