Don your marigolds and dust off your grills – Becky Krystal explains how to prepare your BBQ ahead of the summer season
Context is everything. I suspect that’s why some home cooks are less conscientious about cleaning their grills (“it’s outside, everything is a little dirty outside!”), than they are about, say, their ovens and stove tops.
But really, you should be treating your grill – especially the inside – as a sacred place and giving it the same care and attention you would any other major appliance.
“My feeling is that the grill grates should be immaculate and the rest of the grill should be relatively clean at all times,” writes grilling guru Steven Raichlen in The Barbecue Bible. “Clean grates are essential for killer grill marks, and they help keep food from sticking.”
His mantra: “Keep it hot, clean and lubricated.” Here’s how to do just that:
1. Do a seasonal checkup. Don’t remember what you did at the end of last year? Not sure what happened under your grill cover all winter? Before you turn anything on, give your grill the once-over. For a charcoal grill, Raichlen recommends scraping out the ash from the firebox if you didn’t at the end of your last grilling season. Also confirm that the metal vents open and close, and grease them with WD-40 as necessary.
For a gas grill, Raichlen says you should clean the drip pans, if needed. Remove the grates and the burners that help direct grease away from the burner tubes. Then make sure nothing (spiders, spider webs, other organic material) is blocking the burner tubes. If flames don’t come out of all the holes in the tubes, you’ll need to clear the obstruction with something like a bent paper clip or thin wire. Make sure your igniter is working and you hear a click and see a spark.
2. Turn on the heat. “Preheating is a must, and it also is the first step in cleaning the grill,” says Elizabeth Karmel, the chef and author of GirlsattheGrill.com and four cookbooks, most recently Steak and Cake. “Think of it as a sterilization process.” For a gas grill, turn the burners to high for 10 minutes; likewise, let your charcoal grill preheat with the lid on and vents open for 10 minutes. This will help burn off anything left over from your last grill session.
3. Scrub the grate. Now that any residual food has been charred, it’s time to get rid of it. Karmel suggests scrubbing with a ball of crumpled foil (about the size of an orange) held in a pair of long-handled tongs. That’s an especially good option for people worried about stray bristles from wire brushes, but if you have a metal brush you trust, by all means use it. In his book, Project Fire, Raichlen says to look for a wire brush with bristles anchored in a twisted wire coil. America’s Test Kitchen’s top pick for grill brushes, the 12-inch grill brush from Weber, fits the bill. ATK also liked how its triangular shape made it easy to clean between the grate’s bars.
4. Oil the grate (or the food). This is a combined cleaning and prep step, and it’s also a bit contentious. Many grilling experts recommend oiling the grate before loading it up with food. Others argue that the oil residue can build up and actually cause food to stick.
If you’re oiling the grates: with the grill still on high heat, brush the grates with an oiled wad of paper towels held in that trusty pair of tongs. This will catch any bits of food you didn’t scrape off, as well as grease the grates so the food won’t stick, much as when you add fat to a pan on the stove top. Be sure you use an oil that can handle high heat. Raichlen says grapeseed and the cheaper canola are good bets.
In her new book, The Backyard Fire Cookbook, Linda Ly recommends Grate Chef Grill Wipes, which function similar to oiled paper towels. She has a few other creative suggestions, including spearing a halved onion on a barbecue fork, misting it with high-heat cooking spray and using that to clean and oil the grates. She says you can do something similar with the green husks from the corn on the cob you plan to grill.
In the other camp: Karmel is a strong advocate for oiling your food instead of the grates. By brushing a thin coat of olive oil on the food before placing it on a clean cooking grate, you’ll create a barrier that prevents natural juices in the food from turning into steam and evaporating, which can cause the food to dry out before it’s done.
Decide which method works best for you and roll with it.
5. Repeat the heat. After you’re done cooking, Karmel says you should follow the same process as when you fired up the grill. Preheat for about 10 minutes and then scrub. To intensify the heat on a charcoal grill and help burn off the food, America’s Test Kitchen says you can place an overturned disposable roasting pan on the grates. If there’s really a lot of food left on the grates, you can let the grill go for 30 to 40 minutes, Karmel says, “or until everything on the grates has turned to a white-gray ash”.
6. Other maintenance. If you have a charcoal grill, remove the ashes after they have cooled for a day or two. After the ashes have been moved to a metal container away from combustible materials, mixed with water and cooled for several more days, they can be disposed of in your trash (in foil for extra security). If you used charcoal without additives, consider using the ash in the garden or compost pile.
For gas grills, pay attention to the drip pans. Martha Stewart’s Grilling says to clean out the larger drip pan that catches food at least monthly, and replace the smaller disposable pan that catches grease when it’s half full.
“Once a year, clean the inside of the grill with warm, soapy water – no abrasives,” Karmel says. “Make sure you rinse the grill well and let it preheat with all burners on HIGH for 30 to 40 minutes to burn off any residue.” If you have a charcoal grill, you can take this advice from Martha Stewart’s Grilling: after washing with dishwashing liquid, warm water and a sponge, take apart the grill, rinse it with a garden hose and let all the parts dry in the sun before reassembling. If you tend to only grill in the warmer weather, it makes sense to do this big clean at the end of your season, so that your work will be even easier next year.