Slow down for food safety.

By Kimberly Holland
July 12, 2019
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Eager cooks can find myriad reasons to make dinner on the grill every night of the week in peak grilling season: From chicken and steak to pizza, potatoes, bread, even dessert, there isn’t much that isn’t delicious after a spin over charcoal or the flames of a gas grill.

However, one thing no one wants to take away from their smoky piece of perfectly-grilled fish is a foodborne illness. But it is entirely possible an over-eager cook could set up their family and dinner guests for just that if they don’t do this one essential step: preheat the grill and scrub it clean of any residue before cooking.

Grills can harbor pieces of food for days, weeks, even months after the dish has been consumed. The food that remains on the grills is an attraction for birds, insects, and other animals. They can introduce any number of bacteria (and even waste) to the grill’s surface. Plus, leftover food bits are a magnet for bacteria, and they can produce unusual odors or flavors in the food you’re cooking on top of them.

RELATED: 7 Smart Ways to Stay Savvy About Food Safety

If you fire up the grill and plop tonight’s steak over the remnants of last night’s pork chop, you might introduce bacteria that could lead to gastric distress, bloating, cramping, diarrhea, or vomiting. What’s more, if you don’t clean tonight’s steak off the grill when you fire it up for tomorrow’s corn on the cob, you could repeat the tummy-turning experience. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says cases of food poisoning spike in the summer, in part because cooking outdoors and grilling introduces a lot of opportunity for costly mistakes.

Many cooks assume the high heat of a grill’s fire is all that’s needed to destroy any bacteria that linger on the grates. While it is true the flames will do a decent job of blasting away those germs, they aren’t 100 percent effective. And if you don’t give them time to do the work, they won’t have any cleaning impact whatsoever. That could ruin your grilled dinner.

How to Properly Prepare Your Grill So You Don’t Get Sick

1. Preheat the grill for five to 10 minutes. Don’t skimp on this part of the process, even if you’re in a hurry. Not only will the preheating phase begin the process of burning away the stuck-on food bits and destroying bacteria, it helps prime the grates for tonight’s meal. Grates that aren’t preheated are too cold, relatively speaking, to properly cook your food. If you stick a piece of chicken on grill grates that are too cool, the piece of grilled chicken will bond to the grates, and removing it will be nearly impossible. What you’ll get when you try to move the stuck-on chicken is shreds and tears, no perfect sear marks.

Gas grills may need a 10- to 15-minute preheat stage because the flames and heat on these cookers isn’t as strong as charcoal grills. It takes longer for the metal bars or ceramic rods that manufacturers use to produce more radiant heat (the heat that cooks the portion of the meat that isn’t in contact with the hot grates) to get warm enough for cooking as well as they’re designed. Charcoal grills naturally produce more radiant heat, so they may not need as long to heat up.

2. Scrub the grill surface. Don’t waste your time scrubbing a cold grill, and don’t spend the extra minutes after you’ve cooked to clean. (You’re ready to eat anyway, right?) The best time to clean your grill’s grates is immediately after it’s preheated and before you begin cooking again. That’s when the grease and residue on the grill grates will be easiest to remove, and any food—or remnants of animals that visited between your meals—will be scrubbed away. Use a sturdy wire brush. If bristles pop loose while cleaning, throw the brush away. You don’t want loose wires near your food.

3. Oil the grates if necessary. Many foods won’t stick to properly heated grill grates, but some delicate ones—fish, vegetables, fruit—might just because of their tender nature. You can help keep them from sticking, which will reduce stuck-on residue that can later become a bacteria target, by oiling grates.

RELATED: The Ultimate Guide to Grilling Vegetables, According to Professional Chefs

Use an oil with a high smoke point, like canola oil or corn oil. Olive oil may burn too easily, leaving the food with a bitter or off flavor. To quickly oil the grill, dip a paper towel in a small bowl filled with the oil. Grab the paper towel with long tongs, and rub it over the grates. If flames are shooting up from the charcoal or burners, wait until they’ve died down so you don’t risk igniting the paper towel.

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