BBQ Season Checklist

"Start with a clean grill."Emeril Lagasse

If you love to grill, it’s likely that you do it all year long. Just like they say at the US postal service, “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” can keep you from your grill! And so, while many folks think of Memorial Day as the start of BBQ season, we at kick things off a bit earlier on St. Patrick’s Day. That’s right—we celebrate March 17 as the beginning of all things barbecue! St. Patrick’s Day is the perfect time to fire up your cooker for Sous-Vide-Que Pastrami, Grill Roasted Honey Butter Cabbage, or a Reuben Burger.

If your grill has been stowed away or braving the elements through the colder months, here’s how to get it ready for action. Like the purring engine of a finely tuned sports car, your grill will perform at its best when it is free of built-up grease, grime, and rust. The following tips come courtesy of our crack team of BBQ experts, including Rick Browne, Max Good, Clint Cantwell, and Paul Sidoriak. For an even deeper look at maintaining specific types of grills and cleaning special grill grates, see Meathead’s article “Cleaning and Maintaining Your Grill or Smoker.

  1. Clean the inside of the lid and cookbox. Remove the grill grate and the fire grate of a charcoal grill and shovel any old ashes from the firebox. On a gas grill, remove the grill grates and heat diffuser and then scrape away any debris from the cookbox. Dispose of thick layers of built-up grease and grime by using a stiff spatula or spackle knife. If you see what looks like peeling paint hanging from the interior of the grill lid, don’t grab a paint brush. The flakes or scales are baked-on grease that has turned to carbon. Scrape them off or wipe them away with a damp paper towel. Wash the lid and cookbox with warm, soapy water. For thick soot buildup on the interior, use a heavy-duty grill cleaner.
  2. Empty the grease traps. Many grills have grease traps below or to the side of the cookbox. Empty them or replace them (an empty paint can works well as a grease trap). You can also prime internal grease traps or chutes with boiling water to melt the grease and help it flow away from the heat source. By cleaning out all the old grease, you will significantly reduce flare-ups and improve the overall heat transference and performance of your cooker.
  3. Check the burner tubes on a gas grill. If the flame your gas grill is more yellow than blue, there may be cracks or obstructions in the burner tubes preventing the optimal mix of oxygen and fuel. When a grill sits for months unused, spiders sometimes nest in the burner tubes. Check the tubes for visible cracks or holes (other than the burner ports themselves). If you see any cracks, replace the tubes according to the manufacturer’s directions. Scrape any debris from the tubes with a stiff brush and gently unclog any visibly burner ports with a pin or metal skewer. Be careful not to enlarge the ports. Their original diameter provides the optimal fuel-to-oxygen ratio. If you can, remove the tubes from the firebox and shine a flashlight into the openings at the ends of the tubes. Clean the tube interiors with a long, narrow, flexible brush. You can also shoot a stream of water through the tubes with a garden hose. Thoroughly dry the tubes before reattaching them to the firebox.
  4. Clean the heat diffuser. On gas grills, the heat diffuser (such as lava rocks or Weber’s “flavor bars”) often sits right below the grill grates. They diffuse the heat from below but catch dripping fat and stray bits of food from above. Scrape it clean of any debris.
  5. Check the hoses on a gas grill. Make sure all of the connections are tight and the hoses have no holes, cracks, or excessively worn areas. Follow the manufacturer’s directions to replace any cracked or worn hoses.
  6. Check the control panel on a gas grill. If you have sticky knobs, remove the knobs from their metal posts and spray the posts with lubricant. Brush away any spider webs under the panel. Spot-check the exterior of the grill and remove any other spider webs.
  7. Check the igniter on gas grills or gas-assist grills. Gas burner ignitors can fail if covered with grease or rust. If the igniter isn’t working, scrub the tip of the electrode with sandpaper or rubbing alcohol. Some electric igniters also require small batteries (such as AA or AAA). Replace old batteries as necessary.
  8. Clean the grates. Contrary to what many people think, that stuff caked on the grill from last summer’s fiestas does not add flavor to your food. And when a grill sits unused for an extended period of time, the grill grates often develop a layer of rust. Scrape the grates clean with a stiff brush. If there’s a lot of rust, there’s no need to buy shiny new grates just yet. A little elbow grease and TLC may be all you need. Remove the rust by scrubbing the grates aggressively with a stiff brush or S.O.S. pad. Same goes for any rusty BBQ tools or cast-iron pans. Once your cooking surfaces are completely clean of rust spots, season the grates or pans well. We recommend using tongs to rub an oil-soaked paper towel over the grates. Heat the grill to high and then re-apply vegetable oil with the tongs. This process creates a layer of lubricant on the grill grates, which helps prevent sticking as well as rusting. Re-apply oil before every new barbecue session to help keep the cooking surface well seasoned, just like a cast-iron pan. Click here to read more about cleaning grill grates.
  9. Wipe down the outside. Want to really impress your friends and family when you’re cooking outdoors? Make sure your grills look as good as the food that you cook on them. Scrub away any white spots or corrosion with a mixture of equal parts vinegar and water. Then wipe down the entire exterior of the grill with a sponge and some soapy water. Rinse with fresh water to remove any soap residue. Disposable bleach wipes also make quick work of wiping down the grill. For stainless steel grills, you can also choose to clean the exterior with a variety of cleaning products from branded to generic stainless steel polishes and special disposable grill wipes. When cleaning stainless steel, avoid burnishing it with a circular motion. Instead, rub, wipe and polish the steel in the direction of the grain. Do not use abrasive pads or steel wool. Click here to learn more about stainless steel. Remember, the cleaner and drier you keep your grill and accessories throughout the year, the longer they will last.
  10. Refresh your fuel. Whether you use charcoal, gas, wood, or all three, starting off the season with fresh fuel is a smart bet for efficient heating. What if the charcoal you stashed away before the first snowfall happened to get wet? Never fear! Assuming the briquets have retained their original shape, simply dry them out as best as you can and you are ready to roll. When using instant charcoal, be sure to close the bag well after each use. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that the fuel impregnated in the briquets will evaporate. Your best bet when storing charcoal year round is an airtight plastic bin, available in the storage section of most hardware stores and big box retailers. If you use propane, keep in mind that propane tanks often need certification every few years. Make sure your tank is inspected and safe before you go shopping for steaks. While you’re out running errands, you might as well buy some extra fuel, too. Better safe than sorry.
  11. Create a dedicated grill area. Inspect the clearance between your cooker and any combustibles. Make sure your grilling area is free from things that can catch on fire, including overhead obstructions.
  12. Do a dry run. Before you have the softball team over for some burgers after practice, fire up your grill and make sure it is working properly—especially if it is a new grill. Allow it to run for 45 minutes or an hour to burn off any manufacturer coatings or cobwebs and debris from last summer. Click here to learn more about dry runs.
  13. Invest in a good thermometer. Think thermometers are for sissies? Think again. Backyard chefs are finally realizing that the single most important tool is an accurate digital thermometer. Most grills and smokers come with highly inaccurate bi-metal dial thermometers. It is not unusual for this design (which is from the 1800s!) to be off by as much as 50° to 100°F! That inaccuracy is a recipe for extremely well-done steaks, burnt chicken, late meals, and tummy aches. Pick up an accurate digital thermometers to served consistently healthy, properly cooked foods that will win you the praise of your friends and family. Maybe it’s time to kick off this BBQ season by using our searchable reviews of 150 thermometers. You’ll find some good options starting as low as eleven bucks. Click here to learn more about digital thermometers. Happy Grilling!

A barbecue emitting smoke in the middle of winter

Dave Joachim Editor David Joachim has authored, edited, or collaborated on more than 45 cookbooks including four on barbecue and grilling, making him a perfect match for a website dedicated to the “Science of Barbecue and Grilling.” His Food Science column has appeared in "Fine Cooking" magazine since 2011. 

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