To get perfectly tender, juicy meat every time you light up the grill, here are the most common grilling mistakes to avoid and how to fix them.
While there are several ways to heat up your food these days, none are more primal than using fire (1).
The discovery of fire gave humans the power to improve antioxidant content in some vegetables through cooking (2), and it helped to reduce food poisoning outbreaks (3).
It’s also believed that eating cooked food is a major contributing factor to the evolution of the human brain (4). Eating meat and cooked food were also key elements of human evolution—not only in the brain, but also in dental evolution (e.g., teeth size) and gut bacteria (5).
Fortunately, we no longer have to build our own fires from scratch or cook without tools. But even with advanced cooking technology, there is still the possibility of error. Whether you’re using a gas or charcoal grill, be sure to use good techniques to get the best flavor—while minimizing any health risks.
Below are some common mistakes you’ll want to avoid while cooking with your grill:
Using the Wrong Tools
Why to avoid: Cooking with an open flame is different than cooking on an indoor stove. The flame could be unpredictable if the food you’re cooking is fatty (i.e., meat that may cause a flare-up). Don’t just use your hands. And definitely don’t use anything plastic from your kitchen— since most kitchen tools have short handles that don’t provide enough distance from the heat of the grill.
What to do instead: Invest in some heavy-duty metal tongs, a long-handled spatula, and/or a long-handled brush (to apply the sauce). These will help you prevent burns. Also invest in a wire brush to clean the grill grate after use.
Why to avoid: If you put your food on the grill too soon, the grill grate won’t get the chance to heat up, and your food is likely to stick to it. So you probably won’t see those classic grill lines, and your food will easily tear when you flip it. You also run the risk of overcooking your food and drying it out.
What to do instead: When your grill is lit, make sure to cover it. And let it preheat for at least 10-15 minutes. Without the hassle of your food sticking, your grill will be a lot easier to clean. Preheating also sets your grill to an optimal temperature for cooking.
Not Cleaning the Grill Before Use
Why to avoid: The leftover food debris of a dirty grill can make you sick (6). Bacteria will build up on dirty grates, and it may induce things like diarrhea and/or vomiting. Leftover grease can also cause an unexpected flare-up, which disrupts the usual cooking process.
What to do instead: Whether you decide to clean your grill right after you cook or right after you’ve preheated, make sure you clean it.
Turn your grill on high heat to let the grates heat up. Cut either an onion or lemon in half, stick it on a long-handled fork, and scrub away the dirt. Both onions and lemons have antibacterial properties.
Using Lighter Fluid to Light Coals
Why to avoid: Lighter fluid is usually petroleum-based. When lit, it emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Using lighter fluid to light the coals can leave your food tasting like chemicals, since VOCs can leave residue on your food. VOC residue can also travel through the air and into your lungs (7). Inhaling VOCs can cause dizziness, difficulty breathing, headaches, and vomiting (8).
What to do instead: Make sure that your charcoal grill is clean, and that the bottom vents are open when you light your grill. Leaving the bottom vents open allows oxygen in, so the fire will get going.
Crumple up four to six pieces of newspaper, and set them in the grill. Paper lights up fast, so it will help light the coals. If possible, get some dry sticks and add them to the newspaper—the drier the better. But if sticks aren’t available, try more paper.
Add coals on top, and light the paper in several places to start the fire. Keep adding paper as needed, until you see the briquettes turn white or gray. Then slowly add more briquettes to fill the grill. Remember to be patient, and let your grill preheat before cooking.
Using Too Much Direct Heat
Why to avoid: Setting your meat directly on the flames will cause it to be unevenly cooked—scorching the outside, while the inside is still raw.
What to do instead: The best way to evenly cook on the grill is to have more than one temperature available. When using a gas grill, have one side set on higher heat for veggies— and the other on lower heat, so your meat will cook evenly. If using a charcoal grill, have more coals on one side and fewer on the other.
Serving Food off the Grill Too Soon
Why to avoid: Food that’s fresh off the grill is HOT, so it will probably burn your mouth. When you cut and serve meat too early, all the juiciness rushes out too fast, which releases a lot of delicious flavor.
What to do instead: Let your meat cool for a few minutes before serving it. That will give its internal juices time to redistribute and thicken. Do you prefer to have your meat sizzling before it hits your tastebuds? Then throw it back on the grill for 30 seconds per side.
Putting the Sauce on Too Early
Why to avoid: More sauce means more flavor, right? Wrong. Don’t add sauce to your grilled meats too early. If it’s sugary, it will char much faster than the meat will cook, which will leave a bitter, sooty taste.
What to do instead: Most sauces are only going to slightly penetrate into the layers of your food, no matter when they’re applied. To get the most flavor and minimize the risk of burning the sauce, it’s best to add it during the last 5-10 minutes of cook time. To further maximize flavor, consider marinating the food before throwing it on the grill.
Frequently Opening the Lid
Why to avoid: Every time you open the lid, you’re letting out heat, which lowers the temperature of the grill, lengthens your cook time, and causes your food to cook unevenly.
What to do instead: Be patient. Check on your food less frequently, and set a timer if you have to. If your grill has a thermometer on the lid, it’s a great way to make sure heat doesn’t escape.
Packing Burger Meat Into Hockey Pucks
Why to avoid: Mixing your hamburger meat too thoroughly can make patties dense and tough to chew—and far from tender.
What to do instead: Try not to compact patties too tightly. Lightly mix burger ingredients to evenly distribute them. Also, low-fat hamburger meat tends to have a difficult time forming, which creates the need for compacting patties. Aim for a minimum of 15% to keep your burgers juicy—and from falling apart (9).
(Read This Next: The Big Guide to Knives)