Barbecue University™

13 Pro Tips Every Beginner Barbecuer Should Know

The Great American Hamburger

You’ve bought your first grill—or maybe your first serious grill—and you’re eager to climb the ladder to barbecue enlightenment like the pit masters you see on TV or social media. We’ve compiled a baker’s dozen of our favorite barbecue tips and hacks to help you get professional-looking and -tasting results. And should you ever have a question, feel free to ask Steven via social media. He’ll try to get back to you promptly.

13 Pro Tips Every Beginner Barbecuer Should Know

1. Identify hot spots on your gas or pellet grill.

Preheat your gas grill to medium. Lay slices of cheap loaf-style bread shoulder to shoulder on the grate, flipping when they begin to toast. You’ll likely see variations in the color from slice to slice; perhaps some slices will be quite dark, indicating hot spots on your grill. Take a photo to remind yourself of the pattern.

Identifying hot spots on the grill with white bread


2. Go to the dark side.

Bacon, Ham and Cheese Chicken Thighs

When buying chicken, choose dark meat—legs or thighs—as these cuts have more flavor than breast meat, but stay moist when exposed to the high, dry heat of the grill. (They’re cheaper, too.) Brine if desired. Indirect grill the chicken until nearly cooked through, then finish directly over the heat to lightly char the meat and set any sauce or glaze. For crisp skin, grill at higher temperatures—at least 350 degrees.

Get the Recipe: Bacon, Ham, and Cheese Chicken Thighs.


3. Fish without fear.

Smoked Planked Trout

Photo by Richard Dallett

Fish is notorious for sticking to the grill grate. To avoid trouble, cook it on a cedar plank, a bed of lemon slices, or in a well-oiled expandable mesh grill basket. If cooking directly on the grill grate, make sure the grate is clean and well-oiled. Use a thin-bladed spatula to turn the fish. Choose firm-fleshed fish like swordfish, halibut, monkfish, salmon, etc.

Get the Recipe: Smoked Planked Trout with Caper Dill Sauce.


4. Use your thumbs for Instagram-worthy burgers.

The Great American Hamburger

Using your thumbs or the back of a spoon, make a shallow dimple in one side of your burger patties to prevent them from puffing during the cook.

Get the Recipe: The Great American Hamburger.


5. Don’t run out of fuel.

A newbie mistake nearly all of us have made at one time or another is running out of fuel during a grill or smoke session. Depending on your equipment, always have an extra tank of propane on hand, a bag of charcoal or pellets, or wood chips, chunks, wood, or your fuel of choice. Check the level of the former by pouring a small bucket of very hot tap water down the side of the propane tank, then run your hand along the outside: The point where the metal transitions from warm to cool indicates the propane level.


6. Arrange the food like a professional.

Align the food on the grill in neat rows of soldierly precision, just like Steven does on his show, Project Fire. This helps the food cook more evenly and uniformly and helps you keep track of what went on the grill first, so you can turn it and take it off first. Looking professional is half the battle.

Chicken legs on a grill


7. For perfect kebabs…

To keep ingredients from spinning and to cook each properly, thread meat and vegetables or fruit separately on flat metal skewers or two parallel bamboo skewers. If using bamboo, leave as little of the skewers exposed as possible. Fold a 12- by 18-inch piece of foil in thirds, like a business letter, and slip it under the exposed handles to prevent them from burning. (Soaking the skewers in water before grilling doesn’t seem to make an appreciable difference.)

Lamb kebabs on metal skewers


8. Know when it’s done.

Tomahawk rib steak

Even experienced grillers are intimidated by expensive cuts of meat—prime rib, Tomahawk steaks, brisket, etc. There’s no shame in using a meat thermometer. In fact, owning one is a sign you take your grilling and smoking—not to mention the health of your guests—seriously. A simple instant-read meat thermometer can be had for less than $10, while a digital or remote Wifi-enabled thermometer will cost more. Either one is a good investment.

Get the Recipe: Tomahawk Rib Steak.


9. Keep it hot, keep it clean, keep it lubricated.

This is Steven’s mantra, and it’s served him well for more than 20 years. (If you attend Barbecue University, know that it’s the answer to a test question on the final day of class.) A hot, clean, well-oiled grill will not only release food when it’s time to turn it, but you’ll develop a reputation as a fastidious cook. No one wants to be that guy or gal who thinks a food-encrusted grill is simply well-seasoned.

Dirty Grill Grate


10. Add smoke flavor to your food, even if you don’t own a smoker.

There are several ways to do this: 1) Add hardwood chunks or wood smoking chips, the latter soaked and drained, to your charcoal when you arrange the food on the grill grate; 2) On a gas grill, fill a tube smoker, smoking pucks or a foil pouch with holes punched in it with sawdust or wood pellets; 3) Fill a chimney starter with hardwood chunks and light them as you would charcoal, then pour them into the fire box.


11. Buy high-quality lump charcoal or pellets.

Beware of lump charcoal that has square corners or ruler straight edges. It’s scrap lumber, and could harbor nails, screws, varnish, paint, or finishing oils. Ditto for cheap pellets (and never use pellets intended for furnaces in your grill).


12. Never desert your post.

Thousands of structure and other fires caused by grills are reported each year to the National Fire Prevention Association. (Gas leaks account for the majority, but some 15 percent are attributed to unattended grills.) The “set it and forget it” mentality that has infiltrated grilling and barbecuing is a potentially dangerous one. Remember, it’s live fire you’re cooking with.


13. Don’t apply sauces too early.

Maple-Sriracha Glazed Chicken Drumsticks

Many barbecue sauces and glazes contain sugar (we’re talking about you, Kansas City), which scorch when exposed to high or prolonged heat. So whether you’re barbecuing chicken wings, pork tenderloin, or ribs, apply the sauce the last 15 minutes of grilling, turning frequently. You can, if you wish, sauce it again just before serving.

Get the Recipe: Maple-Sriracha Glazed Chicken Drumsticks.


Do you have a beginner barbecue question? Share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or Instagram!

13 Pro Tips Every Beginner Barbecuer Should Know