22 Grilling Mistakes Even Seasoned Barbecue Cooks Can Still Make
Common BBQ habits may actually sabotage your cookout. Here, grilling experts reveal the biggest grilling mistakes and how to avoid them.
Every editorial product is independently selected, though we may be compensated or receive an affiliate commission if you buy something through our links. Ratings and prices are accurate and items are in stock as of time of publication.
Fire up the grill!
Summer is here and things are heating up in July, aka National Grilling Month. It’s the perfect time to get the fire started and grill your favorite meats and veggies for a fun backyard barbecue. But before you do, there are so many nuances to be aware of when grilling starting with when you buy the meat, to how you prepare it to how you cook it. Becoming an expert on the grill can take some practice so we’ve rounded up some of the most common mistakes that people make and how to avoid them so you can enjoy the juiciest burgers, steaks, and more.
Note: Prices listed were accurate as of press time; pricing fluctuations may occur.
You don’t buy enough meat
Did that patty just shrink? If you’re shaping your own burgers, remember that meat is about 75 percent water, so the burger will look a lot smaller after it’s done cooking than it does on the cutting board in your kitchen, says grilling expert Kevin Kolman, official “Grill Master” for Weber. About 6 ounces of good quality beef is the right amount for one burger; if you like yours on the jumbo side, opt for 8 ounces. Or try pre-made burgers like these Omaha Steaks Private Reserve Angus Burgers.
Your meat is not thick enough
The art of grilling begins even before your meat hits the hot grill. The most common mistake is buying steaks that aren’t thick enough,” says Ray Lampe, better known as Dr. BBQ. “A steak that’s at least 1 and ½ inches thick will be much simpler to cook and will be juicy and impressive on the plate.” If that’s too much for you to eat, slice it before serving as a fine steakhouse would and share one great steak instead of eating two thin ones, he suggests. We like the Porter Road hanger steak. Find out the secret to getting super tender meat every time you grill.
You’re not prepared
Kolman suggests preparing what you plan to grill the night before. “Seasoning and marinating proteins and vegetables in advance will not only save you time but will also boost the flavor profile of what you’re grilling,” he says. “You can even season with a dry rub overnight to allow the flavor to really saturate.” Store it in a glass container for the best results. Find out 25 surprising grilling facts you haven’t heard 10 times before.
You don’t marinate correctly
Using the wrong marinade can mess up your BBQ. Stay away from high-citrus and sugar-heavy marinades, which will burn quickly on the grill, advises Dave Martin, a first season contestant on Top Chef and author of two cookbooks. Instead, he recommends marinating your meat for several hours or overnight with a low-acid fruit puree, like mango, or a simple Worcester sauce. For a short cut, try a pre-mixed marinade mix like Weber Just Add Juice Garlic and Herb Marinade Mix. Brush on high-sugar sauces, like barbecue sauce, during the last few minutes of grilling. Or skip the marinade entirely and just use a dry rub, such as a simple mixture of salt, pepper, paprika, and brown sugar, which you should apply right before you cook. “A rub is a quick way to get your flavor on there,” says Martin. “A marinade is when you have a little more time.”
You wait for your steak to warm up
You don’t need to let those juicy filets in your fridge reach room temperature before you toss on the grill—and in fact, you shouldn’t. Warming the meat won’t help you achieve the perfect steak, even when you’re cooking this Premium Angus Beef 10oz Ribeye, because room temperature cuts cook too quickly. “Cooking with cold steaks allows you to control the temperature more, resulting in a perfectly cooked steak,” Michael Lomonaco, executive chef and managing partner at Porter House New York, told ABC News. “I like to cook my steak cold, right out of the refrigerator. You want your grill to be searing hot and the steak to hit it icy cold.” These are some other mistakes everyone makes when cooking steak.
You don’t preheat the grill
The biggest grilling mistake most people make occurs before the meat even hits the grill, says Kolman. “If you preheat the grill properly, the meat will cook faster, and be more moist and tender.” Close the lid once the ideal temperature is reached (between 350 and 450°F depending on the food) to prevent your meat from losing moisture—and that goes for gas grills as well as charcoal ones like this Weber 22 inch original kettle charcoal grill. Watch out for these ways you’re using your grill completely wrong.
You mess up lighting it up
According to a report from the National Fire Protection Agency, grills are responsible for 10,200 home fires annually. If you use a gas grill, like this Genesis II S-335 3-Burner Natural Gas Grill with Built-in Thermometer, check for dents in the propane tank, which may signify a potential leak, and keep the lid open while lighting up. If your grill doesn’t immediately start, wait five minutes for gas fumes to clear before trying again. And never add lighter fluid to a lit charcoal grill; it can cause flare-ups that stretch several feet. Find out 14 things you need for a safe—and fun—summer bbq.
You use too much lighter fluid
You don’t actually need lighter fluid to light your charcoals. In fact, using lighter fluid can alter the taste of your food, not to mention, it can be a major fire hazard. “One of the most common mistakes that I see when barbecuing at home is using too much lighter fluid,” says Derrick Walker, owner of Smoke-a-Holics BBQ in Fort Worth, Texas. “A little goes a long way if you have to use it at all.” A charcoal chimney, like this Weber Rapidfire Chimney Charcoal Starter, is a safer bet and it’s a more efficient way to get your coals burning.
You don’t clean your grill
Skip out on a thorough cleaning at the expense of your taste buds. “Residue accumulates over time and settles into the nooks and crannies of your grill grates, causing the sticking that can tear off the beautiful crust you worked so hard to create,” chef Adam Perry Lang, author of Serious Barbecue, told Men’s Health. Timing is key: Kolman suggests you clean right after you’ve preheated the grill. Run it on high for 10 to 15 minutes with the lid closed. Use a stainless steel cleaning tool to scrub off the ashy debris. If you don’t have one, use aluminum foil balled up and grasped with a pair of tongs. Replace drip pans if they’re more than half full.
You don’t think about food safety
Don’t spoil the fun by consuming spoiled food. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, 48 million Americans get sick from a foodborne illness each year. Most of these illnesses can be avoided when grilling by following simple food safety rules: Wash your hands thoroughly after touching raw meat. Make sure any plates, platters, or utensils that have handled raw meat don’t come into contact with other foods, like veggies or buns. (These color-coded Cuisinart CPK-200 Grilling Prep and Serve Trays will help prevent any confusion.) If you need to reuse utensils after they’ve touched raw meat, scrub them with hot, soapy water to avoid contamination. Never leave raw meat sitting out for more than two hours (cut this time in half if the temperature is over 90 degrees). Grilled food has a shelf life of three to four days if refrigerated, so make sure to label any leftovers with dates. Find out how long meat lasts in the fridge.
Your seasoning is not fresh
Everything tastes better fresh, including spices. You want to season your meat with fresh and aromatic spices to enhance the flavor of the meat you’re grilling. “Many people spend a lot of money on choice, organic cuts of meat, but then they turn to their outdated spice cabinet to season it, which, if you’re like most people, is filled with expired or low-quality spices,” says Thomas McGee, master chef at Pinch Spice Market. “Outdoor grilling is a rugged cooking method, and you need potent, fresh spices that can stand up to the rigors of cooking over an open flame. Use fresh, high-quality spices, like Pinch Spice Market, Ras El Hanout, and it will make a world of difference.”
You grease the grill
Directly coating your grates with oil isn’t the best tactic; instead of staying on the grill, the grease will drip down the sides, then what is left over will get burned onto the metal from the high temperatures. A better approach: Brush your meats and vegetables directly with oil. Maria Covarrubias, in-house culinary expert at Chosen Foods recommends using avocado oil. Why? Avocado oil has a smoke point of 500 degrees, whereas olive oil begins to break down at 350 degrees. When an oil reaches its smoke point, the health benefits and compounds in the oil begin to oxidize. Using avocado oil on the grill is always your safest and best bet. Avoid these grilling mistakes that could make you sick.
You’re not using a digital thermometer
There’s nothing worse than taking a slab of meat off the grill and cutting into it only to find the meat is still raw inside. “A digital thermometer will quickly become your friend,” says DuVal Warner, kitchen manager at Ranch 45 in Solana Beach, California. “To take the temperature, measure steaks in the middle so the tip goes to about the middle of the meat. Chicken should be checked at the leg joint or thickest part of the breast.” You can’t go wrong with this KitchenAid Digital Instant Read Thermometer. Find out the answers to your 11 biggest questions about grilling.
You don’t use metal skewers
Shishkebabs are an easy way to grill meat right along with your veggies. The first key step in grilling with skewers is to use metal skewers. Monisha Tasker, co-owner of O-Yaki Products recommends metal skewers because they conduct heat through the core of the food and will cook faster. Plus, if you care for your reusable metal properly cared for, they can last you a very long time, unlike wooden skewers, which are also highly flammable. If you don’t have metal skewers on hand, make sure to soak your wooden ones for at least 30 to 60 minutes before putting them on a hot grill.
You slather on BBQ sauce too early
Marinating your meat is an important step in the grilling process but what you use to marinade and the timing is also critical. Lampe says that a common mistake is slathering on the sauce too soon which can cause the meat to brown before the meat is actually ready. Then you end up cooking your meat longer and causing it to burn or overcook. “We all love the taste of barbecue sauce. It’s the taste of summer and good times, but it’s also typically heavy on tomato and sugar which burn quickly on the grill,” he says. “Use a rub or a marinade for seasoning, get the chops mostly cooked and then glaze them with barbecue sauce at the end. You’ll still get that great crusty finish but not before your pork chops are finished.” We like the Primal Kitchen’s Classic BBQ Sauce because it has no added sugar.
You’re using high heat on the wrong meat
It’s important to get familiar with your grill before you start cooking. For charcoal grills, there are two sources of heat—indirect and direct. Direct heat means cooking your meat directly over the flame versus indirect heat which uses the warm side of the grill that’s next to the flame. Gas grills are a bit different. Field Failing, the founder of Fields Good Chicken in New York, says “Most things don’t need to be cooked on high, so two-zone cooking is great for things like BBQ chicken where you don’t want the skin to burn. Keep one side of the grill on low and one on medium-high. Use the medium-high side to sear and then use the low side to cook it through.” This Nexgrill Deluxe 6-Burner Propane Gas Grill has six different zones for all your grilling needs.
You’re not using a fish basket
Certain fish such as salmon or mahi-mahi are meatier than more delicate fish like trout or flounder which are prone to falling apart on the grill. “Clean, well-oiled grates are key—but it’s also important to allow the fish to cook without fussing with it,” says Matt Moore, author of the newly released book Serial Griller. “The proteins will naturally ‘lift’ themselves off the grates and make it easy to flip and serve.” Fish baskets like this WolfWise Portable Grilling Basket for BBQ are a great tool to help keep the fish intact. Find out how long you can keep fresh fish in the fridge.
You don’t use aluminum foil on the bottom grate
Cleaning your grill is just as important as learning how to grill and there are a few things you can do along the way to prevent a greasy mess afterward. “Charcoal produces a lot of ash, while food, such as fatty meat, creates a lot of greases when cooked,” explains Thinh Phan, the author of BBQinProgress.com. “Greases and ash aren’t a good mix; they create this gooey concoction that is a pain to clean.” The solution? Place a sheet of foil at the bottom of the frill to catch the greases. “It also makes for an easier clean up,” he says. Find out why aluminum foil has a shiny side and a dull one.
You’re not seasoning properly
Adding a flavorful coating of seasoning to your meat will really bring out the flavors. There is no right type of seasoning to use—though we’re partial to Weber Gourmet Burger Seasoning—but there is a wrong way to season. Kolman suggests drizzling olive oil on your protein or vegetables before seasoning. It allows the seasoning to stick on the meat and it makes for a better sear. Find out 20 delicious burger recipes you need to try out ASAP.
You don’t use indirect heat
Understanding your grill and how to utilize different temperatures will help you cook various meats. Chris Lilly, World Championship Pitmaster and Kingsford spokesperson, suggests placing the hot coals on only one side of the grill and leaving the other side empty. This creates an area for both direct and indirect cooking, increasing the versatility of your grill. The hot (direct) zone can be used to grill meats such as pork chops, steaks, or chicken breasts and the cooler (indirect) zone can be used for cooking larger cuts such as pork ribs, brisket, or whole chicken. The indirect zone can also be used to hold hot meat while another batch is cooking over direct flame. You’ll always want to make sure you have plenty of charcoal on hand. Find out 14 things we’re buying from Wayfair to create a backyard oasis.
You move the meat around too much
Grilling is all about letting the heat do the work which means you have to practice a lot of patience. It might be tempting to want to turn your meat over a few times, but that actually prevents that layer of crust to form. It’s best to let the meat just sit on the grill without poking or prodding with your tongs either. “People have a tendency to play with their food as a nervous habit,” says Ari Rosenson executive chef, Spago Beverly Hills. “Moving your meat around on the grill a lot prevents caramelization and drys food out. It’s best to be patient and strategic when and where you place the meat and when and how to turn it.” When you are ready to flip, stainless steel tongs make it easy. Also, make sure to avoid these cooking mistakes that can ruin your food in the kitchen.
You cut into the meat right away
Ready to dig in when the food is piping hot off the grill? Best to wait for the meat to cool for a few minutes (and a little longer for larger portions), says Sabrina Sexton, program advisor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. “As you cook the meat, all the juices start moving around the meat, and they tend to pool a little bit more in the center,” says Sexton. When you cut into the meat right away, this juice spills out, which can dry out your tender cut. “If you let the meat sit for five to ten minutes, the juices actually get reabsorbed.” The result: A tender cut of meat all around. You’ll also want to make sure you have the right utensils for cutting, like this Messermeister Avanta Pakkawood 2 Piece Kullenschliff Carving Knife and Fork Set. After you eat, get ready to have some fun with these 11 best backyard games.
Want more deals and product picks sent directly to your inbox? Sign up for the Stuff We Love newsletter!