One of grilling’s most appealing aspects is that it’s a quick and relatively low-maintenance way of cooking food — making a summer barbecue an easy way to feed a small or large group of friends. But this fantastic dinner can easily go awry if the cook doesn’t follow some basic grilling rules: Picture scorched eyebrows, blackened meat (not in the good way), or raw food all because of an empty propane tank.
Whether you’re a charcoal kind of griller or a gas die-hard, a professional flame-tamer or first-timer, mistakes happen. We've listed some of the more common ones below and then talked to the Food Network's Aaron McCargo and cookbook author Sam the Cooking Guy to come up with some quick fixes (and preventative measures) for every cookout slip-up. Feel free to share any tips or horror grilling stories with us below!
Mistake #1: Overly Charred Food (a.k.a. Burnt)
Burnt and badly blackened food does not make for happy diners. Since this can be the result of several mistakes, we’ve listed the solutions for the different scenarios below.
Fix 1: Flare-ups can happen to anyone, whether you’re a master griller or beginner, but there are a few things you can do to avoid ruining your food when sudden bursts of flame occur (usually when oil or excess fat drips through the grates).
A: Have a safe, cool spot on your grill that you can move food to when it happens.
B: Have a small fire extinguisher or spray bottle of water handy, whether it’s a fancy one or a homemade one. If grilling cookbook author Sam Zien doesn’t have a store-bought bottle, he pokes a hole in a water bottle and uses that to extinguish the flame. “It’s a fire right? Flare-ups happen, and it helps to bring flavor,” says Zien, but make sure it doesn't burn your food. (Photo courtesy of Corbis/Ocean)
C: If using an oil-based marinade, try to let excess marinade drip off the meat before placing it on the grill to avoid instigating a flare-up.
Fix 2: If the outside of a large piece of meat like brisket, pork butt, or a whole turkey is starting to burn before it’s close to being done, then, as the Food Network host Aaron McCargo recommends, you can take it off the heat and finish it low and slow in the oven. It will still have that smokiness and nice char without being overly burnt on the outside.
Fix 3: Don't apply sweet and sugary-based marinades like BBQ sauce throughout the grilling process. Just brush the sauce on during the last five minutes or so of cooking because it will burn otherwise, and you’ll lose all that delicious flavor you were trying to add.
Mistake #2: Food Sticking to the Grill
Fix: To avoid leaving pieces of fish and meat clinging to your grill, make sure to oil it well once it’s hot and ready to go.
Mistake #3: Running Out of Coals or Propane
Fix: For gas grills, make certain you turn off the tank after use. For Zien, this often happens when he cleans the grill afterward. He explains that you have two choices when it comes to cleaning: You can either do it after you cook by cranking up the heat and letting all of the sticky stuff burn off the grill grates or do it 15 minutes before the next time you grill as you heat up your barbecue.
The problem is that more than once he’s gone to eat dinner and totally forgotten to turn off the grill causing him to run out of propane. Since you need a grill to be super-hot before you start cooking any way, why not wait until the next time you grill to clean it off? As he says, “I’m doing two things at once, burning off the foods while heating up the grill and saving time. I learned to compensate for my forgetfulness.”
For charcoal grills, it’s a good idea to have back-up coals ready, and using a charcoal chimney can help maximize the heat generated by the lit coals. Also, regularly test the heat of the grill by holding your hand over the grill, so you know when to add more. General rule of thumb: If you can only hold your hand over the grill for two seconds then it’s hot, three seconds then medium-high heat, etc. (Photo courtesy of Corbis/MM Productions)
Mistake #4: Unevenly Cooked Meat and Fish
Fix: If a piece of meat or fish is still cold in the center when you cook it, then you’re going to have to overcook the outside parts just to get a chance at cooking the inside. Word of advice: Take meat and fish out of the refrigerator before cooking them. For small pieces of meat and fish, 30 minutes should be enough. For larger cuts of meat, you might need close to an hour.
Mistake #5: Under or Overcooking Foods
Fix: Make sure to have an instant-read thermometer on hand, one with a long, heat-resistant handle is best. This way you can more accurately gauge when a piece of meat has reached your desired level of doneness and not end up with a bloody steak for a medium-well kind of person.
Plus, since most grills are made differently, cooking times will not always be accurate, so it’s a good idea to have a thermometer on hand. How to get that perfect medium-rare burger? Bring its internal temperature up to 130-135 degrees. Whatever is on the menu, it's a good idea to have a meat temperature chart handy while you're grilling.
Mistake #6: Dried-Out, Flavorless Meat
Fix: Marinades in general are a great way to add flavor to food and tenderize tougher cuts of meat. But if you oversalt your marinades or rubs, it toughens up the meat and draws out the moisture, says McCargo. Click here to see 10 Great Meat Marinades.
Mistake #7: Flaming Skewers
Fix: Unless you’re using metal skewers, wooden ones are flammable (hence wood in the name), so make sure to soak them in water for at least 20 minutes (or up to one hour) before using them. Or you can avoid the whole situation by purchasing metal skewers instead. (Photo courtesy of Corbis/Ocean)
Mistake #8: Buying Hamburger Buns Instead of Hot Dog Rolls (For Your Hot Dogs)
Fix: While not ideal, you can try to roll one half of the hamburger bun around the dog to almost mimic the idea of pigs in a blanket. It’s surprisingly fun.
Other Tips and Advice:
For Aaron McCargo, grilling is about having fun. So to make sure the cooking time goes smoothly, he gets all of his meats and equipment ready the night before. Instead of packing the refrigerator full and risk running out of room, he buys a big cooler, marinates and portions out all of the meat in freezer bags, and then sets the meats in the cooler with a big bag of ice.
This way, you have all the meats seasoned and ready to go right next to the grill. As he says, “the more you prep the night before, the easier time you’ll have for grilling.”