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Cooking Tips

7 Common Grilling Mistakes That Could Be Ruining Your Food

Are you indulging in some bad grilling habits? Correct these common mistakes, and you’ll master good grilling practices.

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Grilling is something of an art. Everyone’s got their own favorite grilling tips, tricks and techniques. Yet some approaches are better than others – and it can take time to understand just how versatile your barbecue can be. Whether you already know how to master healthy grilling or need pointers on how to work with foods beyond meat alone, we can all benefit from fresh grilling tips.

And some of us are making more mistakes than we might realize. Here are seven common grilling mistakes you’ll want to avoid for better dishes and easier cooking.

1. Oiling your grill grates instead of your food

In order to prevent food from sticking to your grill grates, it’s imperative to add grease – and plenty of grill enthusiasts oil up those grates before they add any food. While this technique technically works, it’s a pretty big grilling mistake in the eyes of experts.

Oil is important, but you don’t want to waste it on the grill grates. When you apply oil to your hot grates, it actually starts to smoke and carbonize almost immediately. This can infuse your food with a weird, unpleasant taste. And sometimes, if your grates have a carbon outer layer, adding oil can actually make food more likely to stick.

Instead, you should put oil on your food. Cover meats and veggies with a light coating of oil. You can brush it on or toss it in an oil-based marinade; either will do the trick.

2. Over-marinating meat

Marinades infuse all kinds of meat with delicious flavors, and they also do the double-duty task of tenderizing tough meats. While marinades can range anywhere from just 30 minutes to a full day of soaking up juices, herbs and spices, here’s something most people don’t realize: you can over-marinade.

If you leave your food in a marinade for too long, you can actually achieve the opposite effect that you intended. As Cook’s Illustrated explains, letting food soak longer can over-tenderize meat and make it mushy. Extra-long marinades will break down the protein bonds closest to the surface of your food. In addition to mushiness, this can dry out meat.

Double-check your recipe before marinating to make sure you aren’t overdoing it. Make sure you aren’t leaving any kind of meat in its marinade for longer than one full day – even for the toughest cuts of red meat, 24 hours is usually the max recommended time.

3. Failing to properly preheat the grill

You always preheat your oven before baking or roasting, and you always let your pans come up to temperature on the stove. But do you always take the time to preheat your grill?

If you’ve been turning up the flames and immediately putting food on the grill, you’re going to want to slow down and start preheating. It’s important to let the grill’s grates warm up before you start cooking. Cold grates can cause food to stick more stubbornly, which is both frustrating and messy. 

Preheat your grill like you’d preheat your oven and wait about 20 minutes before tossing anything on its cooking surface. The hotter the grates are, the better those seared grill marks will be – and the more perfectly your food will cook.

4. Frequently opening your grill’s lid

Have you heard that opening your oven or lifting the lid on your slow cooker increases your cooking time by as much as half an hour? Well, the same goes for your grill.

It’s incredibly tempting to lift up the lid of your grill and check on what’s cooking. But every time you fuss with that lid you’re exposing your hot grill to cooler temperatures. That, in turn, drops the temperature inside and slows down the cooking process. The more heat escapes, the more challenging it’ll be to achieve evenly, quickly grilled food.

Regardless of what you’re grilling, keep the lid shut as much as possible. If it’s too tempting to poke your head in, set a timer and walk away. To ensure you aren’t overcooking your food, check in at around 10 to 15 minutes for leaner meats and 20 to 30 minutes for thicker cuts. Veggies can take anywhere from 8 to 30 minutes, so you can pop in on these earlier.

5. “Guesstimating” when meat is cooked

There are countless tips out there that are meant to help you determine when your food is fully cooked: touch tests, tenderness tests, and visual cues have all been touted as easy methods. But you really can’t tell when meat is completely cooked unless you get inside it.

If you rely on how meat looks or feels, you’re running the risk of serving yourself – and anyone else who’s dining with you – under- or overcooked meat. There are only two ways to get an accurate “doneness” assessment: by cutting into the meat or using a thermometer.

Avoid this grave grilling mistake by making sure you have a meat thermometer in your arsenal of tools. You can easily stick one into anything you’re cooking and get a quick temperature read. Many even offer guides or alerts to let you know ASAP when your proteins are cooked and ready. And you’ll know every time that your meat is at a safe-to-consume temperature.

6. Putting fish directly on the grill grates

There are plenty of sins you can commit when grilling, but one of the biggest is placing fish right on the grates. 

Fish is incredibly delicate. With flaky meat and thin skin, any kind of fish can immediately adhere to your grill’s grates and leave you with a sticky mess. Even worse, making this grave mistake can lead fish to fall apart (and through your grates).

To keep your fish from sticking, put it on anything but the grates themselves. There are a few options you can try: cedar planks, foil packets or griddles. You can also cook fish in a cast iron skillet or grill pan.

7. Using lighter fluid

Have you been using lighter fluid to get tall flames roaring from your grill? While lighter fluid certainly gets a fire going and your grill hot, it’s a mistake that can leave your food smelling (and potentially tasting) like gas. Instead of a smoky, classic grill flavor, you’ll find that lighter fluid makes your food pretty unappealing. 

If you need some help getting a fire started on your grill, there are other ways to do so without imparting a fuel- or gas-like scent and flavor. You can try a chimney starter, which lights a fire with old newspaper to get charcoal glowing with heat. That way, you’ll get the heat you need and keep your flavors in check.

Once you’ve made sure you aren’t making these critical grilling mistakes, take your expertise to the next level. Discover even more grilling tips and recipes: