Expert Steven Raichlen on the Right Way to Clean Your Grill
There’s something satisfyingly primal about cooking on an open flame during the summer months. Perhaps it’s the savory aroma of sizzling meat mingling with the sweetness of the humid air, amplifying the hunger pangs of every man, woman, child, and canine within a five-block radius; or the way in which it begs dinner guests to linger outside a little longer. Whatever it is, we wouldn’t be experiencing it without the modern grill.
Today’s grills make cooking outdoors a relatively uncomplicated endeavor (i.e., they do not require the building of a fire). Nevertheless, like all cooking tools, the grill requires a certain level of care, including routine cleaning. It is a cooking surface, after all.
So, to help us nail the all-important practice of grill hygiene, we looked to Steven Raichlen, the man Esquire magazine called America’s “master griller.” You may also know Raichlen as a multi-award-winning author of several grilling and barbecuing books—including the most recent, “Project Smoke”—and the host of TV shows “Steven Raichlen’s Project Smoke,” “Primal Grill,” and “Barbecue University.”
Raichlen graciously shares what can only be considered the “end-all-and-be-all” of grill-cleaning instruction (Um, yeah, we’re pretty fired up about it!):
Clean Up Before and After Every Grill Session
It’s easy to put off cleaning your grill, especially if you don’t use it every day. But this, Raichlen warns, is a dangerous habit. “Leaving that hunk of salmon or pulled pork stuck to your grill grates is not going to make your food taste better,” he says. “Your grill will work better—and food won’t stick as easily—if you keep it clean.” For these reasons, Raichlen advocates for cleaning your grill every time you fire it up and before you put the food on, and at the end of your session before you shut it down.
Follow Raichlen’s Grill-Cleaning Process
As you prepare to clean your grill, recite Raichlen’s primary grilling rule: Keep it hot, keep it clean, and keep it lubricated. Then you’ll remember his grill-cleaning process:
- Keep it hot: First, ignite your grill and let the mercury rise! As for how hot, Raichlen says your grill should be fiery enough to pass the “Mississippi test,” meaning it’s at the right temperature for cleaning when you’re unable to hover your hand two to three inches above the grates (or roughly 6 inches above the flame) for more than three counts of Mississippi (i.e., one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi). This kind of heat will help to loosen any remnant food or debris that may have adhered to the grates.
- Keep it clean: Once the grill is sufficiently hot, Raichlen runs a long-handled stiff-wire grill brush along the grates to dislodge any charred leftovers. “Be sure to run the brush away from you at first to prevent hot debris from getting pulled your way,” he adds.
- Keep it lubricated: After the grates are thoroughly brushed, it’s time to oil them. For this step, Raichlen uses a paper towel, a small bowl of inexpensive vegetable oil, and grill tongs. He folds the paper towel into a two-inch square, clamps it between the tongs, and then dips it into the oil. Once the pad is saturated, he gently shakes any excess oil back into the bowl, and then draws the oiled pad across the grates. “Keeping your grates lubricated makes it less likely that food will stick, and it helps to remove small debris that a brush might not pick up,” he says.
On Gas Grills, Clean Drip Pans
Raichlen’s final post-grilling cleaning step for gas grills is to empty the drip pan. This pan is found underneath the grill’s burners and it’s where juices and drippings accumulate. Shapes and sizes vary—from a rectangular loaf pan to a tin can, or even a metal shelf. “You should do this after every grill session,” Raichlen says.
On Charcoal Grills, Clean Out Spent Ash
For charcoal grills, Raichlen’s last cleaning step is to shovel the spent ash out of the firebox at the bottom of the grill. But this, he cautions, should wait until the following morning. “Even though the ash may look dead, live sparks can last up to 24 hours,” he explains. “So wait until the next morning for this task, and be sure to use a metal trash can. You don’t want to melt a plastic trash can or start a fire. And whatever you do, don’t shovel spent ash into a paper bag!”
Fire It Up
Now that Raichlen has made you into a grill-cleaning expert, it’s time to make the most of the grilling season. Why not host a good ol’ summer barbecue? Invites are optional—smoke signals should do.