Tips from the Pros: Grill Cleaning & Maintenance
March 22, 2013
It’s Spring and for many that means it’s time to get your grill ready to roll. Here’s Meathead from AmazingRibs.com with his suggestions for keeping your cooker in tip top shape.
Contrary to what your neighbor says, greasy grill grates and carbon buildup on the lid do not improve the flavor of your food. Rancid grease garnished with scale is not something I see on restaurant menus very often.
Before each use you need to do a little light cleanup to keep your grill or smoker performing optimally, to prevent off flavors, and to prolong your cooker’s life. Then, once a year your device needs a more thorough cleanup and maintenance. If you use it a lot, do a thorough cleaning 2 or 3 times a year and before you store it for winter.
Before you start, check you grill’s manual for any special instructions. If you can’t find it, it may be available on the manufacturer’s website for download.
Remember: A clean grill is a good grill.
Grease and oils get rancid, particularly in hot weather, and rancid grease on the grates can make your food taste bad. Rancid grease on the bottom of the grates can vaporize and flavor the food, too.
The black crust on the grates is mostly carbon. It tastes bad and might be carcinogenic. In addition carbon insulates the grates and prevents the food from contacting metal and inhibits grill marks. So it is vital that your food go on clean grates.
All the experts want you to clean the grates after each cook and then again before the next cook. Good plan. It discourages insects. But the truth is, if you forget to clean up after a cook, it’s not the end of the world. There is little risk of food borne illness if you get your grill screaming hot for about 15 minutes before you cook. Heat will kill any bacteria that might have grown on the surfaces and turn organic matter to carbon.
If you have grates that can rust, such as cast iron, or plated wires that have lost their coating, then you must brush and scrape after a cook while the grates are still hot. There are scores of grate materials and designs, and they require different handling.
New nickel or chrome coated wire grates, enamel coated grates, high quality stainless steel grates. These are all smooth hard surfaces that don’t rust. Before you cook, get the grates ripping hot, close the hood, wait about 10 minutes or until the smoke subsides. The heat will burn off the grease and turn any food or sauce bits to carbon. Then get a good grill scraper and brush, and scrape them down. You might not get them perfectly clean, there may remain some black spots, but if you get the surface smooth, you’re ready. To keep food from sticking, it is better to oil the food than the grates. Inmost cases, there is no need to coat these smooth surfaces with oil before cooking. It will just burn off and smell bad. When you are done cooking, occasionally can scrape them and run them through the diswasher.
Worn nickel or chrome coated wires or worn cheap stainless. These grates work fine when new, but as they age the coatings wear off, and cheap stainless eventually ceases to be stainless, you should replace them. You just don’t want rust or other oxides on your food.
GrillGrates. GrillGrates (TM) are a replacement grate system that I love. Click the link to see why. They are made from aircraft aluminum, and can really amp up a gas grill. The surfaces of GrillGrates are unbelievably easy to clean with a wire brush when hot, but the valleys tend to build up carbon which reduces their efficiency. A long bristle wire brush from the hardware store works well, but the standard wire brushes for grills do not. I’ve had good luck cleaning the valleys with a narrow scraper blade (and heavy glove) when they are hot. Occasionally I superheat them and then hit them with a hose. Most of the carbon pops right off. After it cools, if one of them warps a bit, I flip it upside down on my deck and stand on it. It flattens right out!
Cast iron. I am not a fan of cast iron grill grates. Love me my cast iron pans and griddles, just not cast iron grates. Yes, they do hold heat better than other materials and food does not stick as long, but I just don’t see that cast iron’s minor advantages counterbalance the expense, weight, and maintenance hassle. The problem is that cast iron rusts. That means you need to scrape them down right after you cook, while the grates are still hot, and coat them lightly with cooking oil. The oil will fill the pores that have opened and prevent rust and help keep them non-stick (sort of). That means that you either need to clean the grill when you should be serving dinner, eating dinner, or relaxing after dinner. If you don’t plan to use the grill for a while, you should bring the grates indoors when they cool. If the surfaces get rusty between uses, you need to get them hot, scrape and brush them, coat them with oil (I use a silicon brush), wipe off the rust with a cloth or paper towel, and then oil them again.
Teflon and non-stick coatings. Some electric grills have non-stick coatings. These are easy to scratch, so you begin by letting them cool, then wipe them down with a paper towel, and then wash with soapy water and a sponge or a Teflon-safe Scrubbie. If they lift out, wash them in your sink or dishwasher if the manual says this is OK.
The interior of the cooking chamber
Scale is a buildup of carbon, soot, creosote, combustion by-products, and schmutz. It can drop from the hood onto your meal. Scale also decreases the reflectivity of the inner surfaces and that can reduce heat. On the other hand, it can help insulate the interior and prevent heat loss through transmission. I don’t worry about a thin coat of carbon, but when it starts to crack and curl, I scrape it off and vacuum it up. A putty knife and a good vacuum cleaner with a hose attachment are handy for cleaning the interior of a grill.
Before you go at it, beware that there can be some serious black liquid and large chips of carbon flakes as byproduct of your efforts, so roll your grill into your neighbor’s yard when he is out of town before you start. If your neighbor never goes out, perhaps you want to do this in the street near a sewer drain, or over a drop cloth. You town might have laws regulating disposal of grease, so check into them.
It is helpful to have on hand a putty knife, a bucket, rubber gloves, a stiff wire brush, a softer scrub brush, sponges, steel wool, paper towels, garden hose with nozzle (or pressure washer), dish soap, and stainless steel cleaner. Never use oven cleaner on the interior and cooking surfaces. Scrape and brush them off, wash them with soapy water and or use a mild cleanser like Simple Green.
If you have a built-in thermometer, clean the probe and if you use a hose be careful not to get water into the dial area. Then again, most built-in dial thermometers are crap, so why don’t you just remove it and use the hole to insert the probe of a good digital thermometer.
Gas grills. Make sure the gas supply is disconnected and the valve is closed when you do maintenance (DOH!). Keep in mind that for some odd reason the connection works in reverse of the normal “righty tighty, lefty loosey” rule. Gas connections tighten when you turn them to the left. If you use water, cover electrical parts like igniters with plastic wrap and tape or remove them if you can. Some new grills have glass or ceramic “infrared” burners. They need to be handled very carefully. Read the manual. To clean the bottom, remove the covers over the burners and anything else that is easy to remove so you can scrape below and between the burners with the putty knife. If you can easily remove the burners, you should, and inspect the tubes and the gas jets to make sure there are no obstructions. You can even shoot water through the tubes to check them out. If there are cracks, replace them. My article on gas grill setup has a section on troubleshooting that you should read.
Charcoal grills. Check the coal grate. It often warps and corrodes. It is subjected to some serious heat after all. Don’t try to straighten it out if it is warped. It will probably crack. As long as it is not preventing airflow underneath you can keep using it. Replacements are easy to find. Also check other moving parts like vents and chimneys.
Pellet grills and smokers. Water is the enemy of pellet grills and smokers, so keep your hose and pressure washer far far away. Pellet burners have a digital controller, a fan, a motorized auger, and a firepot with an igniter rod. If you get water in the electronics, you could ruin them. A wet igniter, fan, or motor can short circuit or rust, so keep them all dry. In addition, the pellets are made from sawdust, and they will turn into a slurry if they get wet. Because the pellets burn so efficiently, there is very little ash. A shop vac or handheld vac is usually all you need.
Offset smokers. Grease can pool in the smoke chamber of an offset smoker. To prevent messy cleanup, line the chamber with foil before cooking.
Grill manufacturers have different strategies for dealing with drippings and grease. If yours has a grease pan or collector, remember to check it before each cook. It can overflow or catch on fire. If there is a grease chute, make sure it is cleaned, too.
Flavor bars, lava rocks, ceramic briquets, grease pans, and other deflectors
Gas and pellet grill manufacturers have devised a variety of methods to keep the burners clean, reduce hotspots, prevent flare-ups, and radiate heat.
Flavor bars and metal radiators. Nowadays most use some sort of cap between the burners and the cooking grates. Weber calls them “flavor bars” and other producers have their own proprietary name. Sauce and grease can remain on them after a cook. You should always preheat the grill thoroughly to carbonize this gunk. If not, it will put out a lot of greasy soot that can deposit on the meat. The pork chop at right was inedible it was so bitter from soot, even with lots of sauce.
After these drippings burn off they can cake the deflectors in carbon and that insulates them and reduces the amount of heat transmitted. So every now and then pull them out and brush them, scrape them, and wash them with soapy water. Enamel surfaces usually corrode with time and need to be replaced. If there is a stainless steel replacement, get it. It lasts longer.
Lava rocks and ceramic briquettes. Periodically you need to inspect these guys and spread them around so they are evenly distributed. They are very porous and absorb grease, but when the grease heats up it usually turns to carbon. Ceramics and lava rocks can often be flipped. Eventually they need to be replaced.
Some folks obsess over the shine on their battleship sized grill. Not me. That’s one of the reasons I don’t buy stainless if I can avoid it. But if you want to see your reflection in your grill, literally as well as figuratively, there are some tricks to cleaning the exterior.
Never use steel wool or metal brushes, Use a Scrubbie sponge, warm water, and dish soap. For stubborn stains, try vinegar or diluted ammonia. To remove water spots, try unsweetened club soda.
On stainless, work on a cool grill, and follow the grain. They sell stainless steel cleaners in hardware stores that do a pretty good job of restoring the luster.
You should not need to paint the exterior, but if you do, use high-temp engine or oven paint. Lay down a light layer, let it dry thoroughly and then another light layer. It must dry thoroughly before you can use it.