Avoid these common barbecue blunders

Ever had a burger you could play hockey with or a juicy steak go tough? It’s bad enough when good food goes bad, but even worse when friends and family are there to witness it. Barbecuing may look easy, but a few common blunders can yield less-than-perfect results.

Here are some top grilling mistakes to watch out for — and how to avoid them.

Mistake 1: Not checking your tank before you start

You did a safety check at the start of the season, but do you keep an eye on your propane tank level throughout it? Running out of fuel in the middle of cooking can put a damper on your dinner plans. Experts recommend keeping a spare tank on hand and using a gage to estimate your fuel level. (Lee Valley has a Magnetic Propane Tank Gauge for about $7.00, for instance.)

Mistake 2: Going straight from fridge to grill

We have it drummed into our heads not to leave raw meat on the counter, but putting cold meat directly onto the grill can cause the meat to cook more quickly on the outside than the inside. For more even cooking, experts recommend taking the chill off by letting meat set at room temperature first. The time depends on the size of the cut. Smaller portions like chicken breasts can benefit from as little as 10 minutes, while larger roasts could use up to half an hour to avoid that raw-in-the-middle bulls-eye. (Burgers are the exception to this rule because of their fat content and distribution.)

And here’s another reason to allow yourself some extra time: another common error is not letting the grill fully pre-heat before cooking.

Mistake 3: Flipping too soon

We know it’s hard to leave food alone when you’re worried about it burning. On the grill, food needs to cook to a certain point before it’s ready to be turned. Try to turn it too early and it sticks and tears. Experts say to let it sit for the recommended amount of cooking time, especially if you’ve aiming for a seasoned crust.

How can you tell when it’s ready? For most cuts, experts advise to gently lift the corner using tongs (or a spatula for fish — it’s less likely to tear the flesh). If the meat sticks, it needs a little more time. If it releases easily and shows grill marks, it’s ready for a flip. For burgers and steaks, you’ll want to pay attention to cooking time to achieve the right level of doneness.

What about flipping too often? There’s some heated debate in this area. Some experts say that one flip is all you need while others swear by frequent flipping — especially if you’re building up a crust with sauce.

Mistake 4: Peeking too often

Wouldn’t it be nice if barbecues had windows and lights like our ovens? Unfortunately, heat escapes from your grill every time you lift the lid. Inconsistent temperatures can affect cooking time and quality. You also lose the “good” smoke that adds flavour to the meat. (Another reason some experts warn to avoid those frequent flips.)


Mistake 5: Using a sharp instrument to flip the meat

As meat cooks, it releases moisture on the inside and the juices “pool” in the middle. If you pierce your meat with a fork to flip it over, you’ll inadvertently release that moisture. The result? A drier, tougher piece of meat.

Instead, keep a pair of tongs at hand — they won’t pierce the flesh. Experts say to look for specially designed barbecue tongs with long arms that keep your hands at a safe distance from the grill. Unless you’re working with fish, tongs allow more control than a spatula.

Mistake 6: Applying sauce too early (or too late)

If you’ve ever made candy, you know sugar can burn at high temperatures — anything above 265 degrees F — and most barbecue sauces are loaded with the sweet ingredient. Baste your meat too early and the sauce will turn into a black, burnt mess. Douse it in sauce after it’s done and you’re missing out on the chance to add extra flavour and seal in moisture during the cooking process.

When is the best time to baste? In most cases, experts generally advise to wait until the last few minutes of cooking. (Slow cooking over low temperatures and smoking are exceptions.)

If you’re looking for flavour throughout the entire cooking process, marinades and rubs may be a better bet.

Mistake 7: Eyeballing doneness

There is one exception to the “no sharp objects rule”: a good meat thermometer. Experts warn that cutting into meat to check on its progress will not only cost you precious moisture, it exposes your hands to risky heat. Worse yet, it’s tough to do after dark — and all those cuts can affect your food presentation when you’re serving guests.

Don’t take chances — get proof. There are a variety of meat thermometers on the market just for grilling, including “steak buttons” and digital thermometers that let you remotely monitor food (even from a distance).

Mistake 8: Not minding your food safety

Food safety rules still apply even though you’re not in the kitchen! Cooked meat should never touch any cutting boards, plates, platters, and utensils you used with raw meat. Experts warn to keep your tools and your hands clean, and always use a fresh serving platter for the finished product. (You’ll want to use extra caution at a cookout if soap and hot water aren’t readily available.)

Another health risk? Basting your meat with leftover marinade. If you’re loath to throw it out (as experts recommend), give it a good boil to kill off any bacteria before using it.


Mistake 9: Cutting before resting

We know it’s tempting to cut into a hunk of meat straight off the grill, but be patient! Slice it up too soon and you’ll end up with plenty of juice — and flavour — on your platter rather than in your meat. Remember how we mentioned that meat gives up some of its moisture during cooking? “Resting” partially reverses this process and allows juices to disperse and “seal in”.

How long does meat need to rest? It depends on the type of meat, the thickness of the cut and the temperature at which it is cooked. For example, steaks cooked at high heat need little resting time (about five minutes), while a brisket or pork butt could take up to half an hour. (The Virtual Weber Bullet and Serious Eats have good guides and explanations.)

Mistake 10: Skipping the cleaning and seasoning

Good clean-up isn’t fun, but it’s a necessity. While it doesn’t pose a health hazard, gunk on the grill can cause your food to stick. Experts advise to give your grill a good cleaning at the start of each season and a good brushing after every use (preferably while it’s still warm). 

Don’t forget to give it an oiling too! If you’re attempting this step while the grill is hot or warm, experts say the safest method is swabbing it with an oil-soaked paper towel held by tongs (for safety).

Whether you’re new to the grill or a seasoned veteran looking to refine your technique, it doesn’t hurt to do a little reading up on grilling best practices and try something new. If cookbooks aren’t your style, there’s a wealth of barbecue tips and recipes online — and even some grilling apps for your tablet or smart phone.

Remember, experts don’t always agree… But it can be fun to experiment and find your own grilling style.

Looking for a few tips? Here are a couple of sources to start:
The Food Networking: Grilling Central
Weber Grilling Tips and Guides

What grilling mistakes have you encountered? Share your tips for other readers in the comments.

Additional sources: About.com: Grilling, BonAppetit.com, CookingLight.com, Forbes.com, Fox News, Time.com, Weber Grilling Guides

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Lauri Patterson

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