Who has been baptized by fire?!🔥 ME! I feel like I am more than qualified to talk about rookie mistakes, because I've made (or at least seen) them all. So to help you avoid making the same mistakes - especially when you've been deemed "the griller" for the fam or circle of friends, let's go with the TOP TEN.
MISTAKE: #10: ALLOWING CROSS-CONTAMINATION.
Yuk! At the grill, potentially dangerous cross-contamination ususally occurs when an oblivious griller uses tools (such as tongs or basting brushes) on raw meat without thoroughly washing or replacing them when touching cooked meat. But it can also occur at the same platter that was used to transport raw food (poultry is especially notorious for spreading fod-borned illnesses) is used to carry the cooked food back to the kitchen. If you use cutting boards at any stage of the food prep process, make sure they are thoroughly washed as well.
Note: The USDA recently withdrew its recommendation that all oultry be washed before cooking. Studies have determined that practice increases the likelihood of cross-contamination as sinks and countertops can inadvertently get splashed.
MISTAKE #9: MISJUDGING WHEN FOOD IS DONE
Overcooking or undercooking food will do nothing for your reputation. And while many successful pit masters rely on their senses and instincts to determine when food is done (we’re talking about people who have been grilling and barbecuing for years), most of us would be well-advised to use a reliable instant-read or remote thermostat.
I have used both. The former is great for foods that cook quickly over direct heat—fish fillets, boneless chicken breast, thinner steaks or pork chops—and the latter is useful when cooking low and slow—ribs, pork shoulder, whole chickens, prime rib, etc. Also, acquaint yourself with the safe minimum cooking temperatures recommended by the FDA. This is especially important for meats, poultry, and seafood.
MISTAKE #8: NOT LEARNING YOUR GRILL
The sooner you learn grills often have their own quirks, the more consistent your results will be. Perhaps your grill has hot spots. This can be the case with gas or pellet grills. With charcoal, you are the one designing where the heat is most concentrated, so you have a better idea of this. However, you can identify them in any type girll by laying slices of cheap white bread shoulder to shoulder on the preheated grill grate, covering it entirely. Flip the slices in their places—it’s easier if another person helps—then take a photo.
Next time, you’ll have an accurate map of the grill’s temperature zones. Or maybe your grill has trouble maintaining heat in cold temperatures or wind. You may need to adjust your cooking times to compensate. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to maintain a grilling log to chart your experiences. Don’t forget to record any recipes you and your family or friends really enjoyed, especially original ones for rubs and sauces—recipes you’ll want to recreate. (Or just use some of our award-winning Pickin' N Grillin' products). 😉
MISTAKE #7: SAUCING TOO EARLY
Most American barbecue sauces (especially Memphis or Kansas City-style) contain sugar, meaning they’re very susceptible to scorching when subjected to live fire. For this reason, I always sauce food—ribs, brisket, and chicken, for example—the last 10 to 15 minutes of grilling. You want to expose it to the heat just long enough for the sauce to caramelize and “set,” but not so long that it burns. Or you can simply serve sauce on the side, which is what many of the country’s most popular barbecue restaurants now do.
MISTAKE #6: NOT PRACTICING GOOD GRILL HYGIENE
“Keep it hot. Keep it clean. Keep it lubricated.” Great advice. Not to pick on those burgers above, but notice how the one in the foreground shows signs of grill grate crud—remnants from a previous cook. Grill grates that are not routinely cleaned are not “well-seasoned.” They’re just dirty. Do you really want last week’s salmon on today’s chicken breasts? Of course not. Eeewww!
Heat is your friend when it comes to cleaning grill grates. Immediately after a cook while the grill is still screaming hot, brush or scrape the bars with a wooden scraper or a high-quality grill brush with twisted wires. Sometimes, I spritz the grate with water before brushing—the process is similar to deglazing a pan on the stovetop. If the grate really needs work, I go after it with a brick of pumice specifically for that purpose. Before using the grill the next time, scrape or brush it again and oil it well with vegetable oil.
MISTAKE #5: BUILDING A "ONE-DIMENSIONAL" FIRE
Many beginning charcoal grillers distribute hot coals evenly over the bottom of the firebox, meaning the heat below the grill grate will be of the same intensity. (Gas grillers do the same thing when they turn all the burners to “high” for the duration of the cook.) You will have much more control if you build a multi-zone fire. It should include a safety zone, under which there are no coals, and a pile of coals that is deeper on one side than the other.
The safety zone is especially valuable as it can be used to protect fattier foods (like the soon-to-be-incinerated burgers in the photo above) from flare-ups. Gas grillers can preheat their grills as usual, and if they have multiple burners (at least 2), can turn one burner off or lower the temperatures of the others.
MISTAKE #4: FAILING TO PREHEAT SUFFICIENTLY
A lack of patience can cause a lot of problems for a rookie griller (or even an experienced one!). If direct grilling—that is, cooking your food directly over the flames or hot coals—your food won’t sear properly if the grill isn’t sufficiently hot. And when that happens, the food has a maddening tendency to stick to the grill grate.
If you have removed the grate in order to dump coals into the fire box, be sure to replace the grate so it has a chance to heat up before you start grilling. This is crucial if you want those enticing grill marks. (This will not be an option if you own a pellet grill as they function more like convection ovens.)
MISTAKE #3: BEING DISORGANIZED
Take your cues from people who cook professionally. Plan your cook before you do anything else. Organize what you’ll need grill-side, everything from food to seasonings to essential tools to clean sheet pans or platters for finished food. Hopefully, you have a clean and uncluttered flat space near your grill—even a sturdy folding table is a help.
Resist the temptation to put things on the ground or balance them on the railing of your patio. Also, don’t underestimate the amount of heat that reaches the attached side tables of gas grills. I was present when a friend left a can of cooking spray on a closed side burner while preheating the grill. The can shoot into the air like a rocket!
MISTAKE #2: RELYING ON STARTER FLUID TO START A FIRE
I've got friends who love their lighter fluid. I grew up in the time of the “Automatic Dump Type Charcoal Lighter,” invented in the 1960s and the precursor of today’s chimney starters, was not widely available.
Unless your charcoal grill comes with a gas ignition system we highly recommend you acquire one of these useful devices. You’ll never look back. To use, you position the chimney starter over a wad of newsprint, fat wood, or a fire starter, fill the chimney with briquettes or natural lump charcoal, and ignite the tinder. In 15 to 20 minutes, you’ll have coals that are perfectly ashed over and ready to use.
MISTAKE #1: UNDERESTIMATING THE AMOUNT OF FUEL REQUIRED FOR A COOK.
It’s just plain embarrassing to run out of fuel during a cook, as many propane gas grillers know. (Of course, it can happen with charcoal or pellets, too.) Not to mention inconvenient. To avoid that walk of shame—toting the food to the kitchen to finish cooking—always have a spare bag of charcoal or pellets, or an extra tank of propane at the ready.