When I met Steven in 2002, I hadn’t even achieved the rank of Beginner Griller. As old-fashioned as it sounds, the role of griller in my family (though I loved to cook) had always been played by a male. After promising Workman Publishing I’d act as Mr. Raichlen’s chauffeur and food stylist for several scheduled appearances—the first one being at 7 a.m. the following morning— I had just hours to shop and get up to speed. On the menu? Beer can chicken, grilled sweet corn, and cinnamon-grilled peaches with all the necessary swap-outs. Talk about baptism by fire! Point being, I feel qualified to write about rookie mistakes because I’ve made (or at least observed) nearly all of them. And National Barbecue Month seemed like the right time to do it.
Mistake #1: Underestimating the amount of fuel required for a cook
It’s just plain embarrassing to run out of fuel during a grill session, 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 an extra tank (or canister) of propane at the ready, or a spare bag of charcoal or pellets.
Confession: I once forgot to turn off the propane tank at its source. It leaked out, of course—and I lost what had been nearly a full tank.
Mistake #2: Relying on lighter fluid to start a fire
My father loved his lighter fluid, as did most of our friends and neighbors. My aunt and uncle were the only people I knew who didn’t use petroleum-based products to get the party started: They had an electric fire starter. Early on, I figured out that’s why their barbecued chicken always tasted so much better. In those days, 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 (like the Weber Performer Deluxe) 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 #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 shot into the air like a rocket!
Mistake #4: Failing to let your grill 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 grill marks Steven always talks about. (This will not be an option if you own a pellet grill as they function more like convection ovens.)
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 #6: Not practicing good grill hygiene
Steven is well-known for this mantra: “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.
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 #7: Saucing too early
Most American barbecue sauces (especially Kansas City-style) contain sugar, meaning they’re very susceptible to scorching when subjected to live fire. For this reason, Steven and 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 #8: Not learning the idiosyncrasies of your grill
The sooner you learn grills often have their own quirks, the more consistent your results will be. Perhaps your gas or pellet grill has hot spots. You can identify them 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.
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 thermometer.
Steven and I use 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 #10: Allowing cross-contamination to occur.
At the grill, potentially dangerous cross-contamination usually 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 when the same platter that was used to transport raw food (poultry is especially notorious for spreading food-borne illnesses) is used to ferry the cooked food back to the kitchen. If you use cutting boards at any stage of the food preparation process, make sure they are thoroughly washed as well.
Note: The USDA recently withdrew its recommendation that all poultry be washed before cooking. Studies have determined that practice increases the likelihood of cross-contamination as sinks and countertops can inadvertently get splashed.
Ready to start grilling? Check out 4 Recipes Every Beginner Barbecuer Should Master.