"Last year's grease on the grill, last year's ashes on the bottom. That's what makes a Bundy Burger special."Al Bundy, Married With Children, 1989
Clean grill grates are vital to good grilled food. Here's how to clean grates and the best tools for the job.
That build up of gunk on your grill grates or inside your pit is not doing you any favors. No, it doesn't make food taste better. It is not "seasoning" and it has to go.
There are two types of build-up, grease, and carbon. Grease gets rancid, can vaporize, and rancid grease makes your food taste bad. Drips of rancid grease on the bottom of the grates can vaporize and flavor the food, too. Then there's the black crust you often see on heavily used grill grates and the lid of your kettle. It is mostly carbon and it tastes like burnt toast. It also helps meat stick to the grates. You need to get rid of both grease and carbon.
For the best-tasting grilled food, start with clean cookers and grates. If you haven't cleaned them in a while, before you cook, get things ripping hot, close the lid, and wait about 15 minutes or until the smoke subsides. That smoke is grease smoke and it does not enhance flavor like wood smoke. It coats the meat with acrid soot. Burn it off. After 15 minutes or when the smoke subsides, flip the grates over and burn off any grease on the underside. If your grates are reversible, flip them over between cooks. That will keep glop from building up on the underside.
A better practice is to do a quick clean of your grates after each cook while the grates are hot, which discourages insects from hanging around between cooks. For charcoal grills, you can let the coals burn out and carbonize food residue, but leaving a gasser or pellet burner on can get you in trouble. If you are forgetful, as I am, especially after a meal and wine, it is easy to accidentally let the grill run all night and burn through a bottle of propane or a bag of pellets. Either set an alarm, or do a quick clean and shut down the cooker before you serve the food.
The simplest scrubber is just a ball of crumpled aluminum foil. It works surprisingly well. Fire up the grill, take a big ole sheet of foil, wad it up, put on a heat-proof glove, and scrub. That often works as well as a brush.
Build your own scraper by simply taking a block of hardwood like oak and a heat-proof glove and rubbing the wood on the hot grates. If you do it right, eventually you will wear grooves in the wood that fit the grates perfectly.
Another technique is to use like the CharGon, and then dip a wire brush in water and scrub with the wet brush, creating steam in the process. Be careful with wire brushes. As I describe below, bristles can come off, get on the food, and end with a trip to the hospital. Then follow up with a paper towel pushed around by the brush to pick up any food bits or wire bristles left behind.
You may want to try a handheld steam cleaner after a few cooks a year for both your grates and the interior of your grill. The Grilltastic which makes its own steam and has a very good brush. Steam and brush combos can get off even the most persistent carbon.
Cleansers like Simple Green work well on grease, not so well on carbon. Although they market themselves as green, there are some pretty strong solvents in there. A mild enzymatic cleaner like Dawn is a safer bet than a chemical cleaner whose residue could be noxious. Baking soda and some elbow grease are pretty good too. Here's an article on how to use it.
Do not run grates through the dishwasher! The grease is pernicious and can coat everything inside the dishwasher, in which case, you may be sleeping on the couch for a while. Periodically take the grates off the grill and lay them on a cloth on the ground. Fill a bucket with hot water and dish detergent. With a brush, scrub both sides and rinse thoroughly. Be warned, if you do this on cast iron it will likely lose some of its nonstick properties, but sometimes, especially if there is rust, you have no choice. Just make sure you thoroughly dry and oil cast iron after washing. You can use a scrubby sponge, and even steel wool on stainless and plated grates if they have not been chipped.
The AmazingRibs.com science advisor, Prof. Greg Blonder, says "My end-of-year clean is to place the grates in a large tub, pour on boiling hot water, mix in some Dawn, and come back the next day. Cleans off easily with a stainless steel scrubby." My end-of-season clean is with a pressure washer, steam, and then Dawn.
Beware of bristle brushes
Be careful with bristle brushes, especially cheap brass bristle brushes. Bristles fall out. Every year there are scores of sad news stories about people eating meals with bristles hiding on them. The bristle gets stuck in their throats or digestive systems, and repairs can get pretty ugly. Every so often someone dies. Here's an article on the subject from the Centers for Disease Control documenting six (!) cases in Providence, RI, in one hospital system in 15 months! The X-rays here are from that article. Think I'm making a big deal out of nothing? Google "grill brush wire stuck throat".
So be sure to look your cooking surface over after brushing or give it a quick wipe with a damp cloth. I've even had readers tell me they run a half an onion or lemon over the grates after brushing. Make sure you have a good bright light pointed at your cooking surface. I have included some wire bristle brushes below that I have used that do not shed. But as soon as one bristle comes loose, others will surely follow, so if you see a brush losing bristles, please discard it immediately.