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Avoid the 5 most common grilling mistakes

Last reviewed: December 2010
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To help you sidestep typical gaffes, we sought the expert advice of Steven Raichlen (www.barbecuebible.com), barbecue-cookbook author and host of "Barbecue University" on PBS, as well as our in-house grillmeisters. Here are their tips:

  • Food sticks to the cooking grates and/or won't sear properly. Preheat the grill for 15 to 20 minutes. "Gas grills have a tendency to burn cooler than charcoal, so it's imperative that yours be fully preheated," Raichlen says.
  • Flare-ups occur. Don't overcrowd the cooking surface. Raichlen suggests keeping 40 percent of the grates empty. If fatty foods such as salmon or rib-eye steaks flare up, move the items to a cooler or nonflaming section of the grate.
  • Food is under- or overcooked. Cooking with the lid open allows heat to escape and compromises roasting. Use high heat for searing thick cuts of meat, then lower to finish cooking.

    To check doneness of meat, insert an instant-read thermometer into the sides of steaks and chops or into the thickest part of burgers and chicken to ensure proper temperatures have been reached. Cook food to at least the following internal temperatures, as recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture: beef burgers, 160° F.; beef steaks, chops, and roasts, and lamb, 145° F. (medium-rare) and 160° F. (medium); chicken, 165° F.; fin fish, 145° F. or until flesh is opaque and separates easily with a fork; pork, 160° F.
  • Food tastes bland. To add flavor and tenderness, use a marinade made with an acid--vinegar, lemon juice, plain yogurt. But marinate for too long and the food can become mushy. Marinate shrimp for 15 to 30 minutes; salmon steaks, 30 to 60 minutes. Chicken breasts need at least an hour, and up to 4. Marinate other chicken pieces for 4 hours. Tender cuts of beef need 15 minutes to 2 hours, while ­less-tender ones can take 6 to 24 hours. Always refrigerate marinating foods.

    Spice rubs are another great way to add flavor. Start with a base of sugar and salt and doctor it with the spices and herbs you enjoy--black pepper, chilies, cumin, and garlic and onion powder. Apply the rub just before cooking or, for less-tender cuts, up to one day in advance to intensify the flavor. Note: Brush on barbecue sauce near the end of the cooking time. This allows the meat to thoroughly cook without burning the sauce.
  • Smoking results are poor. People often make the mistake of trying to smoke food on a gas grill. The results will never be good even with a smoker box, says Raichlen, because too much smoke rushes out of the grill vents, making it hard to get true barbecue flavor.