Don't bungle your burgers, don't screw up your steak
July 4th, 2012
02:45 PM ET
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We've all seen, smelled, eaten and regretted some mighty bad grilling mishaps over the years, and it's always such a shame. The meat is juuust a little overdone, under-seasoned, inedibly dry, or even reeking of creepy chemicals. With just a few tweaks, dinner would have been a winner.

This will not happen again. Not on our watch. Here is some of our best advice over the past two years.

From "Five most common grilling mistakes and how to fix 'em: John Stage"

Marinade mistake

"If you use a marinade, always be sure to pat your meat dry once you’ve removed it from the marinade. If marinated appropriately, the marinade will have already penetrated the meat with its flavor, sealing it inside. If the meat is too wet, you will create a steam effect and negate your grill efforts, not achieving that desired golden color.

Regarding marinade time frames, fish and shrimp need the least amount of time, about 1 to 2 hours, while beef, pork and chicken take longer, anywhere from 4 to 12 to 24 hours, depending on the cut. Place meat and marinade in a plastic Ziploc bag (with air removed) in the fridge."

Raise up the flavor

"In order to build layers of flavor in your meat, always start with a rub and finish with a good BBQ sauce. For a basic rub, I use a combination of salt, pepper, paprika, chili powder, brown sugar, garlic and onion powders, but use your imagination and be inventive with additional add-ins. When the meat’s near done, the rub gives the BBQ sauce something to stick to, bringing out the flavor.

Always use the BBQ sauce towards the end of grilling, during the last 10 to 20 minutes, as BBQ sauces often have high sugar content, some more than others, and will burn off before your meat is done.

For a quick homemade BBQ sauce, grab some ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar, mustard and honey – this combination will give you a sweet/savory/sour flavor combination."

From "An open letter to my neighbors who are very bad at grilling"

What's that stench from the other side of the fence?

You're globbing on sweet, bottled barbecue sauce at the beginning, rather than daubing it on – sparingly – at the end. The sugars in that stuff burn quickly and start to smoke. It smells like brimstone and tastes even worse.

Maybe you're using those awful little smoke pellets impregnated with microscopic shavings of "real wood" for an "authentic smoke flavor." Know what also brings great smoke flavor? Real wood. You can soak chunks and chips of hickory, mesquite or fruit wood in water or a bit of beer and fold them into a perforated foil pouch instead of setting toxic-smelling little chunks of chemicals on fire next to food you will be serving to people you love.

From "Red-hot grilling tips from Eatocracy readers"

Get the gunk off

A couple of years ago I came across this tip, and it works like a charm every time. Once the grate is cool, wrap it in newspapers or paper towels that have been soaked in hot water with a healthy dose of a grease cutting detergent, Put the grate in a plastic garbage bag so the papers don't dry out, and leave it overnight.

The next day, more hot soapy water and little steel wool cleans everything right up in just a few minutes. Rinse well and let air dry, and then you're good to go the next time around. It make take a little longer if you wait several days, or it's been a while since the grate got a thorough cleaning. –Chris in New Mexico

Better beef makes a better burger

The type of beef itself is worth paying attention to first, i.e. 20-30% fat and grass-fed for burgers.

Outside of burning or overcooking the beef, what influences the flavor and texture (and whether you like the steak or not) more than anything is the origin of the beef – the specific farm, breed, growing region, diet, aging time and technique, and the talent of those who raise and age it.

I used to blame myself for a crappy tasting steak. Nowadays, I know better. The steak or burger from one farm might appeal to me more than that from others. It's a matter or personal preference. If you want to have a reasonably consistent, pleasant beef experience it's important to know who raised & aged it and how. If you find one you really like, you can stock up the freezer with more. - Carrie Oliver

Smoke is no joke

When it comes to grilling I prefer to use chips that are not wet. Yes, wet chips do last longer but not by that much. Try this experiment. Take a couple of chips and soak them for 24 hours and then cut them in half. I’m willing to bet that the liquid only made it 1/16th of an inch.

A better way is to make a 'smoke bomb' from a single layer of aluminum foil. Put a handful of chips in the center and fold it over and seal. Make 2 to 3 1/4 inch holes and put it on the hot coals, but off to the side. You’ll get that bit of smoky flavor and not have to worry about ‘burning’ through your chips. - GrillMasterNorthWest

From "Up your grilling game"

Brilliant burgers

Don't handle the meat too much. Form it into loosely packed patties that are slightly lower in the middle than on the sides. The dimple will even out as the meat cooks.

For the love of all that is holy, don't mash down with a spatula while the patties are cooking. Yes, it's big, manly fun to hear the tsssssssss sound as the juice hits the coals, but that's flavor you're wasting.

Don't fuss with the patties while they're cooking. Cook on one side, flip once and cook the other. That's it.

Sear-ious steak

Most of the burger tips apply to steak as well – grill screaming hot, don't move it around too much, just the one flip, don't skimp on fat.

We will, however, make an exception for grill marks. Halfway through cooking a side, lift the steak and rotate it 45 degrees for a killer, professional-looking crosshatch.

Blot the meat with a paper towel before you season and cook it. Wet spots just steam the meat and you're cheating yourself out of delicious char.

Speaking of seasoning, kosher salt, fresh-ground pepper and olive oil all are you really need. It's great to get fancy with marinades, but it's STEAK. Just enhance the glorious flavor of it, and you'll be good to go.

Once you take the steak from the grill, let it rest on a board for about 10 minutes to let the juices redistribute. It'll be uniformly delicious and cut like butter.

From "Grate balls of fire? Not on our watch."

'Tis the seasoning

Think of your cast iron grill grates as a giant skillet. It only takes a little bit of tender loving care to keep them in tip-top, rust-free condition for a very long time.

Just rub unsalted canola or vegetable oil, lard or bacon grease onto all surfaces after they've been cleaned. Place them back in the grill and let them heat up to 350°F for about 45 minutes. Then, using a silicone brush or a paper towel held in some tongs, carefully coat the grates again and bump up the temperature to 450°F for another 45 minutes.

If you've got stainless steel grates, a coating of cooking oil works wonders to preserve them through multiple grilling seasons. After they've been cleaned, cover them in a light coating of vegetable oil and return them to the grill. On your next outing, make sure the grate heats up for 15 minutes before you place any food on it and add additional oil to prevent stuck-on muck.

Feel free to vent

Vents are key in controlling temperature and oxygen flow, but if smoke and air can't drift through easily, foul fumes are just trapped inside the chamber – and your food.

Use a brush, rag or cotton swab to get into every crevice, and test hinges and screws to make sure they haven't rusted or stuck in place. A bit of canola oil may help keep parts sliding freely.

From "C'mon baby, light my fire – just don't skimp on the flavor"

Fuel that rules

Maximum fire flavor comes from hardwood lump charcoal. It's generally not treated with extra chemicals and it's a cinch to light, once you know the trick.

That'd be a chimney starter. It's a vented, metal, handled cylinder with a shelf inside. Just grab a sheet of newspaper and start folding the long end in on itself, until halfway up. Then bring the shorter edges together in a ring, and crumple the unfolded portion of the paper into the center until it looks like a little hat. If you'd care to double down on your firepower, crumble in some additional paper and swab it with a touch of vegetable oil.

Tuck that into the bottom of the chimney starter and pour the coals into the top portion. Make sure you're in a cleared area – outside, always outside – with no ambient, flammable branches, grass, untucked sleeves, hair, children, dogs, etc., around. Then light the paper through the bottom vents. It will catch fire, igniting the coals from below.

Once the coals are no longer glowing and have a light layer of white ash, pour them – carefully, as they tend to spark – into the bottom of your grill. If you feel like getting a bit fancy, throw in a few sprigs of water-soaked rosemary or a handful of those wood chunks or chips.

It'll all just taste better – and your nose will know the difference.

Got any grill prep tips you'd care to share? Pipe up in the comments below and we just might share them in an upcoming piece.

- Best. Burgers. EVER and Best. Cheeseburger. EVER

And feast on the results of The Picnic Poll to find out what your fellow chefs like for a main dish and drink, burger topping, side dish and dessert.

See all our best grilling advice at Grilling 101

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Filed under: Grilling • Grilling • Smoking • Techniques & Tips


soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. wuasabi

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    July 16, 2012 at 7:15 am | Reply
  2. die die

    if you're gonna show off your legs, please compliment them with a tan, thanks.

    July 8, 2012 at 4:04 am | Reply
  3. GulpOff

    Appalling culinary advice at its best...

    July 6, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  4. lena

    Are these guys OldHunter and Primal4Life?

    July 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  5. lena

    "Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food." – Genesis 1:29

    July 6, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
    • Guest

      Should have guessed that if there was an article about meat, you'd be here proselytizing.

      I bet all your friends don't want to hang out with you because you won't stop telling them how they should be living their lives. Explains all the time you have to come here and tell people how they should change to meet your approval.

      July 7, 2012 at 12:34 am | Reply
  6. lena

    "It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes."

    July 6, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  7. my blog

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    July 5, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Reply
  8. truttman

    Cooking hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill for the 4th of July does not require "tips" people. Do you want me to tell you how to boil and egg too?

    July 4, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Reply
    • Darth Cheney

      Clearly, you have not had 1/10th of the bad burgers cooked by family and friends that I have...

      July 5, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Reply
  9. brian Monosso

    Anyone who grills on a gas grill_suckss. Might as well drag you stove outside and cook.

    July 4, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Reply
  10. Scott

    How pretentious is this Carrie Oliver person and what country does she live in? I assume since this is the cnn.com US edition that she is from the US as I am. I wonder where she lives that not only does she know exactly what farm her gound beef came from but she then goes and quizzes the ranchers on how they make a living. What a bunch of BS. Grilling up a burger does not require ANY knowlege of ranching techniques and anybody that says otherwise a twit just like Carrie Oliver.

    Also for the people who think they are poisoning their guests by using anything other than lump charcoal, you are sadly mistaken. I'd like to know what "chemicals" you are referring to. The fact that you didn't refer to them by name suggests to me you don't really know what your talking about. Read the label and educate yourselves. Carbon is carbon is carbon and carbon is charcoal period.

    July 4, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Reply
    • John

      Wow. Such an angry, critical response to an article about... grilling meat. Scott, you think, perhaps, there are more important matters to be angry about?

      July 4, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Reply
      • Scott

        Not sure why you assume this article about grilling would be the only thing in the world that would anger me, but nonetheless thank you for taking the time to not only read my post but to respond to it.

        July 4, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Reply
    • tabaliah

      Scott – Carrie Oliver is shilling for her family ranch oliverranch dot com.

      July 5, 2012 at 12:29 am | Reply
  11. RobbD

    Oooh...look at that wrist action....All those years of yanking finally paid off. Tony Soprano

    July 4, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Reply
  12. Jim

    A good tip for ribs: Boil them in coca-cola for 45-60 minutes before doing anything with them. Then do whatever you were going to do.You will get tender, sweet meat that falls off the bone.

    July 4, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
    • ComeOnMan9

      I would prefer the person NEVER NEVER parboil, regardless of the liquid. You leave the meat flavor in the pot. I assume the person is sane and prefers charcoal. Make a hot and cool zone charcoal fire on the Weber with Kingsford. Bounce the ribs on the hot side like 2-3 minutes to give some color, pull to the cool size and let cook for a good hour. Bring them inside wrap in foil and put in oven at 250 for 2 hours until tender. Glaze with a sauce if your bent that way and place ribs under broiler to burn the sauce on. If you must use a sauce. All listed components are not a suggestion. Use anything but Kingsford and suffer.

      July 4, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      I will refer you to YOUTUBE. Type in the search box: coca-cola, egg.

      You will refrain from Coke forever. Not that I ever liked that cr@p anyway.

      July 4, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Reply
    • General Xanos

      1. NEVER boil ribs. yeah, the meat falls off the bone, but the flavor is gone. For dutch or baby backs, use the 2-1-1 method. 2 hours smoker no foil, 1 hour wrapped in foil, 1 hour with bbq sauce/dry rub rewrapped in foil. It'll fall off the bone and still have all it's flavor. you must have been the guy who youtubed how to make frito pie by crushing some corn chips in a bowl, dumping canned chili on it, and nuking it with swiss cheese on top. Coke? Are you _serious_?

      July 5, 2012 at 12:25 am | Reply
  13. Don

    If you make your own BBQ sauce with brown sugar, ketchup and other spices, don't just mix in a bowl and figure that you are done. Mix in a medium pot and cook everything so that the sugar is not in crystal form when it goes on your meat. Saves from ending up with a lot of charred black steaks

    July 4, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Reply
  14. magneticink

    Grill like a pro, relax like a bro.

    July 4, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
    • RobbD

      ...nice.

      July 4, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  15. Elsie

    DON'T use a steel bristled brush to clean your grills. They're cheap and are sold pretty much everywhere, but the bristles can come off and get lodged in your food!

    I almost died when a bristle perforated my bowel – 9 days in hospital, life threatening infection and lost about 12 inches of my small intenstine. So glad it wasn't one of my kids or a guest!

    Toss those steel bristle brushes folks! Seriously – just SO NOT worth the risk.

    July 4, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
    • dangle13x

      ive never heard of this happening before, but that is horrifying.

      July 4, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Reply
      • Elsie

        I did a few google searches not long after, and apparently it's not as uncommon as you might think. Read one story about a teenage boy in Toronto (Canada) – the bristle got lodged in his esophagus. Scary, scary stuff.

        July 4, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
    • ComeOnMan9

      you just cured me. Will throw the thing out immediately!

      July 4, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Reply
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      Wow. Thanks for the info.

      July 4, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Reply
    • DLH

      inspect grill before grilling , you won`t have that problem . just like crossing the street , i look both ways before crossing .

      July 6, 2012 at 11:02 am | Reply
  16. bread

    Dont skimp on the burger buns, they are a very important part of the burger. The buns at the grocery store are crap. If you have a bakery that sells burger buns then count yourself blessed and buy them, most bakeries do not make burger buns for some reason. If not then Whole Foods has white buns that arent that bad, far from great but a lot better than the normal crap.

    One thing you will see in common with all the best burgers in america is that they all create their own buns (or use a bakery to make them). Getting good beef and good cheese doesnt matter if you just end up ruining it with a Sarah Lee grocery store bun.

    July 4, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
    • bread

      A helpful way to see if a packaged bun is "premium" or not is to look at the ingredients list, look for eggs or butter, if it has anything like that then its probably decent. If its just flour, yeast, and preservatives then its crap.

      July 4, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  17. MG

    Pile the hot coals on one side of the grill bottom. This gives you a hot cooking area and a resting area to move food off to in order to let it cook more slowly or just settle.

    July 4, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  18. lena

    21 day vegan plan – http://www.21daykickstart.org/index_menu_interim.cfm

    July 4, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Reply
    • J-Pap

      21 day flavorless eating plan.

      If all you do is live an extra 2 years from being a vegan, then I'll stay eating meat. You can die at any moment in life. I'd rather die a carnivore.

      July 4, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
    • StefNYC

      Just for that, Lena...I'm going to eat TWO burgers today!

      July 4, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Reply
    • Kevin

      I think your vegan a$$ is on the wrong page, deary!!

      July 4, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Reply
    • RobbD

      Thank you so much Iena......I bookmarked it.

      July 4, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply
    • KentAZ

      Eat vegan if you prefer for ideological reasons, but please don't pass it off as a healthier approach. It isn't. Meat and saturated fat are good for you–yes, that's not a typo.

      July 4, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Reply
    • chris

      if God didn't want me to eat animals He wouldn't have made them out of meat!

      July 4, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Reply
  19. salty

    A common mistake is underseasoning your burger, people salt to taste when grilling which is not how it works with pre-cooked food (or worse, they dont salt at all which is really bad). Put a lot of salt on there, 80% or more will drip off, keyword "drip," the salt drippings will create a flavor packed crust and prevent you from having that nasty grey bland burger since the salt sucks out some of the fat and brings it to the surface. With the right amount of salt you can get a medium rare burger with a good crust and wont have to overcook it to brown it.

    If you dont know how much to use then think of salting to taste and multiply it by 3, it will seem like an overload of salt but almost all of it will go away and it wont be salty at all. And of course add pepper as well.

    July 4, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  20. disagreement

    This advice is all 2 safe. The point of being a grillmaster is to try something crazy and mess it up.

    July 4, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Reply
  21. Cornelious

    When cooking goat, don't forget to remove the eyeballs.

    July 4, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
    • Max

      This goes for fish and eel, too!

      July 4, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

        And people.

        July 4, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Reply

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