Common Grilling Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
Although grilling has long been thought of as the “man’s domain,” there are plenty of reasons why both men and women would want to get out in the sunshine, drink a cold, frosty beverage, and do some grilling. So today I'm going to show you how to grill by looking at common grilling mistakes.
Consider the extra energy it takes to cool the house in the summertime when the oven and stove are both on. Save some money and take the heat outside.
One of the most compelling reasons to grill, however, might be the social perks. Families and friends are often so busy that nobody eats together anymore. Pull out the grill, though, and everybody gathers around.
Grilling brings family and friends together. Whether you are cooking on a gas grill or a charcoal grill, get out there and get grilling.
Grilling is not only one of the oldest forms of cooking, it also has great benefits in today’s world as well. Grilling is a direct heat, dry cooking method that, when done correctly, can result in a perfectly seared exterior and a moist and juicy interior.
Grilling is a quick cooking method and a very healthy way to cook. It requires very little added fat, and it makes food taste wonderful. As an added bonus, foods can acquire those professional-looking grill marks—the marks that set you apart as the Master of the Grill.
Unfortunately, for every beautiful piece of grilled fish, meat, fruit or vegetable pulled off the grill, countless pieces have come to an overcooked and unsightly end, all because the cook was practicing how NOT to grill. This section will lead you through all the mistakes people can make when grilling, and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1 - The Dirty Grill
Many people look at a grill covered in greasy, sticky bits of food and scary black stuff and say: "that adds more flavor".
What it does is make your food stick. A dirty grill does not get as hot as a clean grill. This inhibits searing and causes food to stick.
Most of the gunk covering your grill is made of proteins, and protein is what glue is made of. Protein sticks to protein. Guess what proteins don’t stick to? Hot, oiled metal.
Start with a clean grill—that’s what they make grill brushes for. The best way to start with a clean grill is to end with a clean grill.
It’s much easier to clean a hot grill, so if you clean your grill with a grill brush while your meat is resting, you will be met with a clean grill on your next outing.
If your grill is really dirty , place a large piece of aluminum foil over the grate, lower the lid and turn up the heat. After a few minutes, most of the scary black goo will have burned off.
Make sure you also clean out your drip pans in your gas grill or your ash catcher in your charcoal grill.
Once your grill is clean, make sure that you let it heat up for at least ten minutes before putting food on it. Then, apply some canola or other neutral oil to the grill using a clean rolled up towel held in long tongs. Wait another minute or so, and then put your food on the grill..
Mistake #2 - The Cold Grill
Here’s one scenario I often hear about: home cooks get their coals or heat to the perfect point, put the grate over the coals and then slap on the meat. This is what happens: their food gets stuck.
This is why it happens: all metal, no matter how smooth to the eye, has microscopic pits and crevasses in it. These are the perfect little nooks and crannies for proteins in your cooking food to get down into and glue themselves to the metal.
Give your grill a good 10 minutes or so to heat up over the coals before putting on the food. This gives the metal a chance to heat up and expand. The expansion helps to close all the microscopic divots in the metal making a truly smooth cooking surface.
Mistake #3 - The Un-oiled Grill
Your grill grate is clean; your grill grate is hot. You put your food—especially a protein, like meat or fish—on the grill, and it immediately sticks. Even with the metal hot and a lot of those little microscopic crannies closed up, your food is now stuck!
Starting with a clean grill + lubricating the grill with a little oil = seasoned grill = food doesn’t stick.
Just like your grandmother’s cherished cast iron skillet, years of proper use and care will season your grill, giving it an almost non-stick coating.
Many people advocate oiling the food, but that takes more oil and won’t help season the grill grate. Take a clean towel tightly wrapped and dipped in canola oil and use long handled tongs to rub a light coat of oil on the pre-heated grill grate.
Mistake #4 - The Over-Crowded Grill
You have steaks, burgers, dogs and brats covering every square inch of your grill grate, and you have a flare-up. Where do you move the meat to keep it from charring?
You could move some food temporarily to a plate, but then you end up with temperature issues - you don’t want your food to cool down in the middle of the cooking process.
You could just let the flare-up flare, but that deep char is really not what perfect grilling is all about, besides, carcinogens have been identified in deeply charred meat. What do you do?
Just as overcrowding a pan is not good for browning meat—you end up with a steam rather than a sear, overcrowding is the enemy on the grill. To adjust to flare-ups and to be able to move your food around from hotter to cooler parts of the grill, it’s best to keep a good one third of your total grilling area clear.
Remember, even as heat is transferred from the grill to the food, it is a two-way street. The food cools down the grill. This is why grill marks are more pronounced on the first side of the food rather than the flip side.
When it comes to grilling, heat is your friend, so make sure there is plenty of free space on the grill to move the food so the grill has a chance to heat up again. That’s one way to try and equalize those grill marks.
Mistake #5 - Not Ready for the Flames
The USDA does not want you to ever leave meat out on the counter. Many chefs will say that it is necessary to let food come to room temperature before cooking.
The reason for this is two-fold: putting cold food on a hot grill will actually bring down the temperature of the grill temporarily, and you could have some problems with sticking. The second problem is with heat control in the food itself, especially when dealing with a thick cut. If you put a cold piece of meat on the grill, the inside will still be cold when the outside is done.
Of course I don’t advocate leaving meat out in the hot sun, or even in a kitchen, all day to come to room temperature. What I do advocate is giving the food some time on the kitchen counter (depending on the thickness) to let it warm up a bit—up to 30-45 minutes or so for thinner cuts and longer for larger, thicker cuts and roasts.
Refrigerators hold food at temperature of about 40 degrees, and a rest on the counter will take the chill off, leading to a tenderer, more evenly-cooked end product. If you are concerned about bacterial growth, rest assured that grilling will take care of that problem in short order. If you’re still concerned about it, follow the USDA recommendations.
Mistake #6 - The Constant Mover
You put your food on the grill; then you move it. Two seconds later, you move it again. Then you flip it, move it, flip it again, move it again. Spray some water at a flare-up, and poke at the food.
Then you move it. Then you…you get the idea. At the end, you are left wondering why you don’t have beautiful grill marks on your food and why it doesn’t have a good sear.
Heat is amazing - it transforms food, but even the relatively high and direct heat of the grill needs some time to work its magic. Put the food down on the grill grate, and give the heat time to give a beautiful sear. Give the grill grate time to imprint those grill marks.
While I’m not saying to walk away to check your e-mail, I am saying to watch carefully, but trust that the heat will do its job. Even fish can stand to be on the grill for a good minute or so before being moved, so relax and let it happen.
Mistake #7 - The Second Guesser
You are so concerned about overcooking that beautiful steak, you take it off the grill early and cut into it only to be met with cold purple meat in the middle. Back on the grill it goes, and now you end up overcooking it. Great.
The Fix: Instant Read Thermometer
Take the guesswork out of doneness: make sure to check the internal temperature of what you’re cooking with an instant read thermometer. There are many ways to tell if meat is done, but for the occasion weekend griller, the only way to be sure is to use a thermometer.
Pay attention to what you are doing, don’t walk away, and check that temperature. Over time, you'll get a sense when grill so all you need is a quick touch with your finger to know if the meat is done to your liking.
Sub-Mistake - The Cutter
Never cut into your meat to see if it is done. Use an instant-read thermometer. If you don’t, some of the juices will run out, and you’ll end up with dry, tasteless meat.
Mistake #8 - The Overeager Griller
The steak is beautiful and the instant-read tells you it’s at the perfect temperature. You put your meat on a plate and immediately cut into it. All the juices run out of the meat on to the plate and you are left with a dry, sad cut.
It is now mysteriously looking overcooked. What did you do wrong?
This comes down to carry-over cooking and resting. Just because you’ve taken your meat off the grill doesn’t mean that the internal temperature won’t continue to rise.
The heat that was at the surface when the meat left the grill will continue to travel through to the center, raising the temperature. That’s what heat does. It doesn’t get sucked back up into the fire, it continues to cook the meat.
Remember that food will continue to cook for a couple of minutes for thin cuts and up to 45 minutes or so for very dense foods (think turkey and large roasts), and take the food off the heat a few degrees before you reach your target temperature.
Cover your food and let it rest for 5-10 minutes for smaller, thinner cuts and up to 30-40 minutes for larger cuts. This rest time allows the thermal transfer to equalize and the juices to redistribute.
A few minutes of patient waiting will yield a perfectly cooked, juicy and tender result.
Mistake #9 - The Flamethrower
You have a grill capable of throwing tens of thousands of BTUs. You crank it up to high, put the food on the grill and end up with a charred exterior surrounding a raw interior.
The Fix - Heat Zones
Just as you turn your knobs on your stoves up or down depending on if food is cooking too quickly or slowly, you should practice modulating the heat on your grill. While it is not convenient or even feasible to turn the heat up or down on the grill or to try and add or take away coals if you are using a charcoal grill, it is possible and recommended that you have three heat zones on your grill.
On a gas grill, this is as simple as setting your grill dials at high, medium or low. On a charcoal grill, it requires some pre-planning.
One zone will be set up for high-heat cooking—the sear on the outside of your meat. You want your charcoal to be very close together and piled two high in this zone.
You will use the middle zone for the bulk of the cooking, with the lid down. In this zone, set up the charcoal evenly spaced and in one layer.
Don’t put any charcoal in the third zone. This will be the area where you move the meat to finish off cooking slowly. Remember, for thin food, zone grilling is not so much of an issue, but if you are going to be grilling larger cuts, use the zone method.
Sear and get your grill marks in Zone 1, do the bulk of the cooking in Zone 2, and let the meat “coast” in Zone 3.
Mistake #10 - The Bland Griller
Grilling is a great way to impart flavor to foods. Cooking with direct flame intensifies flavors. There are lots of ways to bring extra flavor to the table when grilling, and I encourage you to try them.
Even if you are interested in low-fat cooking, this doesn’t mean low flavor cooking. There are plenty of low fat ways to bring on the flavor. Don’t just throw unseasoned meats or vegetables on the grill and suffer because you’re eating healthy—dial up the flavor and enjoy your healthy meal.
Try one of these ways to add flavor to your grilled foods. Keep in mind that these ideas can be adapted for use on meats, fish, vegetables and fruits.
The marinade: mix up a flavorful soaking liquid based on an acid (lemon juice, vinegar, wine, even yogurt) and put your food in to marinate. Vegetables and seafood might only need a 15 minute marinade, but larger or tougher cuts can take up to 24 hours in a marinade.
Check on marinating times for the particular food you want to add flavor to—too much marinating time can start to break down the food and make it a little mushy. Add whatever you like to your marinade—salt and pepper are always welcome additions, but add garlic and any herbs or spices that complement your dish.
Some people add oil to their marinades, but this not strictly necessary, especially if your goal is to reduce fat consumption. Do your marinating in the refrigerator, and throw away any unused marinade.
The spice rub: This is just what it sounds like, a dry mix of spices that you rub on the food before grilling. Rubs are generally based on a sugar and salt mixture to which you can add any spices or herbs that you desire.
While you can apply a rub right before grilling, you’ll get better flavor if you let your rubbed food sit in the fridge for a while. To really bring out flavor, you can apply a rub to something that you’ve marinated. Just make sure that the flavors in the rub go well with the flavors in the marinade.
Another great way to bring some flavor to grilling, especially if it’s a large cut that will be on the grill for a while, is to add some soaked wood chips or soaked bundles of herbs directly to the coals. The steam and aromatic smoke will lend an additional layer of flavor to your grilled food.
Mistake #11 - The Sauce Slosher
You have marinated a lovely chicken. You’ve applied a rub. You have bundles of soaked rosemary stems ready to throw on the coals. Your three zones are all set up.
You slather on barbecue sauce, put the meat on the grill, and the sauce immediately begins to burn. By the time the meat is done, the exterior is completely black, and you’ve been fighting flare-ups the whole time.
One of the first ingredients in almost every commercially available barbecue sauce is sugar or corn syrup. If cooked for too long, sugar burns.
The trick is to get the sugars in the sauce to caramelize at the right time so that whatever you are grilling is done before the sugars start to burn. It is better to start your meat without the sauce and only baste with sauce during the last 10 minutes or so of cooking.
This way, the sugars will caramelize beautifully and will begin to set up while the meat is resting. The result—tender juicy meat with finger licking gooey sauce. You can pass extra sauce at the table, but it won’t taste the same because the sugars in the extra sauce haven’t caramelized.
Mistake #12 - The Right Grill for the Right Job
You have a great gas grill, and you want to use it for everything. Texas-style barbecued brisket, you think. Understand that my official definition of barbecue is meat cooked very low and very slow with hot smoke from an indirect source.
Gas grills are great for high heat and zone grilling, but they don’t do low and slow very well, and they don’t make smoke. Okay, you think—smoked salmon. Again, a gas grill isn’t made to smoke. You can make it smoke, but that's not what it is designed for.
If you have your heart set on smoking meats, or vegetables for that matter, I wish I could tell you that there is a way to convert your gas grill, and there might be, but honestly it is best to get the right tool for the right job. Buy a smoker.
Mistake #13 - The Briquette Addict
Self-starting briquettes seem so easy to use. Just light them with a match. That’s it. And if they are hard to light, squeeze on some lighter fluid.
No problem, right? Wrong.
Briquettes are made primarily of charred wood and coal, and they are held together with starch binders. They contain lime (which turns white and lets you know when your coals are ready) and are sprayed with an accelerant (lighter-fluid) to make them light easily.
One of the problems with using briquettes is that people don’t wait until the coals are completely ready before putting the food on the grill. Some of the impurities used in producing the briquettes are then cooked into your food.
Although briquettes do burn longer, for the sake of your health and for flavor, I recommend using natural lump charcoal for grilling. You don’t need any lighter fluid to light it. All you need is a $10-$15 chimney starter, available at any hardware or home improvement store.
Crumple up 2 full sheets of newspaper. Put these in the bottom of the chimney starter, under the grate. Fill the chimney with the lump charcoal, and then light the paper.
Place the chimney on the bottom (small) grate of your charcoal grill, and wait until the coals are glowing cherry red. This will not take long at all.
I was amazed at how efficient a chimney starter is the first time I used one. Handle the chimney starter with heavy duty gloves and make sure you have a heat-proof surface to put it on after the coals are hot and you’ve put them in the grill.
Mistake #14 - The Stabber
When you went to the store to get your grill, the salesman up-sold you with a nice set of long-handled grilling tools. You got tongs, a really long fork, a really long spatula and a grill brush.
The first time you grill and it’s time to turn the meat, you reach for the really long fork, stab the meat and turn it over. You have a lot of mysterious flare-ups, and after checking the temperature with your instant read thermometer and letting it rest the appropriate length of time, you are surprised when you cut into it to find dry, tasteless meat.
Throw the fork away. Always, always use a spatula or tongs to turn food on a grill. After all, once the meat is dead, it’s dead. No need to kill it again.
Although we know that searing doesn’t really lock in the juices, stabbing the meat with a fork or a knife will allow the hot juices to run out. And once, they’re gone, they’re gone.
Mistake #15 - The Full Court Press
“If he won’t let me use my fork, I’ll use my spatula! I’ll just press this chicken breast down so it makes better contact with the grill.”
Wait a minute, do you hear that increased sizzle and see the flare-ups? That sizzle is not the satisfying sound of grilling meat, it is the sound of juices being pressed out with the spatula. The result—dry, tasteless meat.
Spatulas are made for turning, not pressing. Put it down unless it’s time to turn the food.
Your food is made up of cells that you have taken great pains to keep full of flavorful juices. You might even have introduced more juice and flavors through brining and/or marinating.
Now the food is like a sponge - full of flavor and juices. The last thing you want to do is squeeze them all out by pressing on the food. Just leave it alone.
Mistake #16 - The Wanderer
As I said in the introduction, grilling is a quick cooking method. Food generally goes from raw to cooked fairly quickly and can just as quickly go from perfectly cooked to burnt.
Don’t go wandering away from the grill to grab another beverage, answer the phone or check the laundry—you’ll walk away from near perfection and return to a ruined meal.
The easy answer is, “Don’t leave the grill.”
The expanded answer is have your phone by the grill, don’t start laundry before you start grilling, have a cooler by the grill and deputize someone you trust and who knows how to use an instant read thermometer to take over should you absolutely have to leave the grill.
Mistake #17 - The Seasonal Griller
It is a mistake to think that grilling season starts on Memorial Day and ends on Labor Day. Our ancestors didn’t stop grilling just because it got cold, and neither should you.
Use your grill at least a few times during the colder months. It is a great way to break up the monotony of heavy winter stews and braises, and it gets you out in the cool, fresh air for a while.
Who wouldn’t want a fresh grilled burger and some grilled vegetables in the middle of January? If it snowed the night before, clear a path to the grill and get started.
Mistake #18 - A Dangerous Maneuver
You have a grilling party all planned. The menu is set, the neighbors are here, and it begins to rain. You consider bringing the grill indoors.
According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, about 20 people die from grilling-related carbon monoxide poisoning every year. Grilling should ALWAYS be done in a well-ventilated, outdoor environment.
Never try to grill inside, even if you think you have good ventilation. If it starts to rain, either stand in it and grill or order pizza. Your health and safety are much more of a concern than is cancelling a party.
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