Mastering the art of the grill, young jedi, takes practice and experience, but above all fearlessness. Steaks will be ruined. Briskets will be burnt. Costly cuts of lamb may be wasted, but you will learn from your mistakes, and things will get better.
If you’re reading this page then you’ve taken the first positive step in the right direction towards improving your grilling technique. Identifying the most common grilling mistakes will help you eliminate bad practices that may be holding you back from your full BBQ potential.
Unleash the pitmaster in you by conquering these 10 most common mistakes!
1. You don’t preheat your grill or smoker long enough.
Prepping your Weber grill or Masterbuilt electric smoker to the desired cooking temperature is a critical step that shouldn’t be rushed.
Achieving a steady, consistent internal cooking temperature requires the right amount of fuel, ventilation and an environment as free of contamination as possible. You should preheat for at least 30 - 45 minutes before placing your beef, chicken, poultry or fish on the grill.
In cold weather or winter conditions, expect your gas grill or electric smoker to take even longer than normal to heat up. Left covered and stored outdoors, the cold weather will leave the metal components colder than usual, particularly the heating element or burners. Your wood may also be damp from being stored in a cold place, which will prolong the time it takes to kindle.
2. You don’t have the right grilling utensils.
Simple as it may seem, amateur grillers can often be distinguished by their lack of adequate utensils. If you dedicate time to prepping, marinating and creating side dishes that resonate with your BBQ creations, you deserve to work with the best tools as well.
There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to handle a thick cut of tenderloin stick with a flimsy pair of grilling tongs, or struggling to flip a sizzling 10oz beef burger on your grill without splashing yourself! Wire bristles left behind on your cooking grates by a cheap grill brush can become ingested, sending you or your guests to the emergency room!
Burnt fingers can be avoided with a premium pair of BBQ gloves, and the added convenience of the right tools will make you more efficient. Stainless steel with ergonomic design and non-slip grips are all hallmarks of quality grilling utensils. If silicon is integrated into the utensil, always opt for BPA-free brands. Hanging holes are another important feature, since you’ll need a convenient way to store and access them without burning yourself.
3. You cook your food over direct flame too early.
It’s easy to burn an expensive cut of lamb or steak by placing it on a hot gas or charcoal grill too early. When the flames are at their highest, they can quickly rob your meat of moisture, leaving you with a dry, burnt husk void of any flavor. Meat juices dripping into the fire cause flare ups, further accelerating your fuel consumption and producing too much heat too quickly.
Wait for the flames to die down before adding your uncooked salmon, chicken breast, pork chop, or other favorite meat. The meat on your grill is cooked by radiant heat emitted by the cooking surface, not the fire. Even when your recipe calls for direct flame grilling, your meat should be positioned directly above the flames, not in them.
4. You keep opening and closing the lid on your grill.
It’s hard to resist the temptation to check on the progress of your precious burgers when you’re cooking with fire. Gas and charcoal grills don’t have see-through lids or digital timers to alert you when your meat is ready to serve. All the sizzling and popping under the lid may sound like an explosion waiting to happen, but checking every 30 seconds won’t cook your food any faster.
Each time you open the lid on your grill, radiant heat used to cook your meat right through escapes, reducing the internal cooking temperature. Generally, when you’re grilling thick cuts of beef, pork, lamb and other red meats, 10 - 15 minutes under the lid at medium setting will usually cook your meat to medium-rareness.
5. Your meat has no moisture.
Red and white meat, as well as different cuts of meat, differ in their fat content as well as moisture or tenderness. A thick shank or brisket has more fat marbling than T-bone, for example. Adding moisture to a thick cut of meat can enhance the flavor significantly and prevent your meat from drying out before the cooking time has expired.
Seasoning rubs are your saving grace when it comes to preparing pork butt, shoulder loins, brisket or rump. After rubbing your meat, marinated in the refrigerator overnight. Then, take the meat out and allow it reach room temperature before you throw it onto the hot grill. This will give the meat ample time to absorb moisture and flavor right down to the bone.
6. You’re overcooking your food on the grill.
Blackened vegetables, charred meat with raw portions still pink and oozing on the inside - not the most appetizing way to enjoy a BBQ meal. These are all signs that you’re overcooking your food. A digital timer with an alert should help, but you can also consider investing in a wireless thermometer equipped with a timer.
7. You’re distracted when you should be grilling.
Ok, so we’re probably all a little guilty of this one. Who wouldn’t be in our hyper digital world of wifi and instant messaging? Angling your charcoal grill so you can watch Netflix from your backyard, or zIpping back and forth between innings to check on your side of grilled asparagus
usually ends up with more burnt food on your plate than cooked!
Technology, though, isn’t the only potential distraction. Trying to prep sides, peel potatoes, chop garlic, and mix the dressing for your kale salad while you flip turkey burgers is a recipe for burnt food. Make your job easier by planning and prepping your BBQ meal ahead of time so you can focus on delivering amazing results.
8. You poke holes in your meat while it’s on the grill.
One of the biggest, most common reason for flare-ups on your grill is the holes you keep poking in your food! The flavorful juice from your meat oozes out of your meat into the flames, instead of being seared into the meat.
Meat juice oozing naturally is fine, but poking holes through the entire meat will result in food that’s unevenly cooked, or dry on the outside. Research recipes online and follow their directions for cooking, grilling, smoking or searing times. With practice you’ll gain experience and eventually improve at knowing when your food is ready.
A meat probe is a much better way to inspect your meat for readiness than the sharp tines on a meat fork. The long thin syringe like probe doesn’t puncture meat or leave gaping holes the way a fork does.
9. Your grill needs replacing.
Nostalgia can be deadly! Old Smokey may have been handed down to you from your grandpa, but a faulty gas grill or grimy charcoal grill with decades of coal residue and smoke could prove a hazard to your health - and life!
Hot and cold spots on your grilling surface can be frustrating when you’re trying to cook efficiently for a large group. A damaged pilot light, exposed wiring, or a hole in your regulator hose should be immediately attended to.
If you’re looking for a real upgrade, you may be surprised at the amazing digital features now being integrated into some of the best brands of electric smokers, gas and pellet grills. Everything from presets to automated pellet feeders and wireless control are just some of the enhanced capabilities you’ll find from top BBQ brands.
10. You’re not using heat zones.
When a recipe calls for both a pan-fry and sear, or a oven-roast then sear, partitioning your grill into zones is an easy way to transition. Known as zone cooking, it’s easily done on a charcoal or gas grill by sectioning the grill by different temperature levels.
On a charcoal grill, you simply bank the coals in the center to create a radiating effect. The inner zone can be used for searing (directly over the coals) while the outer zones can be used for grilling. For gas grills, set one burner on high and another on medium.
There’s no shortcut to grilling greatness, but the road doesn’t have to be a dead end! Don’t give up on your grill just yet, or yourself. If you identify with any of the mistakes listed above, why not reassess your approach and try something different?
We all get stuck in routine from time to time, but when you’re grilling technique seems to be hitting a wall, it’s time to reach out for some friendly advice from others who share your passion!
At Fire Food Chef, our staff of BBQ lovers are always exploring and sharing the latest tips, techniques and recipes, with an eye for only the best. If it’s barbecue, you’ll find it here first!
William Clay is a BBQ enthusiast dedicated to sharing his grilling (and overall cooking) expertise with FireFoodChef's readers.