15 Grilling Mistakes You Want To Avoid Making This Summer

Are you caught in a loop of botched cookouts?

Burnt sauces, charred meat, and undercooked chicken are just some of the common errors new grillers make — and then live with the frustration on repeat or quit altogether!

Outdoor grilling is the quintessential summer cooking method that anyone can learn, and honestly, we don’t want you to miss out on the best way to cook meat (or fish, vegetables, or fruit). 

Luckily, we’ve collected and distilled advice from the best barbecuers out there.

From Bobby Flay, chef and Food Network television star, to Andre Rush, White House executive chef to four presidential administrations — and more — we’ve got the expert advice on what to grill and how to do it well at your very next cookout.

15 Grilling Mistakes to Avoid This Summer

Grilling mistakes to avoid for this summer

Summer barbecue roasts are too good to miss out on, but picking up the tongs can be intimidating for beginners.

If you can spot and fix these common errors you’ll have the basics needed to save hours of frustration.

Here are the 15 most common grilling mistakes to avoid this summer (with fixes) — you’ve got this!

1. Skipping Basic Setup

No one can blame you for wanting to get to the fun part (putting fire to meat), but knowing how to use a grill and its safety features, as well as general prep, is vital.

A few minutes to strategize before the hot coals start glowing goes a long way, both for equipment setup and food safety on menu items for your grill recipes.

Do This Instead:

Scan your environment and the manufacturer’s equipment requirements.

What safety features are available? Although unlikely, what is the best way to put out an open fire?

Don’t forget to monitor potential cross-contact of ingredients.

What will you use for a cooking surface? Do any guests have allergies or dietary restrictions?

If you’re keeping an eye out for a particular allergen, according to the #1 ranked Mayo Clinic, common allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, wheat (gluten), soy, fish, shellfish, eggs, and milk (1).

Alternatives like gluten-free buns or dairy-free cheese are great options to keep on hand just in case.

2. Cooking on a Dirty Grill Grate

Appetizers prepped, menu items set, ingredients chopped, you’re finally ready for action. You greet the guests. 

The chicken, hot dogs, onions, shrimp, burgers, and kabobs are all ready to go.

But you open the lid and find…last year’s chicken breast and marinade still clinging to the cooking surface — yuck!

Chances are you’re tempted to ignore this, but for the sake of the food you need clean grates!

Do This Instead:

Make it a habit not to finish up without cleaning the cooking grates with a grill brush. 

The grill brush is an essential tool. 

Especially if you’re using a public grill. Go in expecting it to need a cleaning and plan to bring your grill accessories each time.

Have a stubborn stuck-on mess? 

A large bucket with some dawn dish soap can help. 

And since you’re in there cleaning, get the burner tube, present in gas grills, with your brush, too. 

A vinegar and baking soda mix can also do the trick, but it must be something non-toxic that’s safe and won’t add a chemical taste to the food.

3. Agonizing Over Charcoal vs Gas

Ah, a debate as old as time… OK, maybe just since the 1960’s.

“In a bid to get customers to buy more natural gas, William G. Wepfer and Melton Lancaster of the Arkansas Louisiana Gas Company redesign a charcoal grill to run on bottled propane.” (2)

And the great debate was born. Which side are you on?

Whether it’s a Kingsford or Webber brand grill, it’s hard not to have a favorite between charcoal and gas.

We would never dream of talking you in one direction or the other, but if you haven’t landed on either side of this debate yet, don’t sweat it.

Do This Instead:

Weigh the pros and cons to see which option fits your needs the best. (Keep in mind that gas grills come in two options: propane or natural gas.)

Gas Grill Pros:

  • Quick and easy to light
  • Multiple burners for easier indirect heat zone control
  • A little easier to clean with stainless steel
  • Overall convenient

Gas Grill Cons:

  • Less of a charcoal flavor
  • Risk an empty tank in the middle of cooking
  • Bigger, bulkier setup
  • Higher start-up cost

Charcoal Grill Pros:

  • The traditional, smoky flavor
  • More cost-effective
  • Ease of portability and use in smaller areas

Charcoal Grill Cons:

  • Longer start time/less convenient
  • More cleaning involved
  • Less bells and whistles
  • More challenging to get a lower temperature or medium heat

4. Lighting Your Grill the Wrong Way

You likely have distinct memories of dad using lighter fluid on hot summer days.

Beer in hand, he’d assemble a small mountain of briquets, douse them generously with lighter fluid, apply flame, and — whoosh! — the coals were lit. Ready to roast.

But believe it or not, lighter fluid is a thing of the past. (Along with singed eyebrows and petrol tasting BBQ.)

Whether you have a gas grill with an igniter button or a charcoal grill without any bells or whistles, there’s a right and wrong way to fire it up.

Do This Instead:

Lighting a Charcoal Grill

According to Bobby Flay, successful restaurateur and celebrity chef, a chimney starter will light a charcoal grill “easier, faster, and more evenly.” (3)

A chimney starter is a cylindrical metal device with a handle used to start coals, for whichever type of charcoal briquettes you have, even hardwood charcoal (lump charcoal). 

No starter fluid is required, and the chimney is easy to use. 

Fill the charcoal chimney with briquettes, place paper or starting material in the bottom of the chimney, light, and you’re good to go.

You’ll know when the coals are ready because they’ll have white ash around the corners.

The coals look like this about 15-20 minutes after lighting — eyebrows still intact!

Carefully disperse the coals from the charcoal chimney, return the cooking grate, and you’re ready to preheat.

Lighting a Gas Grill

There are two kinds: natural gas and propane. This sequence applies to both.

Step 1: Open the lid. We don’t want any trapped gas in there!

Step 2: Make sure the burner dials are all turned off.

Step 3: Determine the ignition device. Some are internal and built-in (look for an ignition button on modern gas grills), but others require an external source (a match or lighter).

Step 4: Turn on the source of gas. For natural gas, move the on/off handle from perpendicular to the source pipe (off) to parallel (on). For propane, turn the knob on top of the tank near the regulator (the regulator safely controls the flow of gas) counterclockwise until it stops.

Step 5: Put the match or lighter in place (often there is a hole on the side of the grill to accommodate this) or press the ignition button while turning the corresponding knob. You should have a flame within a couple of seconds. If not, wait a minute and repeat the process.

5. Neglecting the Preheat

This “secret” technique is a game-changer.

According to Weber Grills, grill and accessory maker since 1952, “Pre-heating your grill is critical for having success” (4).

And have you ever wondered how to get those iconic cross-hatching sear marks across your pork chops, burgers, and sausages? Preheating is essential in producing those!

And, oh yeah, it’s also important for safety to bring the cooking environment up to temperature (similar to an oven).

Do This Instead:

Instead of placing food on a cool surface, open the lid vent, close the lid, wait for 10-15 after starting, and that’s it!

In fact, this is a perfect time to use a second pro tip from chef Bobby Flay. He recommends taking your meats out of the fridge for 20 minutes before cooking to bring them up to room temperature (5).

Combine these two “secret” tips and your chicken breasts, burgers, and pork chops will look and taste amazing.

6. Flipping Too Much

Inexperienced grillers often feel as if they have to be constantly using that spatula.

An experienced griller knows when to set it and leave it, flipping only when needed. 

This can be a real challenge for newer cooks, but it makes all the difference.

Do This Instead:

Put the tongs and spatula down. Andre Rush, a celebrity White House chef, aims for two flips — total — per piece of meat.

His advice is to put the meat on and then “close it up; leave it alone.” (6)

For Bobby Flay’s perfectly grilled steak, the directions are to “place the steaks on the grill and cook until golden brown and slightly charred, 4 to 5 minutes. 

Turn the steaks over and continue to grill 3 to 5 minutes for medium-rare.” (7)

This also works for fish. Jamie Purviance, chef, and NYT best-selling cookbook author comes to the rescue with the “70/30 technique.”

When cooking fish, cook the first side for 70% of the cook time and then flip to the other side for the remaining 30%. (8) 

Also, you can cook fish on a cedar plank to reduce the chance of burning the tender meat. 

Just make sure to soak it in cool water for an hour before using it on the grill, and the taste of cedar will blend giving your fish a great taste.

7. Too Much Direct Heat

Why is it so easy to end up with overly charred meat?! Well, we have an answer!

According to Michael Symon, author and frequently seen chef on the Food Network, “grilling is high heat, quick results. Barbecuing is low and slow” (9).

Basically, it all depends on the type of heat source. 

Understanding the difference between indirect heat and direct heat zones is a sure-fire way to start getting better barbecue results.

Indirect heat uses a lower temperature to cook food more thoroughly. Direct heat uses a high heat area to get quick results and to sear food. 

Do This Instead:

How to identify heat zones:

Bobby Flay weighs in, “If [the grill] is hot enough, you shouldn’t be able to hold your hand over the grates for more than 2 seconds.” (5)

Whichever heat source your hand can stand for less than two seconds is the direct heat zone (high heat, quick results), and it’s going to cook the meat quickly, starting with the outside first.

The heat source that isn’t as dangerous to your skin follows suit for your menu items as well, especially more delicate foods and thin cuts of meat, as it’s the indirect heat zone. This zone will cook the food more slowly and evenly.

How to create heat zones: 

To create heat zones in a charcoal grill, simply group the briquets on one side of the grill. 

That side becomes the direct zone alley. The other side becomes the indirect zone alley.

To create heat zones in a gas grill, simply turn down one (or more) of the burners, which can be done with the turn of a knob. 

Many gas grills also have an upper section that can serve as an indirect zone.

8. Overdoing the Sear

Just imagine chicken, ribs, pork chops (you name it!) that are crispy, chewy, and caramelized outside while still tender, scrumptious, juicy inside. 

In short, food grilled with a perfect sear!

Searing is a technique “in which the surface of the food (usually meat: beef, poultry, pork, seafood) is cooked at high temperature until a browned crust forms.” (10) 

Although searing properly is the mark of well-grilled food, new grillers typically crank up the heat and chase that sear for dear life — to the cringe of experienced grillers everywhere.

The result is charred meat and guests politely smiling (while loading up on more potato salad).

Do This Instead:

Reverse the sear. Instead of searing immediately in high heat, you can sear at the end, and it’s easier to get the crispy exterior without losing the internal juices.

According to Meathead Goldwyn, NYT best-selling food writer and member of the Barbecue Hall of Fame, “You don’t have to go pedal-to-the-metal in the beginning,” instead, “Warm food first on the cool side of the grill” (11).

It’s very easy. Heat the meat to temperature in indirect heat, transfer the meat to the high heat zone to sear, remove, and — tears of joy — the perfect sear.

9. Neglecting the Thermometer

Ever bite into pink chicken? Or attempted to bite through a thick charcoal husk…perhaps on the same piece of chicken?

Cooking meat too much, not enough, or, worse, both at the same time is a barbecuing right of passage.

It’s challenging — especially with just a grill grate standing between your food and an open fire. 

New grillers tend to resist using a thermometer, but even Bobby Flay, grillmaster extraordinaire, says using a thermometer isn’t cheating, and can help you land the perfect steak (12).

Do This Instead:

Whether cooking at a public grill or at home, a thermometer is a tool that should never be far from your side.

Steaks are typically medium-rare at 125 degrees Fahrenheit and medium around 140 degrees Fahrenheit, so check them when you think they’re getting close. 

Remember to be careful with thinner cuts of meat like a skirt or flank steak, as they typically require less cooking time (and also work great with marinades.)

In addition, Bobby Flay recommends erring on the side of undercooking. (12) You can always cook them more if you have to.

However, poultry and certain other foods should never be consumed rare or undercooked. 

When in doubt, reference USDA guidelines for safe minimum cooking temperatures.

10. Only Grilling Turf, Never Surf

It’s never wrong going turf-only at a cookout. Let’s face it, burgers, brats, ribs, and chops are the undeniable barbecue champions.

But why limit yourself?

Traditional surf and turf is beef with shellfish. But, again, there’s no need to limit yourself. 

Why not a whole chicken and lobster? Ribs and shrimp? Sausage and scallops?

Do This Instead:

Seafood can feel intimidating at first, but it’s surprisingly simple to grill. 

Take lobster for example. Bobby Flay recommends boiling your lobster before your guests come, and then it’s ready to go in minutes. 

Butter it. Put it flesh side down on high heat for a couple of minutes — and that’s it! (13)

Other ideas include shrimp, halibut, crab, tuna, swordfish, and more.

10. Forgetting the Veggies

Why do vegetables taste so good when grilled? So good you may be tempted to skip dessert…OK, let’s not go that far.

And vegetable options are endless. You just can’t beat complimenting a thick savory cut of meat with sweet corn on the cob. 

Or pair an onion, lemon, eggplant kabob with a good burger. 

Potato wedges with chopped scallions paired with fall-off-the-bone ribs — mmmh! — maybe they almost do beat dessert.

Do This Instead:

Barbecuing vegetables takes minimal effort.

Slice. Lightly oil. Salt and pepper. Place on direct heat to cook or indirect heat to keep warm. Done!

You can do a kebab or skewer for smaller cuts of eggplant, onion, peppers, zucchini, or to combine with smaller cuts of meat like steak or chicken bites. Add some lemon slices for a pop of citrus. 

Look at you getting your veggies like a responsible adult. Well done!

11. Only Using Your Grill to Grill

Sure, grilled burgers and hot dogs are amazing — everyone knows that — but what if you wanted to try something less traditional (and highly memorable)?

Whether a Kingsford, Coleman, or Weber, your gas grill is great for frying foods. 

While you can use charcoal briquettes to fuel the oil, it’s only recommended for users who have mastered the charcoal grill, as it’s much harder to control the high heat without a burner control knob. 

Also, most gas grills are stainless steel, making cleanup a breeze.

But we’re talking fried chicken, tots, churros, calamari, chicken taquitos! And they can be fried right on the equipment you already have.

Do This Instead:

According to BBQ master Meathead Goldwyn, “Your gas grill is perfect for frying” (14).

He recommends a cast iron frying pot, due to its high sides and ability to retain heat, paired with a strainer to scoop out the end result.

Heat up the oil as you would on a stovetop, alternating between direct and indirect grill zones as needed, and you’re good to go. 

A frying thermometer is the way to go when starting out, and a high-temperature oil like canola oil (or oil from peanuts) works great.

Seriously, the sky’s the limit Beer-battered wild Alaska pollock anyone?

12. Using Oil Incorrectly

New grillers mean well when they apply the oil straight to the cooking grates, and it does make sense to a degree.

Oiling the grates means less sticking, and less sticking means less cleanup, right? Well, yes and no… 

While oiling the grates won’t hurt anything, with the high heat environment exceeding 400 degrees Fahrenheit, especially with the grill cover closed, the oil is likely to burn off instead of doing much good.

Do This Instead:

There are two very different reasons to use oil.

First, use oil as a one-and-done to season new grill grates.

This can be done in four easy steps:

  1. Spray oil directly on the grates, before lighting, and while cold.
  2. Wipe off any debris with a paper towel.
  3. Light and bring up to high heat for about 30 minutes.
  4. Turn the burner control knob off, let cool completely, and clean any residue left on the grates.

Second, according to Giada De Laurentiis, Italian chef and a Food Network celebrity, oil your meat not your grill (15).

The oil will be more effective on the meat as it cooks rather than directly on the hot grates, but be sure to use a high-temperature oil for either of these tasks.

Some high-temperature oils include canola oil, peanut oil, vegetable oil, and avocado oil. 

These oils all have higher smoke points (400 degrees Fahrenheit plus), but remember to refer to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

13. Not Seasoning the Meat

Neglecting the seasoning or getting the timing wrong can make or break a cookout. 

But it can be tricky to get right, whether it’s bland meat or burnt BBQ sauce.

Certain meats simply work better with salt, pepper, and light oil (steaks, pork chops, etc.). Other meats are just begging for sauce (wings and ribs).

Do This Instead:

Dry Seasoning

Grilling basics for steak is salt, pepper, and lightly oil. 

Simple enough. Brush the cut on both sides with oil. 

Season liberally with salt and pepper. 4-5 minutes a side on direct heat and — voilà! — the perfect steak. (7)

14. Wet Seasoning

Put sauces on toward the end of the cooking period for anything on direct heat. 

If applied too early the sauce will burn. Shoot for 10 minutes before taking off or moving to a much cooler indirect grill zone.

For foods cooked low and slow, entirely on an indirect grill zone, like BBQ ribs or whole chicken, the sauce can be applied much earlier. 

Shoot for 30 minutes before taking off or moving to a much cooler indirect grill zone. 

15. Forgetting About the Lid and Vents

The lid and vents are the unsung heroes of the BBQ world. 

They are easy to ignore, but they help with everything from controlling heat zones to safety. 

And preheating would be impossible without a lid! Knowing a little about how the lid and vents function together goes a long way. 

The lid transforms the grill into an oven, helping heat the food through from all sides. 

This is also how preheating takes place, with the lid locking in the heat. 

The vents control the flow of oxygen while the lid is on. 

Closed vents limit oxygen and serve to reduce the cooking temperature. 

Open vents allow more oxygen and increase the cooking temperature. 

Do This Instead:

Use the lid to cool the cooking temperature if your food is cooking too fast (vents closed). 

No more overly charred meats! It can also help if you have a flare-up, as it will starve the fire reducing its danger.

Completely remove it or open the vents to finish foods at a higher temperature or when reverse searing. 

Final Take

Botching a cookout is aggravating. It’s all too easy to put up with charred steak and undercooked chicken over and over again.

Well, not this summer!

Put one or two of these fixes into practice and your next cookout will immediately level up.

Pretty soon you’ll be the go-to grill master in your family, your neighborhood, your city! 

People will look at you with that reverence that comes with capably perfecting delicious smoky meat.

Or, you know, you’ll just make some darn good-tasting barbecue. That’s good, too.

Either way, well done.

References

  1. “Allergies.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 4 Aug. 2020, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/allergies/symptoms-causes/syc-20351497.
  2. Green, Amanda. “A Brief History of the BBQ Grill.” Popular Mechanics, Popular Mechanics, 14 Nov. 2017, www.popularmechanics.com/technology/gadgets/a7855/a-brief-history-of-the-bbq-grill-11000790/.
  3. Breit, Carly. “Bobby Flay Says This Is the #1 Grilling Tool He Can’t Live Without.” Country Living, Country Living, 13 June 2017, www.countryliving.com/food-drinks/a43490/bobby-flay-grilling/.
  4. Kolman, Kevin. “The Importance of Preheating.” Tips & Techniques | Weber Grills, Weber-Stephen Products LLC, 26 Feb. 2021, www.weber.com/US/en/blog/tips-techniques/the-importance-of-preheating/weber-31162.html.
  5. “Bobby Flay’s Top Ten Grilling Tips.” Food Network, Food Network Magazine, www.foodnetwork.com/grilling/grilling-central-course-mains/articles/bobby-flay-s-top-ten-grilling-tips.
  6. “Grilling Tips from White House Chef Andre Rush.” Fox News, FOX News Network, 20 May 2019, video.foxnews.com/v/6038907718001#sp=show-clips.
  7. “Perfectly Grilled Steak.” Food Network, Food Network Magazine, www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/bobby-flay/perfectly-grilled-steak-recipe-1973350.
  8. G, Michelle. “8 Tips for Grilling Produce From Master Griller Jamie Purviance.” Real Food, Mostly Plants, Melissa’s Produce, 13 June 2019, realfoodmostlyplants.com/summer-grilling-ideas/.
  9. Laseter, Elizabeth. “Q&A: Michael Symon’s Summer Grilling Secrets.” Cooking Light, All Recipes Food Group, 18 Aug. 2014, www.cookinglight.com/cooking-101/qa-michael-symons-summer-grilling-secrets.
  10. “Searing.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 2 June 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Searing.
  11. Kelly, Leslie. “Meathead Goldwyn’s Grilling Wisdom: You’re Probably Doing It All Wrong.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 9 June 2021, www.forbes.com/sites/lesliekelly/2021/06/08/meathead-goldwyns-sage-grilling-wisdom-youre-probably-doing-it-all-wrong/?sh=1dd8c14caa5e.
  12. Fisher, Ben. “This Is Bobby Flay’s Secret To Perfect Steak.” Mashed.com, Mashed, 8 May 2020, www.mashed.com/207991/this-is-bobby-flays-secret-to-perfect-steak/.
  13. Food Network. How to Grill Lobster with Bobby Flay | Food Network. YouTube, FoodNetworkTV, 2 May 2008, www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvJH5WpypRw.
  14. Goldwyn, Meathead. “How To Fry – And Here’s The Genius – Do It On Your Grill!” Meathead’s AmazingRibs.com, Meathead Goldwyn, 16 Apr. 2021, amazingribs.com/more-technique-and-science/how-to-fry-on-your-grill/.
  15. Hart, Karen. “Giada De Laurentiis’ Tips For The Best Grilled Steak.” Mashed.com, Mashed, 26 May 2021, www.mashed.com/421236/giada-de-laurentiis-tips-for-the-best-grilled-steak/.

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