Professional Chefs Share 12 Top Grilling Mistakes That Are Wrecking Your Barbecue
Learn how to grill from the pros who do it best
How to grill like a pro
No summer is complete without at least one backyard barbecue bash. It doesn’t matter whether you barely know how to grill or you’re an amateur pitmaster—the combo of fresh air and fresh food is more than enough to get your family and friends outside. And with your loved ones present, you want to make more than hot dogs and hamburgers. You want to make an impression.
Whether you’re grilling burgers, chicken legs or one of those surprising foods you wouldn’t think of grilling (but really should), there’s always room for improvement when it comes to technique. (That goes for cleaning a grill too!) Everyone makes mistakes—like the 12 common blunders below, which professional chefs see over and over again.
To help you get through grilling season unscathed, we asked pro chefs about these common mistakes, and they offered up tips on how to grill the right way. Keep their advice in mind the next time you’re cooking outdoors.
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Forgetting to preheat
You can’t bake cookies in a cold oven. You can’t fry eggs in a cold skillet. And you can’t cook anything worthwhile on a cold grill. Not only will food stick to a cold grill, but it will also cook unevenly and end up unappetizing.
Do this instead: Start preheating the grill long before you bring your food outside so the grates can absorb and retain heat. To preheat your grill, start a fire, close the cover and let it sit undisturbed. Depending on their size and shape, gas and pellet grills usually take between 10 and 15 minutes to preheat. Charcoal grills may take between 20 and 30 minutes—the coals should turn gray and develop a light coating of ash.
Not cleaning the grill
You wouldn’t cook your food in a dirty pan, so why would you cook on a dirty grill? Grill grates that are covered in the remnants of cookouts past are more likely to lead to flare-ups that can scorch your food or, even worse, turn into a grease fire. “A clean grill ensures the steak won’t stick,” says chef Frank Proto, director of culinary operations for the Institute of Culinary Education.
Do this instead: Follow Proto’s lead and use a wire brush and an oiled paper towel. Or try this shortcut from chef Naomi Nachman, author of Perfect Flavors: Leave the grill on for half an hour to an hour after you’ve removed all the food, then brush off any residue. The high temps make for easier cleanup. (Psst! You can also clean a grill with an onion.)
Doing too much
You may feel the urge to turn the act of grilling into a spectacular event, dressing your meat in a way that feels fancy enough to impress the crowd. But show some restraint!
If you’re grilling steaks or seafood, turn your creative efforts toward delicious grill ideas for vegetables and side dishes, and let the meat or fish speak for itself. “The higher the quality of meat, the less the need for lots of seasoning,” says Jay Swift, executive chef at Harpeth Hotel in Franklin, Tennessee.
Do this instead: Season meat and fish with salt and pepper, which Swift calls “essential.” You don’t need more seasoning than that, but he also recommends Montreal steak seasoning, a blend of dehydrated garlic and onions along with salt and pepper.
Cesar Oceguera, executive chef at Carte Hotel in San Diego, also advises restraint. “You should never have to hide the true flavor of seafood—when it is fresh, you want to highlight that freshness,” he explains. Don’t kill the taste with an overly elaborate marinade. Rather, give it a sprinkling of salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon.
Lifting the lid
Hot surfaces cool down when they’re exposed to colder temperatures. Even if you’re cooking on the most sweltering of days, the air outside is colder than the heat of your grill, so if you leave the lid of a gas grill open, the grates will gradually cool down. This means it will take longer for your food to get the sear it needs in order to have that distinctive grilled flavor, which can end up drying it out. You’ll have the opposite problem with a charcoal grill. When you open the lid, the rush of incoming oxygen will fuel your coals and cause them to burn hotter, resulting in charred, overcooked food that no amount of ketchup, prepared mustard or other condiments can save.
Additionally, if your recipe calls for the grill to stay closed, that’s because it’s relying on ambient heat to cook your food all the way through—just like an oven. When you lift the lid, you’re letting all the heat escape.
Do this instead: If you want to learn how to grill like a pro, start by keeping the lid of the grill closed while your food cooks. If you have problems with patience, try setting a timer and walking away from the grill entirely. Maybe play some outdoor games to make it easier to resist temptation.
Throwing ice-cold meat on the grill
Though you don’t want to leave meat unrefrigerated for too long—that could allow bacteria to grow and lead to food poisoning—lessening the chill helps. “Ice-cold meat will cook less evenly,” says Richard Blais, chef, cookbook author and frequent Top Chef contender. That’s because it takes longer for the flames to heat the meat to its desired internal temperature. By the time a cold cut of meat is cooked through to the center, the outside is likely to be dry or, worse, burnt.
Do this instead: Raise the temperature of your meat before cooking it. To do that safely, let it sit covered on the counter indoors, where it will be safe from pests, direct sunlight and the summer heat. Depending on the ambient temperature of your kitchen, it should take anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes for thin cuts of meat, like steaks, burgers and chicken breasts, to be ready to hit the grill. Give the meat a gentle touch; if it doesn’t feel cold, it’s good to go.
Under-salting your food
Skipping the salt may make for a healthier grill recipe, but it’s not going to win you any awards for flavor. Under-salting can lead to less-flavorful meats and fish.
Do this instead: Salt your meat properly! Salt is so important to grilling that you should do it twice: once before you cook and once after you’re done. Salting before cooking helps season the meat, and if you’re using a rub, it’ll help those flavors fully penetrate the protein. When salting meat before the grill, it’s best to use a “cooking” salt—think kosher salt or cheap sea salt—that you can apply generously. After the meat is fully cooked and rested, sprinkle it with a higher-quality “finishing salt.”
Not sure which salt type to reach for? Blais likes Morton Coarse Kosher Salt because, he says, the shape of the flakes ensures they stick to the ingredients.
Chef Heston Blumenthal, owner of The Fat Duck, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in Berkshire, England, likes fine salt for raw meat because it covers a larger surface area, and he avoids black pepper, which he says burns during the cooking process. For cooked meat, he prefers sea salt because “the salt crystals release more flavor when biting into them,” he says.
Not brining lean meat
Brine is basically a saltwater soak that helps meats retain their juiciness in the face of extreme temperatures. “I cannot speak enough about the importance of a brine,” says chef Isaac Toups, owner of Toups’ Meatery and author of Chasing the Gator: Isaac Toups and the New Cajun Cooking. “Pork chops, chicken and lean cuts of beef need brining before hitting the grill because they lack the fattiness to withstand a long time on a hot surface without drying out.”
Do this instead: To make a simple brine, combine a quarter cup of kosher salt and a quarter cup of sugar with two cups of boiling water until the granules are fully dissolved. Then stir in two cups of ice water. Depending on their thickness, chicken breasts, pork chops and other thin cuts of lean meat need between one and two hours to brine before grilling. The result is tender, juicy meat, and that’s a food fact!
Skipping the marinade on tough cuts
Some professional chefs suggest skipping the marinade when it comes to fish, but don’t assume that tip applies to everything you’ll cook on the grill. Marinades can not only help tenderize tougher cuts of meat, like flank steak and chunk roast, but they can also make grilled meats healthier.
“Marinating meat helps to reduce heterocyclic amines,” says chef Joe Vigorito of L’Artusi restaurant in New York City, referencing the cancer-causing chemicals generated when food cooks at high temperatures. “Marinades, especially ones with herbs like rosemary, sage and thyme, inhibit the formation of those carcinogens.”
Do this instead: When grilling tougher cuts of meat, take time to marinade before throwing it on the grill. It’s easy to make your own marinade by mixing up oils, vinegars, pantry sauces (like soy and Worcestershire), herbs and spices. If you’re not feeling particularly creative, you can always buy premade marinades that will simplify the cooking process.
Underutilizing your grill space
All that open space on your grill isn’t only for cooking up an epic number of burgers at one time. If you’re using your grill in stages—meats first, sides second—or don’t know how to grill using heating zones, you’re missing out on an opportunity for efficiency that will keep everyone at your cookout happy and well fed.
Do this instead: Here’s a burger hack that’ll help you serve up a complete meal during a cookout: Instead of cooking all your meats at once and letting them get cold on the picnic table, grill meats and sides together throughout the day so there’s always hot food coming off the grill.
And learn how to control the heat on your grill! That’ll allow you to create zones: hotter direct heat for searing, and cooler indirect heat for slow cooking.
If your grill has a top grate and a lower one, move things around and play with indirect heat, says Nachman. “Leave meats and veggies on the top shelf, away from direct flame, with the lid closed for a more smoky flavor,” she says. This technique takes longer, however, so make sure you adjust your cooking time appropriately.
Adding sauce too early
Sugar is a key ingredient in many barbecue sauces—a plus for flavor, but only if you know how to sauce your meat properly. If you put it on your food too soon, it’ll be burnt to a crisp by the time your meat is done.
Do this instead: Wait until your meat is done cooking to slather sauce on your food. Once the sauce goes on, stay near your grill, keep a close eye on your food and be ready to pull it off the flame the moment things start burning.
If you want the sauce to caramelize, keep your grill’s heat zones in mind. This culinary-school-approved cooking trick will help you avoid burning your dinner: After slathering it with sauce, move your food to the outer edges of the grill, where the heat will be less intense. You can always give your food a little more time if you want your sauce to be brown and bubbly. Just keep in mind that if you burn it, there’s no going back.
Overhandling your meat
“The biggest mistake anyone makes cooking when they’re inexperienced is overhandling,” says Matt Welsch, chef and owner of Vagabond Kitchen in Wheeling, West Virginia. “Just like a watched pot never boils, an overly handled burger or steak isn’t going to be as beautiful or as tasty.”
Do this instead: Let your meats sit on the grill grates undisturbed so that they can develop a delicious flame-kissed sear. When they’re ready to flip over, they’ll easily release without sticking. And one thing you should never do is press down on meat while it’s cooking—you risk losing delicious juices, causing flare-ups on the grill and drying out your meat.
Chowing down immediately
We get it: You’re hungry, your hamburgers smell delicious and you can’t wait to dig in. But just because the meat’s off the grill doesn’t mean it’s done cooking.
Do this instead: “Let all your proteins rest. Always. Five to 10 minutes will be plenty for most anything you’re going to throw on the grill,” advises Welsch. “This gives the juices a chance to be reabsorbed by the meat.”
Remove meat from the grill slightly before it reaches the desired internal temperature, place it on a cooling rack over a tray and allow it to rest—approximately three to four minutes is fine—before slicing and serving. Boneless poultry and fish are exceptions and don’t need to rest.
- Frank Proto, director of culinary operations for the Institute of Culinary Education
- Naomi Nachman, chef and author of Perfect Flavors
- Jay Swift, executive chef at Harpeth Hotel in Franklin, Tennessee
- Cesar Oceguera, executive chef at Carte Hotel in San Diego
- Richard Blais, chef, cookbook author and frequent Top Chef contender
- Heston Blumenthal, chef and owner of The Fat Duck in Berkshire, England
- Isaac Toups, owner of Toups’ Meatery in New Orleans
- Joe Vigorito, chef at L’Artusi in New York City
- Matt Welsch, chef and owner of Vagabond Kitchen in Wheeling, West Virginia