In our guide on grilling mistakes to avoid, you will be learning real-time corrections that can easily be applied to your next cookout that will provide immediate and positive results. I would like to applaud all the awesome backyard barbecuers out there who take a step-by-step, methodical approach to great grilling. You are getting rewarded with smoky and flavorful results because of this.
Unfortunately, there are just as many who think that all it takes to put together a successful backyard barbecue is being able to start a fire and flip some meat around on the grill.
You know the ones I’m talking about. Their meat is just a little overdone, maybe has a slightly chemical flavor, is dried out, tough, blackened, or even undercooked and bordering on dangerous.
It doesn’t matter if it is outdoors or indoors, cooking is still a science. No matter what your pops may have taught you, grilling is more about planning and patience than about fire and meat. It doesn’t take much to turn your juicy burgers into dried-out hockey pucks or to have your chicken end up as tough as leather.
If you have had a few hiccups in the past, you’re not alone. Even master grillers are sometimes guilty of these easy-to-make and common mistakes and just about everyone makes at least one of them.
So before firing up the grill for your next cookout read about these 20 grilling mistakes and how you can avoid them.
In This Article, We’ll Explore:
Click a topic below to be taken directly to that section.
Not Knowing the Difference Between Barbecuing and Grilling
If you ask most people what the difference is between “barbecuing” and “grilling,” they will most likely tell you it means the same thing. To the experienced outdoor cook, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Barbecuing is cooking your food “low and slow” or for a long time over low indirect heat. This applies to your bigger, thicker meats like thick rib-eyes, tri-tips, or ribs.
Grilling is to cook your food “hot and fast” or directly over an open flame or coals at very high heat. This applies to your thinner meats like steaks under an inch thick, hamburgers, and hotdogs.
Many people will continue to use the general term “barbecue” for both, (myself included many times,) but you should at least understand the different cooking methods and be able to apply them to what you are cooking.
For a more in-depth guide on the differences between barbecuing and grilling read Barbecuing vs Grilling vs Smoking to learn everything you need to know about the differences and techniques for each.
Forgetting to Prep Ahead of Time
Before you light that grill, make sure you have everything you need, and that your foods are prepared and ready for the fire. Don’t forget your fuel, tools, and sauces. The quickest way to ruin a meal is having to rush back and forth for the things you forgot to get done or need and leaving your food unattended.
You can get more great tips for prepping for your next cookout by reading my guide Preparing For A Cookout – Why Prep Time Saves Time
You Don’t Pay Attention to Food Safety
Don’t spoil the day by serving contaminated food. Most issues can be avoided by following food safety guidelines. Always wash your hands with soap and hot water after handling raw meat.
Make sure to wash every dish, platter, and utensil thoroughly after it has come in contact with uncooked meat. Be especially diligent when cooking with chicken or any type of ground meat. Make sure raw meat doesn’t come into contact with other foods, like veggies or buns.
Salting at the Incorrect Time
Salting your meat at the correct time goes a long way to preparing awesome-tasting food on your grill. Salt can be a very powerful seasoning when used the correct way.
Salt will draw out moisture from the meat, which is a bad thing. This can be avoided by either salting an hour or so in advance to allow the salty liquid time to reabsorb into the meat, or you should salt it right before the meat goes on the grill.
Any time in between – especially the 15-20 minutes prior time frame will cause the moisture to stay in the salt and evaporate and not be reabsorbed into the meat.
You can check out my guide on Salting Steaks Before Grilling for tips on salting your meat properly.
You Don’t Have the Right Tools
You don’t need all the fancy bells and whistles or the latest gadgets to have a successful cookout. But you do need the proper and basic tools to get the best results.
Outdoor cooking tools you should always have on hand include:
- A grill brush because you should always start with a clean grill.
- Charcoal Chimney Starter or some way to start your fuel.
- Long-handled tongs and/or a long-handled heavy-duty spatula.
- A meat thermometer so you know when your meat is cooked and safe to eat.
- A basting brush and a grill basket for vegetables.
These are the essentials to start with, but there are many more that would be a big help to your outdoor cooking toolkit.
You’re Not Lighting Your Grill Correctly
The simple truth is, no matter how long you let a fire burn that was started with lighter fluid, you will taste it on your food, and that’s not good. This can be remedied by avoiding using lighter fluid or matchlight charcoal.
They are loaded with chemicals that will penetrate your food. Try using natural charcoal with a charcoal chimney starter or other charcoal lighting techniques.
You’re Not Preheating Your Grill
Not only is preheating your grill a great time to clean the grates, but it’s also crucial to getting the best cooking results. The basic facts are that metal or cast-iron grates will take a while to heat up. The coals may be hot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your cooking surface is.
If you throw your meat on before the grill is hot enough, it will most likely stick to the grates, and you won’t be getting those nice, dark grill marks. You may also end up overcooking your meat trying to get a good sear.
So, practice patience when lighting your grill. After you light it, shut the lid to help trap and bring up the heat. Give it around 15-20 minutes and resist the urge to keep checking on the flames. Your meat will cook faster and be more tender and moist.
Hot grills are also easier to clean, which leads us to…
You Started With a Dirty Grill
Chances are that your grill grates have seen countless chicken breasts, steaks, sausages, and skewers. This adds up and probably means they’re coated in grease and bits of food.
The problem with that though is that you are probably going to ruin tonight’s meal. The leftovers can give your food a slightly bitter flavor and greatly increase the probability of flare-ups.
It’s easiest to remove the grease and food leftovers when the grates are heated, so I recommend using a grill brush right after preheating your grill.
For more tips on cleaning your grates, here is a handy guide to reference The Ultimate Guide on How to Clean Grill Grates
You Are Spreading the Coals Before They Are Fully Ready
Again, I stress patience! There’s a good reason everyone says to wait until the coals are gray and ashy. Coals that are still half black and only moderately hot will very quickly move to inferno levels as the coals continue to catch. A too-hot fire can overcook or burn your food quickly.
Temperature control is key when it comes to successful grilling. Waiting for the charcoal to stabilize and create an even cooking area is the best way to avoid mistakes.
You’re Overcrowding the Grill
We’ve all been there. You are cooking for a big group, everyone is hungry, and you are cooking several different types of food because some people like chicken, some burgers, and some like sausages. The pressure is on to get things cooked and served quickly.
It’s best to focus on cooking one type of meat at a time and doing it well instead of crowding the grill with everything. Some meats need to be cooked faster and hotter than others while some need to be cooked off the fire and more slowly.
The second problem with crowding the grill is that you may be blocking the airflow and slowing done the hot air circulation causing your meat to cook more slowly.
You’re Grilling With Too Much Direct Heat
When I first started out, I always thought the hotter the better. I’d load up the coals, then spread them evenly over the entire bottom of the grill. I’d end up with a super-hot grill with no safe zone for indirect heat.
This makes it very difficult to control the rate at which your food is cooked. The bigger the fire, the better to sear and char and the tastier the meat, right? WRONG!
If your fire is too hot your meat will start to burn on the outside before it’s even close to hitting medium rare in the center. Without a place to move it for indirect cooking, you will either burn your food or leave it raw in the center.
You want to sear the meat, then cook around the open flame to finish.
For more information on cooking with indirect, check out my guide on What Is Indirect Grilling – Why And How To Grill With Indirect Heat
You Are Not Using the Lid Properly
The lid is there for more than keeping the rain out. It performs a very important function and that is trapping the hot air and food infusing smoke. But there is a time to use it and a time when it is better off. The trick is knowing when you need it and when you don’t.
The basic rule here is if you’re cooking on a gas grill, opening the lid will make you lose heat and extend the cooking time. If you’re cooking on a charcoal grill, opening the lid will add oxygen and heat up the coals making it hotter. This could result in burnt or overcooked food.
You Are Not Using Your Vents Correctly
Believe it or not, your vents aren’t just a decoration. What effect could they possibly have on my flame? Adjusting the position of the vents to add or slow done the airflow is the best way to control the oxygen and heat within your charcoal grill.
Too much air and your coals can burn quickly and very hot. Not enough air can leave you with too low and unsafe cooking temperatures or smother the flame completely. The key is to practice using your vents until you get a feel for how much air will get you to the desired temperatures.
To learn the best way to control the temperature using your vents, check out my guide on Using Grill Vents Correctly
You Keep Messing With the Meat
I won’t stoop to the “guys can’t help messing with their meat” jokes because that would just be lame. Oops, I just did. Forgive me that one.
When you place the meat on the grill, leave it be until you start to see a crust forming on the side that’s in contact with the grates. That should be about 2 to 4 minutes depending on how hot your coals are. It should go without saying but this goes double for prodding and poking the juice out of your meat.
You Are Saucing Too Early
Your sauce actually does very little penetrating beyond the top layer regardless of how early you put it on. At most, it is just for surface flavor. The same flavorful sugars that caramelize and glaze will also burn when left on the heat for too long. It will end up giving you an acrid and blackened crust when applied too early.
With that being said, you should wait to add your sauce until the end of the cook. You will get much more flavor this way without the risk of burned food. It is best to wait until the last 5-10 minutes to apply the sauce with a brush or mop.
You’re Poking the Meat to See if It Is Done
One of the hardest things for the beginner griller is cooking food to the correct doneness and let’s face it, either undercooked or overcooked meat can ruin the meal. So, unless you’re a professional and have thousands of cooks under your belt, poking meat to see if it is done is unrealistic.
Leave the poking to the professionals and invest in an easy-to-read digital thermometer or meat probe link this one: ThermoWorks Smoke. This takes all the guesswork out of the equation and leaves you with the best results every time.
To learn the best way to tell when your meat is done, read my guide on How to Tell Meat Temperatures Doneness Without Overcooking
You’re Cooking by Time Rather Than Temperature
I can’t tell you how many times I have been asked how long should I cook a steak, or how long until the meat is done. The simple answer is, it is done when it is done.
Anytime you cook outdoors, several variables can affect the cooking time. Some of these include:
- Fuel type
- The weather
- The ambient temperature
- The temperature of the meat when it gets put on the grill grate
- The meats thickness
Because of this, every cook will be different and require a different amount of time to complete depending on the above variables. This means temperature will always be a better gauge of when the meat will be ready than timing.
You Are Not Being Patient With the Overall Process
If you have noticed by now, a common theme when cooking outdoors is patience. Outdoor cooking requires you to be able to adjust to the cooking environment, weather, and so on. There are so many more variables when cooking outside than cooking indoors.
Outdoor grilling requires practice, planning, patience, and staying flexible.
You’re Serving the Food Too Soon
Unless you’re cooking using the reverse sear method, cutting into or serving your meat too soon will cause a deluge of juices to run out all over your plate or cutting board. That is why it is suggested to let your meat rest a minimum of 5 to 10 minutes after you remove it from the grill and before serving it.
The time allows the meat to rest, which allows the juices to redistribute inside the steak and will make for a more tender and juicy outcome when you finally do cut into it.
You Are Cutting Your Meat Wrong
Yes, there is a specific way your meat should be cut and that is slicing against the natural grain. If you are slicing it with the grain, you are doing it wrong. Cutting with the grain is actually a big key to the tenderness of the meat.
Cutting across the grain (muscle fibers,) will shorten them and make them easier to chew.
Final Thoughts on Our 20 Grilling Mistakes You Probably Don’t Even Know You’re Making Guide
Let’s face it…we’ve all been guilty of committing at least one of these crimes while grilling. The key is to understand what it is you are doing wrong, planning ahead, and being prepared.
A lot of effort goes into making a good grilled meal, not to mention the money you’ve invested. All it takes are a few bad results to hopefully make you reconsider your methods and make a change.
And finally, here is a bonus tip that will help make your next cookout a success. Grill with family or friends and enjoy the moments! Add a little love to the mix and you will never go wrong.
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I hope you’ve enjoyed my tips on 20 Grilling Mistakes You Probably Don’t Know You’re Making and it proves helpful to you. I also hope that you are one step closer to joining me in “The Grilling Life”!
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A backyard warrior, certified carnivore, lover of good whiskey, self-proclaimed grill master and I’m Living The Grilling Life!
I have a passion for cooking with live fire and smoke, no matter the weather. I’m a real person just like you, who loves outdoor cooking and BBQ. Food, fun, and time spent with family and friends are what it’s all about! It is my mission to take my passion and knowledge for outdoor cooking and all things BBQ and share this expertise in techniques and grilling equipment with you. In other words, Living The Grilling Life!
Another great post, as always i finish reading your blog slightly more hungry with a craving for meat! A few of these tips I already do, but there are a few I didnt know in here. Just to back up your point on the charcoal chimney – I got one of these last summer and it has made life so much easier. not only does it mean you don’t worry about the chemical flavour of lighter fuel but it also guarantees consistent heat of your coal, rather than hot/cold spots.
I had no idea about salting too early, and now you mention it, it really makes sense. In the past I’ve always prepped the meat way in advance, so I’m going to take this on board – any more tips on seasoning and meat prep would be gratefully recieved!
Hi Mike and thanks for stopping by. You’ve got to love the convenience of a charcoal chimney, but I don’t need to tell you that. I will be writing a post soon that will cover meat prep and seasoning in detail so keep your eye out for it. It will cover everything.
Great tips Patrick. It is indeed a science compared to barbecuing and I learned a lot from reading this great blog. I must admit I’m not a Pro like you and I am always messing around and checking the meat is okay when I should really invest in a good meat probe. I didn’t know that serving the food too soon was an issue but I do now! That’s another one of my downfalls. I’m guessing you probably learned all these tricks by experience or did you research some of them? All good, thanks for sharing 🙂
Thanks Craig. I am always trying new techniques and I grill at least 3 times per week. So yes, I have a lot of experience and try out every tip I suggest. I am also constantly doing research on all things grilling, but because it is a passion of mine, I enjoy it.
I love this list of tips Patrick!
I knew there was a purpose for the vents on my grill but I didn’t know it was to regulate the heat inside of the grill. I thought it was to vent out the smoke honestly.
Recently we just started eating a lot of fish at my house and the grilling season is coming around again for my area. I see all kinds of recipes that call for grilling the fish. What is the best way to grill fish in your opinion? We’re particularly eating frozen wild caught Salmon fillets and Mahi Mahi for fish tacos. It’s so good I can’t wait to cook the meat on the grill for the first time this season!
I’m glad these tips helped. I usually grill my salmon for 3-4 minutes per inch of thickness on each side at medium heat with the lid closed. There’s nothing worse than overcooked fish! Another great way is to use Grillgrates, grate enhancers. They really make cooking fish a snap.
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