Last Updated on September 17, 2023
Approximately 70 million American homes have a grill. Those grills are in the backyard, arranged photogenically by lake fronts, nestled in the apartment complex courtyard or proudly displayed on balconies, and let’s be honest, they’re all in varying states of shiny-ness.
Whether you fire yours up in the warm weather or all year round, and if it’s stored indoors or out, it needs an annual deep clean, and there’s no time like now. Keeping it in good shape only takes a few minutes whenever you fire it up and ensures a better meal and that it’ll look its best in social media pictures of your Butcher Box meals!
Here, we’re going to walk you through keeping your grill game on fire with a few steps and we’ll begin with the simplest of questions.
Doesn’t the grill clean itself?
Unfortunately, no. Your grill is not self-cleaning, but how cool would that be? The truth is, without proper care, it can end up with burnt on food, stray leaves, spider webs (eek!) rancid fats that can lead to unpleasant flare-ups and more. It’s up to you to make sure it’s in tip-top shape.
At the beginning of the season, you’re going to want to do an assessment and deep clean. This should take about 30 minutes and will set you up for a delicious summer. Pro-tip? Invest in a quality grill cover and make sure your grill is covered whenever it isn’t being used.
Time to gather your tools.
Like a chef with their mis en place, you’re going to need to gather your basic tools. These are the most effective items in your arsenal and should be in peak condition.
Look for a grill brush with a long, stay cool handle. This is your first and more important cleaning tool and you use it to get pretty much anything off of the grill grates that needs to go. Avoid brushes with wire bristles, which can come loose and end up in the food. (No thank you.) Your best options are brass or food grade plastic. Replace your grill brush annually, or at any sign of wearing down. A ball of foil and some tongs will also work in a pinch.
A scraper or is handy when things are really cooked on. A shorter handle means you can apply more pressure and really get results.
A trash bag or fire proof trash can with a lid for the ashes.
You’re going to also need food grade oil for your grates. Lightly oiled grates will prevent sticking and inhibit rust. You can use grill spray (but NEVER when the grill is hot), grill wipes or good ol’ canola.
Ready, set, clean!
Assuming you cleaned your grill last time you used it, (so you can focus on the fun part, the food!) all you need to do when staring a meal is to wipe the grate with a damp dishtowel then apply a light coat of oil with a paper towel.
Now you can fire it up. So easy, right? While the grates are heating up, keep the lid on an let anything singe off. That’s all you need to begin cooking.
When the cooking and eating is all over, it’s time for the important steps. Getting those grates in good shape and making sure the next time you’re outside, the grill is ready for action.
As the grill cools, get out your grill brush or curly steel scour pad and go to town, making sure to get off everything and anything that’s stuck on there.
If the grates still need a bit more attention, wait until everything is completely cooled, remove and soak in warm soapy water, (a big tub works here) or spray with a hose, then scrub, rinse, dry and replace. To be honest, I’ve become a fan tackling this task with Dawn Powerwash, but am also happy using Simple Green which is admittedly more eco-friendly. Let the grates dry while you assess if it it’s time to remove the ash.
A quick and important note: do not pour water on hot coals. Ever. It actually creates lye, which can cause chemical burns. Nobody wants that. It’s also the reason you never want your grill to get wet in the rain or from sprinklers. Another reason to invest in an grill cover, or to bring your cooled grill indoors.
To remove the ash wear gloves and maybe one of those masks you probably still have hanging around. (Why breath in soot?)
Use a hand broom, cordless vac or shop vac to get out as much ash as you can. Hose the grill down as best you can. Wearing gloves, go ahead and spray with your favorite non-toxic cleanser. Pay attention to the air damper, where grease can build up. If you can’t wait until the ash is completely cool when you can put it in a trash bag, you should invest in a fire-proof, lidded trash can that you can easily lift to dump out later. Pro tip? Don’t undertake this task on a windy day.
When the ash is dealt with, replace the grates and lightly oil.
You’re also going to want to clean the exterior:
Use a mild, non-toxic cleanser to wipe down the exterior of the grill as well. If there’s serious build up or being outdoors has wreaked havoc, try something like Barkeepers friend, making sure it is completely rinsed off and dried before you use the grill again. Put on that grill cover and start planning your next bbq.
Keep in mind, it’s a grill. It’s an outdoor cooking tool. It may not ever sparkle the way it did when it came out of the box, but it if it’s clean and debris free, you’ve done a good job.
Cleaning a propane grill?
Did you know propane grills are the most popular type of home grill? The simple ignition and multiple burner settings make it a versatile choice and it’s for sure less messy. Versus a charcoal grill, propane doesn’t get as hot, but we all know it gets the job done with ease.
For your propane grill, clean the grates as you did with the charcoal grill. If the hood/lid is in need of attention, clean it with warm soapy water or your spray cleanser.
Once in a while you’re going to need to do an inspection to keep things running smoothly too.
Turn the grill on and make sure none of the ports are clogged. Make a note of any that are, then turn off the grill and let it cool. When it is no longer hot, you can actually just stick a stiff piece of wire or even a cake tester into it to remove any gunk. Just be careful.
Should I clean a communal grill before I use it?
Yes! Absolutely. If you’re out in the park or at a campsite, being a good citizen means putting in the effort to clean the grill before and after using it just as you would at home.
Should I line my grill with foil?
This isn’t recommended.
How often should I deep clean my grill?
You can tell when it will need a deep clean, but a good rule of thumb is once or twice during grilling season and then when you’re putting it away for the year. If you grill year round, quarterly is best.
That’s about it. See, not a big deal. Your grill is your best outdoor tool, and should last a long, long time.
One last thought. I’m not trying to say you’re not a super star grill cleaning machine, but never forget, there are also alternatives to doing this yourself. Yippee! You can always rope in the teens (my go-to) or go big and call a professional grill cleaning service to come and do their thing. No shame in either of those ideas.
Rachael Narins is a classically trained chef, recipe developer and the author of two cookbooks
focusing on cast-iron. Her work can be seen in the L.A. Times, Simply Recipes, AllRecipes.com
and many other outlets. A lifelong resident of Los Angeles, Rachael is an avid food photographer and can be found posting pictures on Instagram when she isn’t cooking or working in her garden.