We’re now at the start of the very best time of year for those, like me, who love to eat outdoors. For me there’s nothing better than taking the cover off my BBQ on a sunny day and firing it up to cook delicious meat, fish and vegetables, before consuming them with friends and family.
Throw in a selection of cool beverages, some good tunes streaming over my portable Bluetooth speaker and a selection of Cornettos ready to go in the freezer for dessert and I consider that a pretty much perfect way to while away a day in the sun.
But, unfortunately, that idyllic day can be spoiled if the main event, the grilling on the barbie, falls flat. And, trust me, after spending years curating T3’s best BBQ buying guide, among other grill-related content, I’ve learned the hard way that there are many ways you can mess up a BBQ. Just as there are many mistakes to make when mowing your lawn.
As such, right here I list the 6 biggest BBQ mistakes that I commonly see people make so that, when you get grilling, you don’t.
1. Winding up your grill too late
I’ve used and tested numerous charcoal, gas and pellet BBQ grills (the most recent was detailed in my Traeger Ironwood 650 review) and one of the biggest mistakes I see people make, regardless of what type of grill they own, is that they conflate the time they want to eat with the time they start the BBQ process.
As in many things, preparation is key to a great BBQ, but you need to have your timings well learned and locked in to deliver food at a set time – something which gets even more crucial when you’re cooking for large groups of people.
Remember, there’s actually three stages that lead up to food being served from a grill, and they all take time. There’s the physical setup time (getting the grill out, hooking up its power/fuel, getting its implements, cleaning it if you’ve been bad and left it dirty), the pre-heating process to get the grill up to temperature (this varies dramatically between charcoal, gas and pellet fuel types) and then there’s the actual cooking time of the food.
But the amount of times I’ve gone round to a friend’s house or public grill for lunch only to then wait hours for food as the grilling procedure was started too late, or because the capacity of the grill wasn’t considered (with multiple cooking sessions needed to feed everyone), is really quite scary. And, let me tell you, when you can see and smell juicy burgers and ribs but can’t get any it doesn’t leave you in a good mood.
As such, if you’re hosting a BBQ and the grill master, make sure you start the grilling setup with plenty of time before the ideal eating window. Gas grills are the fastest to get to cooking temperatures, while charcoal are the slowest, with pellet grills sitting in-between. Also, consider your grill’s capacity – as if you can only cook a few burgers and sausages at one time then you’re going to want to have some already ready to go and keeping warm on the warming shelf, with the second round already cooking, when your guests arrive.
2. Not pre-heating the grill properly
Next up we have something that I see a lot on both gas and charcoal grills especially. It’s the classic, “oh, I can feel some right heat coming off that BBQ, right guys it’s time to bang the food on the grill immediately. But, oh no! All my food has immediately stuck to the grill and now when I’ and come to first turn it it has fallen apart and torn so it looks awful.”
To be very clear, just because you can feel heat coming off the grill doesn’t mean the cooking grill is up to temperature. A properly heated grill will not only massively reduce the amount of food sticks to it, but also leaves the grill-master’s desired grill marks on the food. Covering your grill for 10-15 minutes before putting food on it will ensure a properly heated grill, and optimally cooked food.
Basically, don’t rush. Again, this leads back into point one, being properly prepared.
3. Playing fast and loose with lighter fluid
Oh caramba! This may be the most schoolboy mistake I commonly see people make when cooking on charcoal. We’ve all seen it at some point or other right? The grill “master” who, after dragging out their rusty and dirty kettle drum proceeds to empty a bag of charcoal and fire lighters into it and then literally drowned them in lighter fluid, with huge bursts of flame then coming every 30 seconds as they keep dousing the fuel in even more lighter fluid, which inevitably happens many times as they desperately try to keep the BBQ lit and increase the speed in which the charcoal turns to gray and is ready for cooking on.
Not only is this way of grilling woefully inefficient but it also just means that anything then cooked on said grill comes with the delicious aftertaste of chemical gas, with the coals infusing the taste of lighter fluid into everything. Just awful.
As such, remember that fluid lighter needs to be used (if at all!) very sparingly, and only when you’re first starting a charcoal grill’s burn.
4. Grilling with the lid up or opening too much
Another super simple mistake I see people make, on charcoal, pellet and the best gas BBQs, is that for the look of the thing, or because of their rumbling tummies, they either cook with their BBQ lid open or keep opening it and closing it every 30 seconds. This is a big mistake.
Keeping the lid closed on a barbeque grill means the temperature is controlled and also helps circulate the smoke, helping to infuse your food with delicious BBQ flavor. Keeping the lid shut also helps retain moisture in the food, leading to it being juicer and tastier when ready to eat. Oh, and food also cooks faster with the lid shut, too, so in gazing at it regularly you’re actually pushing the time you can eat it further and further away.
I get it, the temptation is to see the flames and food cooking as it looks good, but acids from when you turn produce on the grill or add or remove it, leave the lid shut as much as you possibly can. And, yes, this is just as important on the best portable BBQs, too.
5. Cooking direct when indirect could work better
Another mistake I see grillers make is cooking everything, no matter what it is, direct. The direct cooking method is where you place food directly over the heat source, and is the most obvious and simple way to grill. It’s the fastest way to BBQ produce, too. If you want to cook burgers fast then it’s great, for example.
However, adopting an indirect cooking method, where food is not placed directly over the heat source but next to it, so that the food cooks indirectly from heat circulating within the grill, is more optimal for many things, too. For example, if you’re roasting large chunks of meat or cooking whole birds, where a slower less direct cook leads to more flavorful, juicy meat. Some vegetables and fish cook best this way, too.
Of course, you can also mix direct and indirect cooking methods, too, which I find works best with things like chunky slabs of meat like loins and thick steaks, as well as sausage rings.
6. Never making use of a meat thermometer
Finally, we’ve got what I personally consider to be a classic mistake – not buying or using one of the best meat thermometers while grilling. Meat thermometers let you instantly get accurate temperature readings of your food when on the BBQ, even in their invisible centers, which is crucial to accurately cook things like steaks.
Meat thermometers cost hardly anything, too, and as you can probe a piece of food’s interior without cutting it open, you get to retain the juice and the look of it when plating up. With a meat thermometer it is basically impossible to undercook something, too.
Many advanced BBQs may even come with a plug-in meat thermometer in the box, so make sure you use it.