When I first started barbecuing, I used to see flare-ups in a different light. At the time, I thought they were just a sign that I was really cooking up a storm, being a “master of the flames,” and such nonsense.
Today, I know better—and I suspect you do as well.
Flare-ups are a sure-fire sign you’re not grilling your food properly, and they can lead to unevenly cooked or burnt food.
Understanding how to prevent flare-ups will save your burgers from becoming undercooked or, worse, turning into lumps of charcoal.
Flare-ups are high bursts of intense flames that shoot up from your grill, usually due to dripping meat fat on your gas burner or coals. The fat often collects and then ignites, causing a fiery burst.
Now, of course, meat’s going to drip fat, and the occasional drip ain’t necessarily an issue. However, the flames ignite due to the build-up of carbon and grease in other areas inside your grill, which can lead to bigger flare-ups and even grease fires.
Characteristics of Flare-Ups
Some key flare-up characteristics include:
- High flames that create lots of black soot and smoke;
- A rapidly spreading fire inside your grill;
- Flames that don’t subside, even after removing the meat, turning off the gas, and closing the lid.
Causes of Flare-Ups
Common flare-up causes include:
- Fatty meats such as rib-eye, burgers, chicken, and bacon;
- Dipping meat marinades containing lots of oils;
- Carbon and grease are built up inside the grill, such as on the grates and other places.
While many flare-ups happen due to the lack of proper grill maintenance, they can also occur when you place the meat on your grill or flip it.
These flare-ups usually die down very quickly, but if they do not, just move the meat away from the flames, and they’ll go out.
Avoiding Flare-Ups: What to Do (And Not to Do)
Here are a few things you should do and not do to reduce flare-ups.
Don’t Do This
Do Not: Continuously flip your burgers and other meats too often. This will cause your meat to lose more fat and juice, which dries out your burgers and adds more fuel to the flames.
Do Not: Puncture your burgers and other meats like sausages to check if they are cooked. The juices and fat will gush out and cause more flare-ups.
Do Not: Press down on your burgers into the grate with your spatula. This will squeeze fats and juices out of your burger (which is where most of your flavor comes from).
And it will also cause more flare-ups. There is simply no benefit to this practice unless you are cooking on a griddle and like smash burgers.
You should: Close your lid while grilling to help prevent flare-ups. This reduces oxygen to burn inside your grill. An added benefit is that the heat becomes more evenly distributed, helping your burgers cook more evenly on top and bottom.
You should: If you’re cooking other meats, like chicken, chops, and steaks, you want to trim as much fat as possible. For burgers, you may consider slightly leaner beef with lower fat. However, it’s not usually as big of a deal as long as your not poking and flipping too much.
You should: Burn off old grease, scrub your grill grates and the inner grill walls, and clean the bottom of your grill every time before you grill.
Things to Avoid When Putting Out Grease Fires
If you should ever run into a very big flare-up that doesn’t die down, here are things to avoid doing:
Avoid using water to extinguish a grease fire. While it’s fine to use a squirt bottle on a smaller flame when cooking on charcoal grills, you should avoid doing this if your fire is more intense and looks like it’s getting out of control.
Avoid leaving the lid open. If you can do so safely, close the lid along with the vents to cut off oxygen inside the grill. Doing this will usually take out the flames.
Avoid all other concerns before turning off gas if using a gas grill. Turning off your gas supply to your grill should be your main priority before doing anything else, such as closing the lid. However, if you notice flames around the tank valve or supply hose, vacate the area immediately and call 911.
Avoid trying to relocate a burning grill. While you may feel tempted to move the grill away from your home or an area with lots of combustible materials, it’s more likely you’ll only succeed in getting injured, or the grill will tip and spread the fire even faster.
Trimming Down the Meat
With hamburger meat, you can’t trim away the fat. You could, of course, go for leaner meat. But you will have to compromise on the succulence of the end result, which not everyone’s willing to do.
But you can do this with pork chops and steaks. Cut about a quarter-inch of fat from the outside, and this should reduce how much ft melts into your grill.
With hamburgers, you can buy leaner mixtures of meat. The leanest you can buy is a 90/10 or 95/5 mixture. The bigger number represents the percentage of lean meanwhile the smaller represents the fat content.
That said, if you like juicier hamburgers, you’ll want to use the higher fat mix, which is usually about 80/20 or 70/30. But you’ll just have to stay more on top of flare-ups.
Preventing Flare-Ups on Gas and Charcoal Grills
Due to the convenience of gas grills, a lot of folks make the mistake of allowing grease and gunk to build up inside their grills. This can lead to a huge disaster when it comes to flare-ups. But, the same goes with charcoal grills.
Clean your grill routinely (ideally before and after every use) to prevent build-up, scraping your grill, and using grill cleaning products for the best results.
Additional tips for avoiding flare-ups when using charcoal grills include:
- Shield your grill from the wind: Wind forces more oxygen into the, causing more flare-ups. (For more tips for grilling in windy weather, head on over to “How to Grill When It’s Windy.”)
- Preheat the grill: This can loosen up build-up.
- Brush: Use a high-quality grill brush to scrape off the remaining gunk and carbon from your grates after preheating.
- Wipe out the catch pan: You should always wipe and empty the grease catch pan or cup every time before grilling. (More on the matter at “How Often to Clean Your Grease Tray.”)
- Use oil sparingly: If you’re using a marinade or oil, ensure you do not let it drip into the grill.
- Open your lid: If you’re grilling foods with high-fat content, grilling with your lid open can reduce flare-ups.
Controlling Flare-ups on Gas Grills
With gas grills, controlling flare-ups is a lot easier than with charcoal grills. Here are the three steps to putting out a flare-up on a gas grill.
- Turn off the grill burners using the knobs, provided it’s safe to do so. If the knobs are too hot, use some tongs or a fireproof glove.
- After turning off the glass, smother the flame using things like salt, baking soda, or even sand.
- Close the grill’s lid and vents to cut off oxygen inside the grill.
If the flame’s still going 30 seconds after closing and is coming out the vents, then turn to your fire extinguisher.
If you don’t have an extinguisher (which you should always have when grilling) and the fire is getting big enough to threaten the gas tank, you need to leave the area right away and contact 911.
Controlling Flare-ups on Charcoal Grills
The main thing you can do to control flare-ups on a charcoal grill is to move high-fat foods to different parts of the grill. This way, the fat doesn’t drip and build up flame in one spot.
You will also want to build a two-zone fire by raking the coals over to one side and leaving the other coal-free. This, as we explained in “Should You Grill Hamburgers With the Lid Open,” creates an indirect cooking zone where flare-ups are no longer an issue.
Preventing and controlling flare-ups when grilling your burgers is not just a matter of taste, but also safety.
Flare-ups can ruin your food and lead to dangerous grease fires that can spread out of control very quickly. By following these tips, you can ensure your grilling experience is safe and your hamburgers come out juicy and delicious.