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Cooking is still a science, even when you're doing it outdoors. Despite what your dad might have taught you, grilling is more about patience and planning than poking and prodding. Make a single error, and your burgers could turn out tough and bitter, your chicken rare and unappetizing.
Luckily, these errors are easy to avoid.
At Reviewed.com, we're determined to host nothing but perfect barbecues this summer, so we devoted hours upon hours of research to compiling the ultimate list of grilling don'ts. Here are the five top barbecue mistakes you might be making—and how to prevent them in the future.
1. Your grill is dirty.
We don’t mean to be rude, but your grill is filthy. And why shouldn’t it be? Those grates have seen countless steaks, skewers, and sausages—which means they’re coated in grease and charred bits of food.
Here’s the problem, though: That charred mess could ruin tonight’s dinner.
Grilling chicken? It’ll stick to the dirty grates, shredding when you remove it. This makes for an ugly meal and an even dirtier grill. Plus, the grime will give your food a bitter flavor and increase the chance of flare-ups.
Cleaning isn’t fun, but if you do it every time you use the grill, it should be relatively painless. It’s easiest to scrape off grease and food remains when the grates are hot, so we recommend going to work with a metal grill brush during preheating. That way, when it comes time to actually slap some food on that bad boy, it’ll be clean and ready to go.
2. You don't preheat the grill.
Not only is preheating a great time to clean your grill, but it's also crucial to getting the best possible cooking results. If you throw on some 'dogs before your grill is hot enough, they’ll stick to the grates. You won’t get those nice, dark grid marks, and you might end up overcooking your meat in the pursuit of a good sear.
The fact of the matter is that metal grates take a while to heat up. The flames may be hot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your cooking surface is—yet. And if the grates are made of thick cast iron, it may take a really long time for them to get as hot as the rest of the grill.
So employ some patience. After you light the grill, shut the cover to help trap heat (unless you're doing necessary cleaning). Give it 10-20 minutes, and resist the temptation to keep staring at the flames. Then, by all means, start cooking. Good on you for being so patient, friend! You get a mouthful of tasty barbecue for your troubles.
3. You don’t use the lid properly.
There’s a time and place for everything, and that includes the lid on your grill. Sometimes it’s meant to fit over your food, keep it safe, and help it cook. Other times, it should be anywhere but on top of the grill. The trick is knowing when to use it—and when to skip it.
The lid performs a very important function: trapping hot air and smoke. So if you’re cooking thick cuts of meat, like roasts or bone-in chicken, you’ll want to use it to conserve heat and make sure your food cooks through.
Just make sure not to open it too often. It’s okay to flip burgers or check on your food every now and then, but every sneak peek affects the way your food cooks. If you’re cooking on a gas grill, your curiosity will cost you heat. If you’re rolling coal, the sudden rush of oxygen will make the coals burn hotter, which could burn your food.
For quick-cooking foods like burgers, shrimp, and sliced veggies, you can leave the lid off and cook directly over the flames. You'll get a good sear, but the food won't cook through as fast because the ambient air will be much cooler. In other words, you won't lose that pink, juicy center in your steak or burger, and your asparagus won't turn to mush.
Pro tip: If you find yourself battling flare-ups, shut that lid. Cutting off the grill’s oxygen supply can knock down the flames.
4. You’re overzealous with the heat.
Our caveman brains tell us that fire is good. Flames produce the heat that cooks your food. It’s only natural to want to coax them to greater heights and put your food right in their crosshairs.
Unfortunately, that's a big mistake. (Huge!)
We're really talking about two issues here: Tall flames and direct heat. Tall flames may look totally awesome, but they’ll leave your meal burnt and bitter—not exactly a recipe for success. It’s best to keep the fire low, so that your food can sit over it instead of in it.
As for direct heat, it’s not always the best way to cook. Searing a steak or burger? Sure. But cooking a chicken through? For that, you'll want to distribute coals over one half your charcoal grill, or only light the burners on one side of your gas grill. That way, you can sear items on the hot side of the grill, then cook them more gently on the other side, using indirect heat. The cooler side of the grill is also a convenient place to shift your meat or veggies during a flare-up to prevent burning.
5. You add sauce too early.
How could sweet, smoky barbecue sauce possibly ruin your lovingly grilled food? You’d be surprised. The same sugars that can give your meat that flavorful, caramelized glaze will also burn when exposed to heat for too long.
There’s no benefit to adding your sauce early in the process. It doesn’t soak into the meat, and it'll just give you a blackened, acrid crust when it overcooks.
Avoid this tragedy by waiting until the final 5-10 minutes of cooking and then applying the sauce with a brush.
When it's all done, sit back and consume the fruits of your labor! If you took care with your technique, it’s bound to be tasty.
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