Cooking food over an open flame is probably one of the oldest culinary techniques, and while cave dwellers didn’t worry about keeping their fire pits clean, modern humans do.
Maintaining a barbecue grill, whether charcoal or gas, doesn’t take a lot of effort, but it is important to clean the grill to keep it in top shape.
The biggest part of keeping a grill neat is to make sure the cooking surface is clean. The best way to do that is to crank up the heat and let the grates get very hot before grilling, said chef Howie Velie, associate dean of culinary specialization at The Culinary Institute of America.
“I just try to get the grill hotter than blazes. That char, all the little fat clingers, all those little bits, the skin from chicken, burns to a crisp and is easier to scrape off. By building a hot fire, you also prime the grill (to get) ready to cook on,” he said.
For an electric grill, that means turning the burners to high, closing the top and letting them go for about 15 minutes. For a charcoal grill, add enough charcoal to reach the intensely hot temperature, Velie said.
“Once those coals reach whitish-gray, then you have a good moderate surface to cook on,” he said.
Then use a wire brush to scrape off the residue, Velie said.
Velie said pitmasters don’t need to buy dedicated, pricey barbecue wire brushes. Instead, he gets his wire brushes at hardware stores, usually in the plumbing aisle, which stocks brushes to scrape metal.
“It’s much cheaper than buying those brushes with the little leather strings attached,” he said.
Chef Ben Ford, owner of the Los Angeles-based restaurant Ford’s Filling Station and author of “Taming the Feast,” said an alternative to using a wire brush is to crumble up a piece of aluminum foil and scrape the grates. He said grillmasters can also rub a half of an onion or lemon on the grates when hot and then follow with the wire brush or foil.
For really crusty grates, another cleaning method is to mix three cups of ammonia and white vinegar with one cup of baking soda. Place the mix in a plastic bag with the grates in the sun for 24 hours, said Maxwell Ryan, chief executive officer and founder of Apartment Therapy. Afterward, rinse off the solution, he said.
Electric grill grates usually don’t get as dirty as those in a charcoal grill, Ryan said, because they often have a nonstick coating on them.
“If they require more intense cleaning after the fact, you can disassemble the grates, soak for 30 minutes in hot, soapy water first, and then scrub,” he said.
Bryan Weinstein, founder and chief executive officer of Bar-B-Clean, said cooks should flip the grates after several uses to scrape any possible gunk off the underside too.
After grates are cleaned, priming the grates with oil will help keep food from sticking to them in the first place, Velie said, and help with post-cooking cleanup. Saucy food, though, will always leave more of a mess, he added.
Cooks should also give the grates a scrub immediately after grilling if possible, to help loosen stuck-on food. That’s not always possible, especially when cooking for a crowd, which is why the chefs recommend always cleaning the grates at the onset of grilling.
The base of charcoal grills will get an ash buildup after cooking, and Velie said ash removal needs to be done only after a few sessions.
“I let it go for two or three weeks before throwing it out. It doesn’t have to be pristine, especially if the grill is outside,” he said.
The lid on a charcoal grill only needs an occasional cleaning, he said, and it can be hosed down while hot.
Electric grills need a little more maintenance, Weinstein said. While it’s easy to get to the bottom of a charcoal grill, most home cooks don’t think about cleaning the entirety of their electric grills. Food particles and grease can fall beneath the grates, under the heat plates and by the burners, and build up.
These grills can be taken apart and the individual components cleaned as the parts usually pop in and out, but Weinstein said that because it’s such a mess, most people don’t do it.
“It shouldn’t be that scary, other than the fact that it’s filthy,” he said.
But there’s a good reason to check the entire electric grill once in a while, especially if it’s an upscale built-in model.
“If you haven’t had a grill cleaned in the last six months, there’s a good chance that rats and mice or other rodents have snacked on those (food) droppings inside,” he said.
Charcoal grills are different because the ash is thrown out and there aren’t any hidden food particles, he said.
Nesting rodents can leave their own droppings and can chew on the wires of the igniters, he said. A lot of times these critters will live under the burners. “It’s a nice comfy spot. It’s like going to sleep in a buffet for them,” he said.
One sign of rodents making a home in an electric grill is the appearance of snails in the grill.
“It’s not because the snails crawl up there; it’s because a rat has likely brought it up in there for dinner,” Weinstein said.
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