More Common Grilling Mistakes & How to Avoid Them
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.