Here we are, right at the beginning of barbecue season with nowhere to go but outside. In some places, it’s definitely summer weather while in others, you’re probably just now pulling the cover off for the first or second time, visions of amazing cuts of steak dancing in your head.
If you’re going to use your grill a lot, you’re also going to clean it regularly, right? And of course you will periodically check the connections on the gas line for leaks, yes? And you’ll always dump the ashes from of your charcoal grill into an all-metal receptacle, correct?
Good grilling habits go beyond masterful marinades and deft burger flips. If you want to use your grill well, you need to use it safely. With occasional cleaning and inspection, as well as the use of the proper tools for ignition, charcoal management, and food prep (with a side dish of common sense), grilling safety is no big deal. But because a grilling accident can lead to potentially serious injury or property damage, I went ahead and consulted the experts anyway.
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Peter Duncanson is a disaster restoration expert from ServiceMaster Restore, a company that offers specialty restoration and cleaning services that mitigate the effects of catastrophic events like home fires, flooding, and other such stuff you really hope never happens. With any luck, following Duncanson’s advice means you’ll never have to hire his company.
Duncanson started off with some basic but essential advice: “Set your grill up a safe distance away from structures and overhangs, including your main building, shed, garage, trees, and other potentially flammable objects.” The obvious issue here is fire, but he went on to explain that grilling under low awnings or in any sort of closed space is also a danger as it can “potentially cause carbon monoxide poisoning.”
Even if you’re not grilling underneath an overhang, tree branches, or a structure, make sure not to grill too near anything else, either. The heat radiating off grills can easily melt vinyl siding, stain bricks, scorch shingles, or even ignite certain building materials. And of course, grill heat and sparks can ignite shrubs, leaves, trees, and so forth.
If you are using a gas grill with a built-in ignition system, “open the lid before lighting the grill,” says Duncanson. “This allows oxygen to escape and reduces the risk of fire or even explosion.” If you’re lighting a gas grill with matches or a lighter, ignite the source of flame before turning on the flow of gas, so you minimize the excess of gas drifting around just waiting to combust.
For a charcoal grill, Duncanson advises that you “only add enough charcoal to cover the bottom of the grill. Don’t pile too much inside since it could cause ashes and sparks to become airborne, possibly catching nearby objects or even your home on fire.” If you start your briquettes using a charcoal chimney starter, you should first fill the grill bottom to see how many you need to use in case the chimney holds more charcoal than required for safe grilling.
As fun as spraying lighter fluid onto a hot grill may sound, “apply it to cold coals only, and don’t add extra fluid once the grill is lit.” Spraying this highly flammable fluid onto flames is one of the absolute best ways to end up in the ER or renting a motel room for a while as the insurance company sifts through the smoldering ashes of your home.
You should really “never leave an actively burning grill unattended,” Duncanson cautions. Even once the active cooking session is done, your grill is still a potential liability until its 100% cooled. Thus, it’s important to “let your grill fully cool before you cover or store it” and to check that charcoal ash is completely extinguished before disposal.
And as hot embers can hide within the ash, even once you think all the heat is gone, “it’s best to dump them on garden soil or contain them in a metal receptacle for proper disposal.”
A clean grill performs better in every aspect, cooking tastier foods and doing so more quickly while affording you better control of the heat, too. Clean grills are also much safer than dirty grills, as the residue and food bits built up over time can combust, flare up, create sparks, and drip burning hot grease, just to name a few of the unpleasant possibilities created by grimy grills.
I use CLR BBQ Grill Cleaner spray and a Grill Daddy Brush for routine grill cleaning, then I turn to a good ol’ when it’s time to disassemble and scour the heat plates, burners, and all that fun stuff. (Actually, it’s not very much fun, but it’s better than flames in the face as an old gob of cheese grease flares up.) Clean your grill grates while they’re hot and the rest when it’s not. Obviously.
You should also routinely inspect your gas grill for leaks, especially if you see diminished performance from any of the burners or smell gas after turning the valve connected to your tank or hardline but before turning the knobs for the burners. You can create a soapy solution using water and dish detergent that will bubble up and reveal leaks when brushed over valves and gas lines. “If you see bubbles emerge, there could be a leak somewhere. Replace any damaged/leaking parts and make any other needed repairs before using the grill,” says Duncanson.
Just don’t grill drunk, bro. See that Goose Island Four Star Pils I’m sipping as I expertly man my grill on the 4th of July in the top photo? Oh, I had a few beers that day, sure. But only one while I was manning the flames.
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