How to Not Burn Food on the Grill

To grill your meats and vegetables to perfection whenever you fire up the grill, you first have to unlearn these bad habits.

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When I first fired up a charcoal grill many decades ago, I had no idea what I was doing. With the optimism of youth, I threw in a bag of coals, doused them with lighter fluid, lit them with a match, and put a steak or two on the grill.

The results—irredeemably burned steaks that reeked of lighter fluid and tasted like coal—spoke for themselves. Obviously, I thought to myself, I had done something wrong.

My father wasn’t much of a griller, but my grandfather, bless his soul, was. The next time I visited him, I told him about my grilling hardships and asked him what he thought I had done wrong.

I remember him smiling and saying, “Let’s fire up the old grill, and I’ll show you.” We all make mistakes at the grill—especially when we’re just starting out. And I’d be lying if I told you we ever stop! I’m an old man, and I’m still learning new things every time I get cooking.

Here’s what my granddaddy told me that day about not burning proteins on the grill, along with my two cents from everything I’ve learned through trial and error over the years.

Grilling Mistakes to Avoid and Tips to Avoid Them

The question is, “How do I keep my food from burning on the grill?” As you all will see in a moment, the answer is more about the things you should stop doing than about new habits you should acquire.

Let’s waste no more time in formalities, and start with some of the most common grilling mistakes that result in burnt food.

1. Lighter Fluid Overgenerosity

Many grillers think that, by dosing their coals with trusty liquid fuel, they can get that fire going faster than just waiting for their coals to get white and ashy. This, in all honesty, is a mistake that both novices and seasoned grillers are guilty of making.

Most of us have seen this done at family BBQs when we were kids, when our kids were growing up, and when we helped raise the kids of their own. Truth be told, the only thing that causing a large fiery mushroom clouds helps you achieve is look like a chump to anyone who knows what they’re doing.

Sure, it’s fun watching those flames shoot up—no shame in admitting it. That being said, using too much fluid will impact the flavor of your food and cause hot and cold spots, which, in turn, will result in uneven cooking.

The best way to start your coals is using a chimney starter, which works to fire up your coals safely and effectively.

2. Cooking Before Your Coals are Ready

When it comes to grilling mistakes, impatience is a running theme. When dealing with your coals, settling with “it’s good enough” is a great way to get inconsistent temperatures, unpredictable cooking times, and, in many cases, off flavors—not to mention burns.

Whether you use a chimney starter or not, the key to avoiding this mistake is patience. You want all your coals to be hot and ready for cooking. You know that’s the case when they turn white and ashen over. The only exception to this is when you are planning longer cooks and using the “minion method.”

3. You Never Clean Your Grill’s Grates

Some folks honestly believe that there’s no need to clean your grill grates because fire kills harmful bacteria, and a little burnt food “adds flavor.” This misconception can land you in trouble.

First, while leftover burnt food might not make you sick, it will cause your fresh food to stick to the grill. Food stuck on the grill can break apart, and often develops unsavory burn marks containing other flavors of burnt food.

Were burnt food such a great seasoning, I’m sure some marketer would come up with “liquid burn” and sell it in stores. There’s good reason why that’s not really the case. You can avoid this by using a grill brush. It only takes a few seconds and a little elbow grease to clean your grill’s grates properly.

4. You’re Using (Too Much) Direct Heat

One of the top mistakes grillers make that results in overcooked or burnt food is always grilling directly over their fire.

Technically, food cooks faster when it is cooked over a direct flame. For foods less than an inch thick, this is what you’re aiming for. However, for thicker cuts of meat and coarsely sliced veg, the food is more likely to burn on the outside before the inside has even had a chance to cook.

A few food items are highly forgiving when it comes to cooking over direct heat, including Denver steak or butterflied chicken breasts. But then there are other dishes, such as burgers and thick-cut steak, that benefit from indirect heat.

Remember: thick cuts, whole birds, and large slabs of meat should always, without exception, be cooked low and slow over indirect heat. Since they are cooked from the outside in, this is the only way to give the heat enough time to reach the inside of the protein and make it safe to eat.

5. Taking Too Many “Peeks”

Once again, impatience causes grillers to keep “checking” their food to see if it’s “done yet.” This seems like a harmless activity at first, no doubt about it, and yet, for the reasons which we are about to discuss below, it can result in badly burnt food.

Whenever you lift the lid on a gas grill, it will cause the grill to lose temperature. This, in turn, causes the food to cook slower and run a higher risk of overcooking.

Lifting the lid too often on a charcoal grill has the opposite effect. The introduction of oxygen makes the coals burn hotter than you probably need them, resulting in charred, acrid-tasting, carcinogenic-compound-carrying food.

While it isn’t a crime to constantly flip your steaks and burgers, you should bear in mind that doing this can lead to many inconsistencies regarding your cooking temperature. The more you grill, the more you learn to let your food cook uninterrupted.

6. Thinking Flames Kissing Your Food Is a Good Thing

I won’t lie to you, now. There is a certain primitive joy in watching your meat being set on fire, oh yes there is. Perhaps it is some caveman gene we all have?

But, when it comes to grilling, the truth is that those fiery flames are doing more harm than good to your food. These flames leave nasty deposits on the surface of your food. While minor flare-ups and small flames are fine, you don’t want your food being kissed by fire all the time.

When it comes to red meat, fatty poultry, or omega-3-rich fish, trimming off some of the excess fats can prevent those fats from rendering and dripping onto your coals or grill bars and creating flare-ups.

If you rake your charcoal in more than one configuration and build multiple fire zones, you will always have the option of moving food from direct heat (over the fire) to indirect heat (over a coal-free zone). When there is no fire, there are no flare-ups.

7. Not Using the Vents on Your Charcoal Grill

Far too often, most grillers fail to utilize a convenient tool for controlling temperatures and preventing the burning of meat—their grill’s vents. They just do not see what vents have to do with control over the flames, which they don’t often think needs to be maintained, to begin with.

Learning how to use your grill’s vents can help you get the hang of cooking over indirect heat and reduce the risk of flare-ups and higher than needed temperatures.

8. Burning with Barbecue Sauce

So many grillers think they can add extra flavor by brushing on generous layers of meat candy sauce. But the sad truth is that more BBQ sauce while grilling usually leads to more burnt portions of meat, especially with chicken.

Having your guests peel off burnt skin just to eat your chicken is not a good look. The best way to avoid this issue is to wait the last five to ten minutes before painting some sauce on your birds.

9. Eyeballing, Cutting, or Poking Meat to Judge “Doneness”

When I got started, I used to think I could “eyeball” pieces of meat, and the BBQ spirit guides would whisper in my ear when it was done. After burning dozens of steaks, hot dogs, and hamburgers, I learned my lesson the hard way.

For the same reasons, it is not a good idea to poke or cut your meat. Activities like cutting and poking the meat release all those juices from it and, as a result, can cause it to turn dry, crusty, and about as chewable as that leather belt on your waist.

The solution, as it turns out, is simple: use a meat thermometer to take the temperature of your meats only once you are 90% confident that they are done. Some of them, though I’ll leave them to those who are gadget-savvy, will even alert you when your meat reaches a specific temperature.

It’s Your Turn Now

This, fellers, concludes my list of the nine things you should stop doing so that you no longer burn your meat and veg on the grill. By following these basic suggestions, you can serve up delicious food cooked to perfection.

By Sammy Steen

Sammy, Barbehow's editor, is a die-hard carnivore, barbecue whisperer, and self-proclaimed master of the grill.

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