When you’re a kid, your dad’s advice sounds sagely and unimpeachable. When you’re an adult, well, things change.
This rings true especially in the realm of grilling advice, where shortcuts and mysticism are trusted as law, and “the way we always do it” reigns supreme. One summer long ago you may have learned the basics of grilling from your dad, which means it’s likely you’ve been subjected to such drivel. From the death of grill marks to the dangers posed by metal wire brushes, here’s all the stuff your dad taught you that you should unlearn ASAP.
Myth 1: Grill Marks Are a Good Thing
Sing it from the rooftops. Steaks, porkchops, chicken and anything else that goes on the grill is not bettered by lines. As leading internet grill sage Meathead Goldwyn writes, these marks represent “unfulfilled potential.” The marks show where the maillard reaction — that wonderful process that makes the sear so desirable — was and was not successful. A proper piece of grilled meat should be covered in maillard reaction, and it should be a uniform brownish color, not pitch black.
Myth 2: The More Smoke, the Better
Plumes of white-grey smoke is the sign of poor fire management, not good barbeque. That thick, cloudy smoke is the result of coals or wood that aren’t completing the combustion process in the fire, which causes the fuel to launch microparticles into the air and onto your food. This doesn’t taste like smoke, it tastes like burn. The salve is a hotter fire, which results in the whispy blue smoke pitmasters want.
Myth 3: You Don't Need a Meat Thermometer
The thermometer built into your grill’s hood — yes, even your super-expensive grill — is mostly useless. Brands don’t invest in quality thermometers, and, even if they did, it would cover the less useful half of temperature tracking on a grill. Unless you and your family are fond of undercooked meat, the internal temperature of a piece of protein will always be more important than the temperature on the interior of the grill. Get a temperature probe from Thermoworks or Lavatools and quit doing that thing where you touch the steak and then your thumb — it’s weird and ineffective.
Myth 4: PAM the Grates to Prevent Sticking
A common method to ensure food doesn’t stick to grates is to spray the burning-hot grates with Pam or wipe them down with an oily paper towel — this is folly. Oil applied to grates of a lit grill, unless the grill is operating at low temperature, will do nothing but burn. When the oil lands on the grate that has surpassed its smoke point (which are typically 400 and below), it instantly smokes up and carbonizes on the grates. This is more likely to make things stickier than they already were. The fix: oil the meat itself before placing on the grill.
Myth 5: BTUs Are Everything
BTUs are to grills what thread counts are to sheets — mostly bullshit. Short for British Thermal Unit, the BTU is a measure of the heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. BTU counts are plastered all over many gas grills, but the measurement has issues. For one, it’s typically measured at the grill’s maximum output, which is not how we use grills at home. In the grilling world, it’s also more of a measure of how much fuel a grill burns to raise the temperature, which means a highly inefficient, fuel-eating grill can earn a massive BTU count. Instead of BTUs, ask for maximum temperature when shopping for natural gas or propane grills.
Myth 6: Just Use Lighter Fluid
Google “lighter fluid health concerns” to get a taste of what comes with your need for a faster fire. Plus, there’s an option that’s nearly as quick, and comes with less potential for actual explosions — charcoal chimneys. Coals in the top, paper in the bottom and a lighter is all that’s needed to get coals ready to grill with in 10 minutes or less. Plus, it doesn’t smell as bad.
Myth 7: Use a Wire Brush to Clean the Grates
Though it’s been reported on over and over again, it bears repeating: metal wire grill brushes can be dangerous. The bristles may dislodge from the brush, wedge themself in the grate and enter the food on the grill. This can result in a trip to the hospital at worst and significant pain at a minimum. A common hack to avoid using the brush is to crumple up a ball of aluminum foil tightly and scrub the grates (with a gloves hand) until clean. It’s best to do this before the grill has come to temperature.
Myth 8: Soak Your Wood Chips
Think about why your dad told you to soak wood chips (or, heaven forbid, logs of wood) before grilling — “it keeps them lit longer.” I mean, technically? The wet wood can’t smoke, which is what it’s there for, until it rids itself of the water that’s covering it. That smoke that comes off the wet chips when you throw them on hot coals? That’s steam, and you just significantly lowered the temperature of your coals, which can create problems addressed in the Myth 1 section above. If you’re worried about wood burning too fast, place it around the edge of your coal bed. Just don’t soak it.
Myth 9: Keep a Cup of Water Around for Flare-Ups
Applied by a spray bottle or dumped from a cup, water is not the solution to large flare-ups. Water serves only to spread the burning fat — the cause of the flare-up — around the grates and coalbed. That’s problematic for the same reason water doesn’t smother a grease fire in the kitchen, but water also creates huge plumes of charcoal dust which can coat your food and create undesirable flavors. Instead of panicking, close the lid and the vents. Fire feeds off oxygen first and foremost, so cutting off the supply will dull the flame.