Not a fun topic, and yet one that needs to be addressed. Yes, let’s talk about rusty grill grates.
Have you ever opened up your grill after a couple of weeks of being out of town, only to look down on the grates and think to yourself, “I don’t remember grilling on that!”
What you’ve discovered is that, without consistent cleaning, grilling, and more cleaning, those metal grates like to do what metal does best: rust. And don’t think that, just because you might have grates made out of stainless steel instead of cast iron, you’re immune to rust. No, rust will find you.
The only situation in which you are immune to rust is when you have aluminum anodized grates, which some call rust-proof, and others rust-resistant. But, because that’s not the main topic here, let’s stick to grates that absolutely and definitely rust.
Which means you’re probably dealing with cast iron or stainless steel. So now what? Well, you’ve come to the right place. And we’ve got you covered.
Rust, in Layman’s Terms
Yes, before delving into why grates rust and whether they’re safe to grill on, let’s first ponder what rust is.
Well, based on appearance, rust is a flaky material that develops on stuff made from iron or steel (in this case, your grates and maybe the inside of the grill itself). Depending on the situation at hand, rust tends to be a shade of color that ranges between orange and brown.
You’ll know it’s flaky by how easily it, well, flakes off if you scrape your grates with a bristle brush. And you won’t mistake the color. Sometimes, you might even see charred bits of food mixed in with the rust, which adds to the color and shape. Kind of like chunky peanut butter painted orange, in the worst cases.
Now what is rust, really?
It’s the build-up of iron oxide on exposed surfaces made of iron or steel through oxidation and moisture, which is a natural chemical reaction of the metal to the air, especially damp air.
Why Do Grill Grates Rust?
The obvious answer to why grill grates rust is because they are either made of iron or steel. But that’s not the only reason. Think of a car. Cars are made of steel. But what do cars also have that protect them from rust? Paint.
Just like a car, your grill is also painted to protect it from the elements and rust.
However, the same cannot be said about those grates.
Because you’re cooking food on them, you are exposing the grates to varying heat conditions, along with the fact you have to grill in the outside air, grates don’t get all the preservation protection other metal objects get. In fact, that’s exactly why they rust so quickly.
Like the example noted above. You leave town for a couple of weeks. Maybe the weather is hot, humid, and rainy while you’re gone. Maybe you didn’t really dry the grill after you cleaned it. Maybe. You get home—and bingo—you’ve got a lot of rust to deal with now.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take care of them. That’s why cleaning and grilling go hand in hand. Which leads to the next question.
Are Rusty Grates Safe To Grill On?
That’s a good question. Are rusty grates going to, in any way, affect your health? As any good American would do, let’s see what the government has to say about this.
According to the USDA, try to keep your grill clear of rust, as rust is not food: “Rust is not a food safe material so it should not be ingested.” Simple answer. Okay, maybe it’s not that simple, but is rust actually unhealthy?
Can I still use the grates?
Well, that’s tricky and there’s not an easy answer. But there are easy rules of thumb to make your decision to grill on them easier.
One, how bad is the rust? This should be the first question. If you maintain your grill fairly regularly, the amount of rust shouldn’t be too bad. As mentioned before, you can’t always avoid rust, but a decent brush and cleaning should fix the problem, especially if it’s simple surface level rust.
Two, is the rust flaking? Now this isn’t referring to old remnants of pork chops that have been reduced to little lumps of char on the grate. If you brush your grates and a lot of rust starts flaking off, or even worse, flaking with a lot of rust dust, cleaning might not be the best option.
Now a little bit of rust isn’t going to kill you. You’re not going to get tetanus from it.
However, it shouldn’t be seen as a bonus iron supplement, either. Just remember, if you’re cooking on flaking rust, you’re probably ingesting flaking rust. Also, the size of the individual matters. Kids and younger people might be more reactive to rust ingestion than older adults.
Maybe you don’t have a problem with the idea of consuming a little rust here and there, but your digestive system might.
Okay, You Have Some Rust, Now What?
The good thing is, if you have some rust, you already know what to do. The thing you do already, right?
Clean your grates.
Okay, say you were out of town a couple of weeks and you couldn’t clean your grates and the rust is more than you usually allow.
Do the same thing you would normally do, except it may take a little more elbow grease, depending on the rust build-up.
Take your grates off the grill and then hose them off. Wipe them down with warm soapy water using a sponge or steel wool and then hose them off again. After letting them dry, proceed with the rust inspection. Anything that didn’t come off after the soap and water treatment, take a grill brush to it.
Hose the grates down again. If the grates look normal once more after drying, proceed to use them. If it still has rust, feel free to repeat the cleaning procedure until satisfied with the results.
Oh, before firing up the grill, go ahead and rub the grates down with cooking oil to aid in reasoning them. Pretty much the same thing you would do with a cast iron skillet if you washed it with soapy water.
Side note: if you have porcelain-coated grates that have visible rust, you’re probably going to just have to replace them because the coating is, in all likelihood, damaged and will only get worse over time.
Also, if you have stainless steel grates, your rust problem might be using too much high heat, which affects their rust resistance.
You Tried Your Best, But the Rust Is Just Too Much
Well, you fought a good fight. And you can honestly say you tried to bring your grates back to their previous glory days. But they’re just too far gone.
If this is the case, like with the porcelain-coated grates mentioned above, it’s time to admit the grates need to be replaced.
The good news here is you’re getting new grates!
With grilling comes rust. It’s not pleasant and almost unavoidable. However, it can be managed if you stay on top of it and actively clean your grill before and after use. Also, if you got a place to store the grill where the climate is a little more controlled, like a garage, that helps, too.
In the end, time, weather, and temperatures all play a part in how fast rust can build up on your grates (and other exposed parts of your grill). Keep reminding yourself the rust can be treated and removed to continue using your current grates, but be diligent about maintaining them. Steadfast and proactive.
But if you are forced to get new ones, there’s nothing wrong with accepting your grates need to be replaced at some point.
Now, go attack that rust.