Last Updated on May 20, 2020
It seems easy. Light grill, throw meat on the grill, wait, and eat.
As a species, we’ve been cooking with fire for more than 20,000 years—although Neanderthals may have been using hearths to cook as far back as 400,000 years ago and Homo erectus likely cooked food 250,000 years back. But just because we are practiced at the art of the grill doesn’t mean we have perfected the process.
The science of grilling is one that has to be honed over time. Experience, you see breeds master grillers.
The proof: Far too many of us make the same common mistakes — over and over — when we light up the grill or fire up the charcoals. But don’t fret, we’d love to help you avoid some of the more common pitfalls amateur chefs make all the time. And we have our Head ButcherBox Chef, Yankel Polak, to share his grilling wisdom.
Here are the most common grilling mistakes and the ways to avoid making them yourself.
Not Using a Hot Grill
The key to any great grilling experience is lighting the grill correctly and giving it time to warm up.
First, if you are using a gas grill, you shouldn’t have too much trouble starting your grill as most modern grills include starters. However, you must make sure that once you turn the gas on, that the grill cover is open. There have been numerous accidents caused by people lighting grills incorrectly. Also, only light one burner to start. For good measure, if you are using a gas grill, it is a good idea to make sure it is not too close to a house or anything else that is either flammable or could melt.
I know this seems obvious, but a quick tour through YouTube will show the widespread prevalence of grill starting mistakes.
If you are using a charcoal grill there are specific simple steps to follow as well. And you need to make some important decisions about the type of charcoal to use, whether or not to use a chimney, and how to arrange the coals.
Chef Yankel likes to use a combination of charcoal briquettes and wood. However, he does not suggest using lighter fluid because it ruins the taste of the food. His solution: Use a small blowtorch.
Especially if you are using a charcoal grill, you will want to create two temperature zones. One hot area to sear and cook directly and one to cook longer and through indirect heat.
Too often, when grilling a steak, people throw raw meat on a grill that isn’t even close to ready. The results of this error can range from uneven cooking to prolonged cooking times to poorly charred steaks. A properly heated grill should be about 500°F. A good rule of thumb is that if you can keep your hand a few inches above the grill for a few seconds, it is not ready yet. If you are using charcoals, the grill is hot enough to cook on when they are all grey.
Cooking on a grill that hasn’t reached a good temperature can cause the greatest damage when cooking any kind of ground beef. If you like your burgers mangled and your grill covered in burnt beef, go ahead and light the grill and throw the burgers on immediately. Otherwise, heat your grill for 10 to 15 minutes to warm up before adding meat.
Cooking Meat to the Wrong Temperature
Getting the perfect grilled T-bone steak or filet mignon is all about making sure it cooks evenly. There are steps involved in making that happen.
One of the first things to do is to give a raw steak some time between taking it out of the refrigerator and throwing it on the cooking surface. Although not everyone agrees that this tactic is necessary, most chefs believe this allows for a more evenly-cooked steak. If you are cooking pork chops, they too can benefit from getting close to room temperature before grilling.
However, you should not let chicken or fish warm before cooking; they should remain chilled until it is time to cook.
There are many debates about cooking frozen meat. Conventional wisdom holds that it is ideal to let meat thaw before cooking, but experiments with cooking frozen meats have shown that there is often no difference in the results from doing this.
It will, however, take a lot more time to cook a frozen steak or chicken breast to your preferred level of doneness. So be prepared to wait a bit if you are throwing some frozen sausages or flank steaks on a grill.
Drying Out Tender Meat, Also Known as Overcooking Your Steak
While they may look cool on cooking shows or beer commercials, grill flare-ups are not good for cooking quality food.
There are many issues that cause flare-ups, but mostly it is caused by excess oil from marinades or fat dripping coming off of the food.
When the flare-ups occur they can lead to overheating and can ruin a steak. There are many tactics to avoid flare-ups. Chef Yankel likes to avoid putting oil on food and instead soaks a rag in olive oil and runs it over the grill before adding steak, chicken, or pork.
When you do have a flare-up, it is best to move the steak to another part of the grill. No one wants tender steak tips, a juicy pork chop, or barbecue chicken that has been charred to a crisp by being cooked in flare-up flames.
This brings us to one of the silliest error people often make when cooking meat on the grill: Pressing down on the meat to cook faster.
If for some reason you think that a grill with flames shooting every which way is the proper way to cook, you also likely push down on steaks or burgers to make flare-up happen. What actually occurs is that the natural juices that the meat should be cooking in are being pushed out of the cut of steak or burger.
What you will end up with is a completely dried out hunk of overly well-done and tasteless meat. Why ruin a beautiful New York strip steak.
One great way to get a perfect steak on a charcoal grill is to sear or reverse-sear it with two heat zones. Chef Yankel has experimented with both ways of cooking steak on a grill—cooking on indirect heat to the ideal temperature then searing on the hotter heat source versus searing first on high heat, then finishing on indirect heat. He found that searing first created a more crispy outer edge of the grass-fed ribeye steaks he used while cooking on indirect heat and then sear-finishing led to a more evenly distributed level of doneness—medium-rare, of course—across the surface area of the ribeye.
If you heed these warnings and let your meat just cook without interference, you will probably want to make sure the steak is cooked to the proper doneness. The best way to make sure you’ve properly cooked your meat is by using a meat thermometer to gauge the internal temperature — our favorite is the Thermapen instant-read thermometer.
You can also check out our guide for the proper cooking temperatures for different kinds of meat for reference.
Errors After Grilling
So let’s say you’ve made it this far, congrats. Now comes the hardest part, as the late Tom Petty once sang: The waiting.
Chicken, beef, and pork all benefit from rest after being cooked on a grill. Letting meat rest for eight to ten minutes on a cutting board allows the natural juices inside to be better distributed.
However, one important thing to know is that beef will continue to cook for a bit after it is removed from a hot cooking surface. So if you would like a medium-rare steak, which is done at an internal temperature of 135°F, the American Grassfed Association recommends removing the beef when it is five to ten degrees cooler than the doneness temperature you are seeking. This is also true of burgers, however, ground beef has its own recommended temperature levels, so be aware of that slight difference.
Lastly, and we can’t say this enough, make sure you don’t ruin your steak by slicing it wrong. A steak will taste so much better and more tender if you cut against the grain. This is especially true for flank steak, skirt steak, and hanger steak.
Next time you get behind the grill, spatula in hand, we hope this has helped you be a more confident chef. Let us know if we missed any more mistakes that can be made when grilling a steak, chicken, pork, burgers or anything else.
Dennis Keohane is the Editorial Director for ButcherBox.