Grilling Safety

Dear Up in Smoke Subscriber,

You know the scenario. The host of that Memorial Day cookout grabs the top of the LP tank (which he left connected to the grill at the end of last grilling season), and wobbles it optimistically, fingers crossed that there’ll be enough gas to take the barbecued chicken beyond its raw state. Then he’ll crank the starter burner to high and wait expectantly for that “whoosh” sound that either signals ignition…or conflagration.

Meanwhile, an equal number of charcoal grillers will haul their grills out of the garage, survey the cooked-on crud on the grill grate, and rationalize how it will “season” this year’s food. Then they’ll reach for the charcoal (oops, not much in the bag), lighter fluid (oh, good…plenty of that), and a match, preferably—but not always—in that order.

Nothing will ruin your reputation as a grill jockey faster or more completely than burning down the house or sending everyone home sick with food poisoning. With National Barbecue Month (May)—the official kick-off of the 2008 grilling season—upon us, what better time to get your barbecuing equipment in top working order and reacquaint yourself with the fundamentals of grilling and food safety? I know this may not sound as sexy as rubs or smoking, but that’s what we pros do, folks.

Getting Started
When I was eight-years old, my mother gave me an unforgettable lesson on the wrong way to light a charcoal grill. She threw a match on a pile of briquettes, then splashed gasoline on top. Only the quick reaction of a neighbor, who knocked the exploding gas can out of my mother’s hands, averted tragedy.

Incidents like this are not uncommon. According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2005, gas and charcoal grills caused 3,400 structure fires and 4,900 outdoor fires in the U.S. resulting in property losses alone in excess of $137 million. So even if you normally skip safety warnings—read on.

Gas Grills

Make sure there are no insects or cobwebs under the burner knobs, in the grill manifolds, or in the connecting hoses. Replace any obviously crimped, brittle, cracked, or nicked connectors or hoses.

If the pinholes on the burner tubes are clogged, carefully unclog them with a straight pin or bent paper clip. Make sure the burner knobs turn freely; if they don’t, squirt the valves with WD-40. If your grill has an igniter switch, make sure it’s in working order. You may need to replace the battery—usually a single AA. Clean the drip pan in the highly unlikely event you forgot to clean it at the end of last season.

To clean the grill grates, preheat the grill and grates screaming hot, then brush with a stiff wire brush . Don’t forget to oil the grate with a grate oiler or a folded paper towel dipped in oil and drawn across the grate at the end of tongs. A grate is easy to clean when it’s hot, and almost impossible to clean when it’s cold. Then, throughout the season, keep your grate hot, keep it clean, keep it lubricated. The more you use the grill, the more the grate will resist rust and sticking.

Check the level of gas in the propane tank by weighing it; an empty tank will weigh about 18 pounds, a full tank, about 38. Another way to check the gas level in a propane tank is to pour a cup of boiling water over the side: the water will condense at the level where there’s gas. (Do not allow a supplier to overfill your tank as the gas needs head space.) Make sure the tank itself is in good condition and not showing signs of distress, bulging, or rust. Always transport it in an upright position—I’ve found a milk crate works well.

Reconnect the LP tank (which you removed from the grill last year and stored outside away from the house or other structures, right?).

Check all hoses and connections for leaks with a leak detection solution made by mixing equal amounts of liquid dish soap and water. Brush this mixture over the hoses and connectors. Open the shut-off valve, and if you see bubbling (which indicates a leak), immediately turn the gas off. Do not attempt to light the grill until the leak has been repaired. It’s not a bad idea to perform this test periodically, especially when lighting a grill after an extended period of disuse.

To light, open the lid of the grill, then turn on the gas at the tank. (Never light a gas grill with the lid closed—you’ll get a gas build-up and possible explosion.) Turn the burner knob to “high” or “ignite.” On some models, the igniter is slaved to a specific burner and you must light that tube first before lighting the rest of the grill. (Again, always follow the manufacturer’s instructions.)

For more tips on safe propane grilling, visit the Propane Education and Research Council website,

If the grill doesn’t light after a couple of clicks, turn off the burner control knob, turn the gas off at the tank, and wait 5 or 10 minutes before attempting to light it again. If everything seems to be in order but your grill still fails to light, call the manufacturer. And maybe make other plans for dinner.

Charcoal Grills

Get started by thoroughly cleaning your grill. (Of course, you did that the last time you used your grill, but just double-check.) Scrape out any congealed ash at the bottom of the firebox or kettle bowl with a garden trowel. Empty the ash catcher (if you haven’t already done so). Squirt any sticky vents with a silicone spray like WD-40. Treat minor rust or dings with a high-quality heatproof paint. If rust is beginning to eat through the grill walls, it’s time to say goodbye, no matter how many good times you’ve shared.

Clean the grill grate by heating, brushing, and oiling, as described above, or do as my assistant, Nancy Loseke, does—she buys a new grate for her kettle grill each year for about $15.00. There are also cleaning agents on the market formulated especially for barbecue grills. Check with your local hardware or grill store. Again, the more you use the grill, the more the grate will resist rust and sticking.

And while you’re at it, take inventory of supporting equipment. Do you need more or better chimney starters, long-handled tongs, grill brushes, or spatulas? How’s your supply of paraffin fire starters, disposable drip pans, or long matches? Do you have plenty of charcoal? (Store the latter in a tight fitting metal can to keep it from becoming damp.)

There are several ways to light a charcoal fire—the aforementioned lighter fluid (and a related product, self-lighting charcoal, which consists of briquettes soaked with lighter fluid), an electric starter, and a chimney starter.

The latter is my favorite. Charcoal goes in the top and a crumpled piece of newspaper or a paraffin fire starter, which you ignite with a gas lighter or long match, goes in the bottom. In 15 to 20 minutes, you have a cylinder full of evenly lit coals. The beauty of a chimney is that it lights the coals uniformly without petroleum-based starters. It’s easy to use and easy to transfer the coals where you need them.

When arranging the coals in the grill for direct grilling, leave at least 30 per cent of the grill coal free—this creates a safety zone where you can move food in case of flare-ups. And always wear long, heavy leather grilling gloves when handling chimney starters and coals.

General Grill Safety

· Position gas and charcoal grills 10 feet from walls, siding, deck railings, eaves, shrubbery, or other combustibles. Do the same with chimney starters. According to the National Fire Prevention Association, over one-third of all fires started by gas or charcoal grills begin on overhanging balconies or unenclosed porches.

·Place a large heavy sheet of metal under the grill or use a protective pad, like the one manufactured by DiversiTech to shield your deck from dripping grease or sparks.

· Never bring a barbecue grill indoors (charcoal or gas) or into any unventilated space like a garage. Carbon monoxide is odorless, tasteless, and deadly.

· Keep children and pets away from the grill. I’d add rambunctious lawn games (such as football or soccer) and guests who have had one too many to drink. Make sure the grill’s on level ground and that its placement doesn’t interfere with normal foot traffic patterns.

· Wear fitted clothing—nothing loose. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants are the preferred uniform of serious grill jockeys. And closed shoes, of course. The first time you step barefooted on a loose ember or a hot spark or dripping fat hits the top of a sandaled foot, you’ll appreciate this advice.

· Never leave a lit grill unattended. Remember the last of Steven’s Ten Commandments of Great Grilling: “Never desert your post.”

· Always have a bucket of water and a dry, fully-charged chemical fire extinguisher on hand. Make friends with your local fire department and have your extinguisher checked annually. A large box of coarse salt can be useful for extinguishing small grease fires. Sprinkle it on top. Call 911 without delay if a fire can’t be immediately controlled.

· Always use long-handled grilling tools to avoid leaning over the grill while cooking.


· Let charcoal cool completely—either let the coals burn down, or close the vents and the lid to starve the coals of oxygen. (Pouring water in the grill to douse hot coals is never a good idea. It results in hot and dangerous steam, and can damage the grill itself.) The charcoal and ash can I designed for my Best of Barbecue line is a perfect receptacle for hot coals, and a necessity if you’re a tailgater or “leave no trace” camper. Common sense dictates you should wait until the next morning to empty out ashes, and of course, never place them in a paper bag or plastic garbage can. A live coal can survive for more than 12 hours.

· Never attach or disconnect an LP tank or fiddle with fittings when the grill is on. If you run out of gas during a grilling session, turn off all the burners, reconnect the new tank, and light it afresh.

· After you’re done grilling and while the grill is hot, brush and oil the grill grate. Or if the grate is especially dirty, burn off the crud, then brush and oil the grate. Be sure to turn all the burners off (including rotisserie and smoker box burner—you wouldn’t believe how often people forget to do this, me included, and lose a whole tank of gas. Crank down the gas shut-off valve. Disconnect the LP couplings once the grill has cooled if the grill will be idle for several days.

Food Safety 101
A food poisoning strike at 3 a.m. will erase all memory of that great barbecue the night before faster than you can say, “ e. coli.” And unfortunately, food-born illnesses, like salmonella (present in as much as three-quarters of American chickens), have become a major concern in this country.

You can protect yourself, your family, and your guests from these scourges by developing good food-handling habits, such as the following, courtesy of the National Restaurant Association:

· Always wash your hands with hot water and soap before handling food, and between food tasks, especially if you’ve touched raw meat.

· Obsessively clean and sanitize food-contact surfaces (such as cutting boards or utensils) between uses.

· Don’t cross-contaminate, that is allow raw food (such as chicken) to touch or drip fluids onto cooked or ready-to-eat foods.

· Don’t use raw marinades (marinades in which raw meats have soaked) for basting cooked meats or as a sauce—unless you boil the marinade for at least 3 minutes.

Storage: Store perishable foods quickly and properly in the refrigerator after purchasing. Going to be out shopping all day? Bring an ice-filled cooler.

Preparation: Remember the Danger Zone (41 degrees F to 140 degrees F) and minimize the time food spends out between these temperatures.

Cooking: Cook food to its minimum safe internal temperature for the appropriate amount of time. (See below.) The only way to be sure about doneness is to use an instant-read meat thermometer. Insert it through the side of steaks, chops, chicken breasts, burgers, etc., not through the top. When checking for doneness in whole chickens or turkeys, insert the thermometer probe into the deepest part of the thigh meat, but not touching the bone.

Safe doneness temperatures:
Poultry: 170 degrees
Pork: 160 degrees
Hamburgers: 160 degrees

Holding: Hold hot foods at 140 degrees F or higher and cold foods at 41 degrees F or lower.

Cooling: Cool cooked food to 70 degrees F within two hours and to 41 degrees F (a normal refrigerator temperature) within four hours.

At Grill Side: Keep meats on ice or in an ice-filled cooler until you’re ready to grill them. Ditto for mayonnaise-based salads, like slaw and potato salad. (You’ll notice on the set of Barbecue University or Primal Grill we try to have meats on ice-filled sheet pans or in ice-filled bowls—and that’s not just for television.)



Insanely popular in Lima and in Peruvian communities in the U.S. For maximum crispness and to speed up the cooking process, the chicken is spatchcocked (butterflied). Note: in Peru, you’d use a fiery yellow chili called aji amarillo (use 1 to 2). This recipe approximates the flavor by mixing yellow bell pepper and habanero.

Method: Direct grilling
Serves: 2 to 4
Advance Preparation: 2 to 12 hours for marinating the chicken

For the marinade and sauce:

1 yellow or orange bell pepper
1 habanero pepper, or 2 jalapeno peppers, or more to taste
One small onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice, or to taste
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon coarse salt (kosher or sea), or to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup mayonnaise (Hellmann’s preferred)

For the chicken:

1 whole chicken (about 3-1/2 to 4 pounds)

Stem, seed, and devein the bell pepper and the habanero and chop roughly.

Combine in a blender container with the onion, cilantro, lime juice, garlic, salt, pepper, cumin, turmeric, and vegetable oil. Blend until fairly smooth. In a small bowl, combine 3 tablespoons of the marinade mixture (reserve the remainder) with the mayonnaise and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate the mayonnaise mixture until ready to serve.

Place the chicken, breast side down, on a cutting board. Using poultry shears or a sharp knife, cut through the flesh and bone along both sides of the backbone. Cut from the tail end to the head end and completely remove the backbone.

Open out the chicken (like opening a book) by gently pulling the halves apart. Using a sharp paring knife, lightly score the top of the breastbone. Run your thumbs along and under the sides of the breastbone and attached cartilage and pop them out. Spread the bird out flat.

Turn the bird over. Using a sharp knife, make a slit in the skin between the lower end of the breastbone and the leg, on each side, approximately 1/2 inch long (you’re trying to accommodate the end of the drumstick). Stick the end of the drumstick on that side through the slit.

Put the spatchcocked chicken into a nonreactive baking dish and pour the marinade over it, turning to coat completely. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or as long as overnight.

Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat to medium. When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Arrange the chicken on the grate, skin-side down. Grill for 12 to 15 minutes per side, turning once with tongs and a spatula. The chickens can be a little awkward to turn; you’ll need to use both utensils. If the skin browns too much, lower the heat or move the chicken to a cooler section of the grill. The chicken is done when an instant-read meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of a thigh (but not touching the bone) registers 170 degrees F. Or to play it safe, you can indirect grill the bird—in which case, place it skin side up on the grill and indirect grill for about 40 minutes.

Let the bird rest for 3 to 5 minutes, then carve and serve with the mayonnaise sauce.


These spicy flat burgers turn up throughout the Balkans, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Flatten the burger to the thickness and size of a pita bread. The easiest way to do this is to flatten it on a metal or stone work surface, then pry it off with a slender metal spatula.

Method: Direct grilling
Serves: Serves 4
Advance Preparation: 1/2 to 1 hour for letting the meat rest

12 ounces ground beef, preferably ground chuck
12 ounces ground veal (or substitute more ground beef)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 medium onion, minced
1 to 2 serrano peppers, stemmed, seeded, and minced (see Note)
1/4 cup parsley, minced
1-1/2 teaspoons coarse salt (kosher or sea), or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
Grilled pita bread for serving
Tomato slices and lemon wedges for serving (optional)

Combine the beef, veal, garlic, onion, serrano pepper(s), parsley, salt, and black pepper in a large bowl. Knead the mixture gently with your hands until thoroughly blended. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

Divide the meat in four equal portions. Mold each into a large flat disk, like a pita bread, on the back of a metal baking sheet or stone countertop. Each burger should be about 6 inches across and 1/4-inch thick.

Set up your grill for direct grilling and preheat to high. Brush and grill the grill grate.

Loosen the burger from the baking sheet, sliding a slender metal spatula under it. Transfer it to the grill. Grill until cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes per side. The internal temperature on an instant read meat thermometer inserted through the side will be at least 160 degrees.

Transfer to a large plate or platter and serve at once with pita, tomato slices, and lemon wedges for squeezing.

Note: For a hotter pljeskavica, leave the seeds in.

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor

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