Ah, summer. That special time of year when those good spatula-wielding folks who only cook for one season out of the year (let's call 'em what they are: dads) dust off the old grill to burn a few steaks and serve up some medium-rare chicken. Okay, perhaps I'm being unfair here. There are plenty of amazing backyard cooks who take a structured, scientific approach to good grilling and reap the flavorful rewards because of it, but there are just as many who think that all it takes to put together a successful backyard cookout is the ability to buy some steaks and light a fire.
I've been to enough cookouts in my time to recognize the warning signs of tough, sooty, or downright dangerous meat to come. Here are some of the most common mistakes beginning grillers make and how to avoid them.
Mistake #1: You Used Lighter Fluid or Match-Light Coals
The Thinking: If I douse my coals in liquid fuel, of course they'll light faster! It's logical and it's a mistake most beginning grillers make. It doesn't help that match-light coals and lighter fluid are heavily marketed in the grilling aisle at the home centers and supermarkets. It's easy to understand why so many people buy lighter fluid: Try holding a match underneath a coal and you won't get very far.
The Reality: After erupting in a mushroom cloud of fire, the flames quickly subside and die. You end up squirting more lighter fluid on the coals in a desperate attempt to keep the fire going (and perhaps even after the fire is alive and kicking because it's just so damn fun to set things on fire). All seems to be going well until you take that first gasoline-scented bite of a hamburger. Truth is, no matter how long you let a fire that was started with lighter fluid burn, you can taste it on your food, and it's not pleasant.
The Fix: What you really need is a chimney starter. You place some crumpled newspaper underneath it, pack the top with coals, set the newspaper on fire with a single match or lighter, then let it work its magic as oxygen is drawn up and through the coals, lighting them efficiently without the need for any lighter fluid at all.
Your coals will be lit in record time with no risk of adding off-flavors to your food.
Mistake #2: You Spread the Coals Before They Were Fully Gray
The Thinking: But I'm hungry now! I get it. When you have a spatula in your hand, everything looks like a burger. You just can't wait to get that food on the grill, gray ash be damned.
The Reality: You start cooking before your coals are ready leading to inconsistent heat, off-flavors, and unpredictable cook times.
The Fix: Have patience! There's a reason the bag tells you to wait until the coals are covered in gray ash. A fire that might seem moderately hot while the coals still have some black will very rapidly rise to inferno levels as the coals continue to ignite. Temperature control is priority number one when it comes to grilling, and waiting until those coals stabilize is the best way to avoid any surprises.
Mistake #3: You Didn't Preheat the Grill
The Thinking: That fire is hella hot. It's ready to cook on NOW.
The Reality: That fire might be producing plenty of radiant heat—that's the infrared heat you can feel on your hand when you hold it above the grill—but the grill grates themselves are still relatively cool, which means that your food will not receive much conductive heat—the heat transferred directly by the grill grates. Rather than picking up dark, attractive grill marks and releasing easily, your food will stick to the metal. And meat sticking to metal is an actual chemical bond that is nearly impossible to cleanly break. Instead of coming up cleanly, your food tears and shreds.
The Fix: After your fire is lit, cover the grill and let it preheat for at least five to 10 minutes in order for the fire to transfer heat to the grill grates. With pre-heated grill grates, your food has much less of a chance of sticking as its proteins alter their shape before they even come in direct contact with the metal.
Hot grills are also easier to clean, which takes us to...
Mistake #4: You Forgot to Clean the Grates, Dummy!
The Thinking: Fire kills everything. Burnt-on food adds flavor. Nobody will notice. Take your pick.
The Reality: Your chicken comes off the grill with carbonized bits of last night's pork chops stuck to it or, worse, tonight's chicken ends up sticking to last night's pork chops, leaving its outer layers behind on the grill. Tomorrow night part of your asparagus is gonna stick to that chicken. The burnt-on layer of food is going to grow and grow like a katamari until eventually entire prime ribs and turkeys are going to get stuck to it.
The Fix: Clean those darned grill grates! All you need is a grill brush and the smallest amount of elbow grease.
Pro-tip: If you cook on your grill regularly, don't bother cleaning your grill when you are finished cooking and all you want to do is focus on feeding your hungry guests and getting to that next beer. And don't bother trying to clean the grill at the end of the evening when it's already cooled down and the gunk has hardened. Instead, clean your grill after preheating it just before you start to cook. The heated grease and food remains should scrape right off.
The rather pricey Tool Wizard Grill Brush that comes recommended from Cook's Illustrated lasted all of two weeks on my grill a few seasons ago. Instead, I recommend the Weber Three-Sided Grill Brush, which like all Weber products, is built to last.
Mistake #5: You're Using Too Much Direct Heat
The Thinking: Me Like Meat. Me Like Fire. Me Like Big Meat With Big Fire. The bigger the fire, the better the searing and charring and the tastier the meat.
The Reality: Your fire is too hot and your steak starts to burn on the outside before it's even begun to hit medium rare in the center. You desperately look around for a place to move it to but your entire grill is as hot as the eighth level of hell.
The Fix: Build yourself a two-zone fire. On a coal grill, this means evenly distributing the coals under only half of the grill, leaving the other half either empty or covered with a very, very thin layer of coals. In a gas grill this means lighting the burners on one side, leaving the other side off or on very low heat. With two zones you have much more control over your cooking. Place meat and vegetables over the hot side for fast searing, or shift them over to the cooler side for more gently cooking. With your meat on the cool side of the grill and the grill covered, you can even create an oven-like setting inside for grill-roasting large cuts of meat like prime rib or a leg of lamb.
Mistake #6: You Keep Futzing With That Lid
The Thinking: Is it done yet?... Nope. Is it done yet?... Nope. Is it done yet?... Nope. Is it done yet?... You know what I'm talking about. That unbreakable, irresistible urge you get to keep checking on that big ol' pork chop.
The Reality: Repeatedly lifting the lid with a gas grill will cause it to lose heat, making your food sear and cook more slowly. Repeatedly lifting with a coal grill will do the opposite, allowing in oxygen that causes the coals to bun hotter than you'd like them to, resulting in burnt meat.
The Fix: Be patient! It's not a crime to flip your burgers or steaks multiple times as they cook, but just bear in mind that every time you open and close that lid, you're adding inconsistencies to your cooking temperature. Remember this basic rule of thumb: If you're cooking on a gas grill, opening the lid will make it cooler. If you're cooking on a charcoal grill, opening the lid will make it hotter.
Mistake #7: You Think that Awesome Looking Flames Make for Awesome Tasting Meat
The Thinking: The difference between cooking indoors and cooking outside is that live fire right? So it must be good to let your burgers and steaks get engulfed in flames.
The Reality: Flames engulfing your meat end up leaving sooty, nasty-tasting deposits on the surface of your food. Small flames and minor flare-ups are ok, but you definitely don't want that fire licking your steak before you do.
The Fix: Fire requires three things to burn: fuel, energy, and oxygen. Flare-ups are generally caused by fat dripping out of your meat and igniting on the coals or the grill bars below—adding fuel. Trimming off excess fat can help mitigate some of the issues, but the fact is that with a well-marbled steak or a nice juicy burger, you want that fat to be there from the start. The easiest way to control a flare-up if you aren't cooking too many things at once is to simply move the meat off of the hot side and onto the cool side of the grill until the flare-up subsides before carefully returning it.
But what if your grill is too full to effectively shift things around? This scenario leaves you with two options: reduce the energy in the system or cut off oxygen supply. Squirting water from a spray bottle at little flare ups will do a good job of reducing energy—that energy that was going to feeding the flare-up instead goes into evaporating the water. But it's also a good way to spray up excess soot or worse, to spread around the fat, exacerbating the flare-up problem down the line.
Better is to simply do what you should be doing anyway: close that lid and cut off the oxygen supply. A few moments with the lid and vents closed should choke off any flame.
Mistake #8: You Think the Vents are for Decoration
How to Use the Vents on Your Grill
The Thinking: What effect could these little fiddly things possibly have on my man-sized flame?
The Reality: Adjusting the position of the vents is the best way to control oxygen and heat flow within your charcoal grill.
The Fix: Access to oxygen can have a major impact on how efficiently your coals combust. Too much and they can erupt into soot-inducing flames. Too little and they choke themselves out. The lower and upper vents on your charcoal grill can be used to adjust the flow of oxygen, thereby adjusting the heat generated inside your grill. Cooking chicken, ribs, or brisket low and slow over indirect heat? Keep those vents closed. Searing the outside of a big fat steak or a burger? Keep them open to encourage higher heat (just don't let those flames lick the meat!).
The relative positioning of the top and bottom vents can also make a difference! I like to position my vents with the lower vent on the opposite side of the food and the lid vents directly above the food to promote convection currents inside that more efficiently take hot air above and around the food.
Mistake #9: You're Adding the Barbecue Sauce Too Early!
The Thinking: I'm gonna paint this sucker with multiple layers of barbecue sauce and let each one cook on because it'll give everything more flavor.
The Reality: The barbecue sauce starts to burn and turns acrid way before your meat is even close to completion. Your guests sheepishly scrape off the layer of blackened soot from what used to be chicken before adding extra sauce straight from the bottle to cover up that bitterness, but it doesn't help. The bitterness stays. All. Night. Long.
The Fix: Barbecue sauce does very little penetrating no matter how early you apply it. At most it's a surface treatment, which means that you can add it towards the end of cooking and still get just as much flavor out of it without risking burning it. If you are using a sweet barbecue sauce, wait until the final five to 10 minutes of cooking to paint it onto your meat with a brush.
Mistake #10: You're Cooking Too Many Different Things at Once
The Thinking: Some people like chicken, some people like sausages, some people like burgers, why not cook them all at once?
The Reality: Your burgers overcook, your chicken is undercooked, everything is cross-contaminated, and nothing is as good as it should be.
The Fix: Stick to grilling one type of food at a time but focus on really nailing it. The high heat you need for perfectly seared burgers or steaks is different from the low-and-slow heat you need for chicken or sausages. When I'm hosting a cookout, I'll focus on cooking one type of meat at a time before moving on to the next, making sure that I have plenty of side dishes and snacks for folks who don't like the particular thing I'm cooking at the moment. The result is better food and happier guests all around.
Mistake #11: You're Poking Your Meat to Tell if it's Done
The Thinking: I've seen those guys on TV poke their steak with their finger to see if it's done, that must be the way professionals do it. You know the drill. Hold your forefinger to your thumb and poke the ball of your thumb with your other hand. That's what rare feels like. Hold your middle finger and that's medium. Hold your third finger and that's well-done.
The Reality: You probably are not a professional, which means you probably haven't cooked the hundreds or thousands of steaks required to fine tune your poke-test finger. Your steak ends up well done or raw.
The Fix: Forget about the whole poke test. First off, different people have different fingers, different hands, entirely different sets of calibration. Not only that, but different steaks all feel, well, different. Without tons and tons of experience, there's no way to reliably tell if your steak is done by poking it. You know what is reliable? A thermometer. Get yourself either a Thermapen or its inexpensive cousin the Thermopop and say goodbye to over- or undercooked meat forever.
Check out Myth #7 in my piece on common steak myths for some more details.
Mistake #12: You're Serving Your Food Too Soon
The Thinking: The meat is hot, my guests are hungry, let's get this food on the table NOW.
The Reality: Cutting into a steak that's too hot not only ends up burning your guests' mouths, but it also causes the meat to unleash a torrent of juices that run all over the cutting board or plate.
The Fix: Let your meat rest off of the grill for a few minutes before serving it. This will allow the internal juices to thicken and redistribute, which in turn reduces the amount of spillage you get after cutting into them. So you like the outside of your meat to be hot and sizzling right when you serve it? No problem: rest your meat as usual, then right before serving it toss it back over the highest possible heat on your grill for just around 30 seconds per side. You'll end up with perfectly rested, juicy meat and a nice crisp, sizzling crust.
Check out my piece on the importance of resting meat for more details.