Ready, Set, Grill

Prepping your grill for a long, tasty season

Today's article is a bit of an anomaly for these pages: it speaks neither of wine nor food, but rather of a very important tool: the grill.
The idea of grilling season may be somewhat limited on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level, breaking out the grill for the first time can elicit the same joy that the first daffodils and crocus blossoms can. For me it goes even deeper. When I was a young child I walked to school, and home for lunch. I can still vividly remember the first day each year when it was too warm for a jacket on my way back to school after lunch. Exhilaration, that's what I felt, knowing that spring, and soon after, summer, was finally arriving.
Fast forward 40 years. Wow, that's a phrase that hurts. Perhaps it's the weather changing, or the fact that I don't walk home for lunch everyday at a predetermined hour, but breaking out the grill has replaced that walk back to school for me, implying so much more to my (sadly more complex) adult brain. Along with warmer weather, and air conditioning bills, I'm going to start drinking light white wines and rosés again! Call it sad, but when it's cold I stick to heavier reds, and as soon as it warms up, a switch is flipped in my mind, opening it once again to myriad possibilities.
Now is the time for Vermentino, Grüner Veltliner, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Blanc. Tomorrow will be the day that we start testing out the newest crop of Roses, Next week we might be moving on to light Barberas, Schiavas, and Pinot Noirs that are perfect served with a slight chill.  While on its face it may seem silly that in my mind there are wine seasons, that's the way things have panned out. Even sillier perhaps is that there is some external trigger that causes the change of seasons, but there is, which brings us back to the grill.
In addition to having a complex adult brain, I have an exceptionally well-honed ability to procrastinate, leaving the cleanup of my last mess until tomorrow. In the case of my grill, that last mess was created in October of last year, and tomorrow has just arrived. So follow along with me as I go through a few basic steps of grill cleaning and maintenance, all in preparation for a slew of wine and grilled food pairings to come.
Step One: Pop the Top
Not you, just the grill. You really need to clean your entire grill, not just the grate where food comes in contact with the heat. A dirty grill can contribute off flavors to grilled food, but more importantly, you could be creating an uneven heating pattern across your grilling surface—which is why your burnt chicken is also raw. Now we don't want that, do we?
Begin by laying a tarp on the ground, and then place your grill over the tarp. Trust me, you'll be happy you did when it comes time to do away with all the crud you’ll be flushing from the grill innards.
Start by removing your grilling surface and inspecting its condition. There are four basic types of grilling surfaces, each with their own issues:

For me, there’s nothing better than a simple heavy gauge stainless steel grid grill. Because of its thick bars, you get good support for your food, good heat transfer from the grill to your food (making it easy to mark), and superior ease of cleanup. If you have a stainless steel grid grill, your clean up should be as simple as applying some cleaning solution. I use Simple Green, letting it soak into any accumulated debris on the grill. A bit of attention with a stainless steel sponge, followed by a thorough rinse and your grill, and it should be as good as new.
Porcelain covered shell bars run a close second to a stainless steel grid grill, with the cleanup being much the same (as in easy), as porcelain is the original non-stick surface. When cleaning a porcelain covered grill, you should be on the lookout for chips to the surface that expose the underlying steer. That steer is going to cause you problems, namely rusting and sticking to food. If there are just a few chips in the porcelain bars, try positioning the grill so the chips are not in the most frequently used part of the grill. But if the chips are significant, and in general small chips will grow over time, then it's probably time to consider replacing the grilling surface on your grill.

Some newer grills have rather flashy bent stainless steel grills, or grilling sheets. I've found these to be barely satisfactory in distributing heat and rather labor intensive to clean. Having a grilling sheet to use with small or delicate items such as vegetables or shrimp, for example, makes a ton of sense. But relying on them for all your grilling needs does not give you the best results.
And finally there are the tried and true iron grills. Prone to rust and the pitting that accompanies rust, iron is not an ideal surface for grilling. If you are totally meticulous about grill maintenance, it can be quite a good grilling surface—but who among us wants to be so meticulous? After all, isn't part the appeal of grilling the ease of cleanup? If you have iron grills and they are in good shape, you might want to soak them in a cleaning solution before giving them a vigorous scrubbing with a wire brush in order to get them ready for the season, making sure to dry the grates to prevent rusting.

Step Two: Break Down
Once you have your grills taken care of, it's time to focus on the guts of your system, and for the sake of this chapter I am assuming we're dealing with a gas grill. (If you have a charcoal grill, you can skip these steps and just continue with Step Four below.) Gas grills come in many shapes and sizes, but they all tend to share certain elements, mainly a gas distribution manifold and some form of heat diffuser. In order for your grill to work properly, both elements need regular cleaning and maintenance.
With your grilling surface removed, you should be face to face with your heat diffuser. Common diffusers you might encounter include lava rocks, bent metal sheets, and perforated metal sheets. All three serve much the same function—preventing or limiting flare-ups and trying to evenly distribute the heat flowing from the gas jets of your grill—and all three fail to a certain extent. I prefer lava rocks for my grill, though they are becoming less common. Obviously there is little you can do to clean your lava rocks, other than giving them a good soak in water and tumbling them around a bit in order to loosen and remove as much burn-on debris as possible. But as far as heat diffusion goes, I find lava rocks to be the best choice.

There are two reasons for this. The first, unsurprisingly, lava tends to get hot and radiate heat. Given time to warm up, you can get a relatively even level of heating throughout a layer of lava rocks. The second rationale for lava rocks is they’re totally adjustable. The main problem with gas grills is that the underlying distribution manifolds tend to be irregular at best, creating hot spots on your grill. By adjusting your lava rocks, you have and added tool helping you tweak heat distribution in your grill. 

The one drawback to using lava rocks in your grill is that they can absorb dripped fat and debris, potentially causing the very flare-ups you are hoping to minimize through their use. I've found that a bit of maintenance, like keeping the heat on after you're done cooking, generally helps cook out any fat accumulated during use. 
Both bent metal sheets and perforated metal sheets share a certain set of issues when it comes to their use as heat diffusers, even though they have become the industry standards. The first is they’re not adjustable, so while they tend to mitigate uneven heat distribution, they really can't be made to compensate for it in the same way lava rocks can.  When it comes to flare-ups, the bent metal sheets, which generally just cover the flame pattern of your grill, allow a significant amount of fat to drip past the flames, reducing the potential for flare-ups. However, the fat that does drip on the sheets, both bent and perforated, either flares up or burns up, leaving a hard-to-clean and kind of stinky residue, another factor you should consider while cleaning your grill.
I've read that you should never replace these metal grills with lava rocks, but I've done it twice with great success. It does require the addition of a support structure for the lava rocks, which may not be easy to fabricate, but the results convince me that it’s worth the effort. 
No matter what type of heat diffuser you have in your grill, it needs to come out and be thoroughly scrubbed down. A soak in a little cleaning solution, and some serious elbow grease, may very well be required. But in keeping everything clean, you’re eliminating the potential for off flavors in your grilled foods. 
Step Three: Get the Jets Out
The last piece of the puzzle (for gas grillers, anyway) is the gas distribution system. This is where many of the issues with gas grills originate. If your gas distribution is uneven, there's little you can do to fix it, so take the time to get things right. Remove the gas distribution manifolds and clean them gently with a wire brush, making sure all the jets (the holes where gas comes out) are clean and obstruction-free. In some cases, it's worth soaking the manifolds in cleaning solution before brushing them, remembering to rinse and dry them thoroughly before reassembling your grill. 
Be very careful when disassembling and reassembling your gas distribution system. Even having a slight tilt to a manifold will significantly alter the distribution of gas and resulting flame pattern of your grill, and sadly the only true test of your reassembly skills happens once everything is put back together. So unless you want to become a master of grill disassembly and assembly, be slow and methodical here. 
You should now have an empty grill frame in front of you, a great opportunity to scrape down, brush out and hose down your grill to help keep it working properly for a long time. Make sure to get into the corners and remove any accumulation of debris that could cause headaches down the road. Once you're finished cleaning your grill frame, make sure to let it dry before beginning reassembly.
Step Four: Test Your Toast
It's the moment of truth. First you have to remember exactly how all your pieces go back together, and then you'll need to hope you did everything correctly. Here's an easy way to find out. Cover your grilling surface with slices of white bread. Turn the grill on high and let it heat up for a few minutes, then turn the heat off. You'll be able to see how evenly or unevenly your grill is heating by looking at the patterns on the toast. Hot spots will be burnt while cool spots might still be untested. It's not a perfect test, but as close to perfect as you're likely to ever need!
Assuming your toast-test went well, congratulations! You should be ready to grill now, or, if you're doing it right, ready to store your grill for next year. Most of you might be playing catch-up, but emember to clean your grill at the end of the season so that next year, you’re ready to fire it up just as soon as the grilling bug hits. And remember that regular maintenance will make your annual cleanup easier. Each time you've finished grilling, let the grill continue to run for a few minutes to burn off debris, and then brush down your grill with a grill brush. You never know when you might need an emergency grilling session, and it's better to put in a little extra cleanup each time than risk grilling up a sorry, crusty burger.

Mentioned in this article


  • I have a gas unit installed in my barbecue island. My unit does have lava briquettes and I love them. I use a lot of different woods for smoking while barbecuing. I put a hunk of quarter inch mesh hardware cloth on top of the briquettes for the small chunks of smoking wood and the results are amazing.I keep a squirt bottle of water at hand in case of flair ups. When I'm done cooking, I have empty soup size cans stored under my unit, that I just add water to to extinguish the smoking wood and that way I have some chunks ready for the next event. I use chunks instead of chips as they are much easier to control.

    Apr 12, 2013 at 1:59 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 204,611

    Awesome tips Mayor. Are you grilling yet?

    Apr 12, 2013 at 3:23 PM

  • Mayor....if you're using chunks, try soaking them for about an hour before use.....they'll smoke better and tend not to flare.

    Apr 12, 2013 at 3:57 PM

  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 2,876

    Steve Raichlen's line about flare-ups rings true to me: Don't spray, move the offending party. The fat dripping into the fire is the problem, and spraying doesn't solve it--just move the meat aside.

    Apr 12, 2013 at 5:11 PM

  • Snooth User: Kathleen Pileggi
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    702685 160

    Even though we live in the northeast/mid-atlantic, we tend to grill all year round (or at least sneak it in on a few of the "not so cold" days of the winter. But, as said, nothing like grilling for the first time in the warmer spring weather!

    Apr 12, 2013 at 6:05 PM

  • I am very fortunate as I live in phoenix, AZ and can grill the year round!

    Apr 12, 2013 at 11:00 PM

  • Snooth User: Steve Panza
    1257078 13

    Your grill has been idle since October? Shame! Every day is a good day to grill. When I was living in Indiana my neighbors probably thought I was nuts to be outside in a blizzard, wearing a parka and bare foot with shorts, smoking or grilling. The colder it is outside, the better it tastes.

    Apr 12, 2013 at 11:03 PM

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