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The most common grilling disasters—and how to avoid them

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Unless you’re one of those die-hards who grill all year ‘round (and we salute you if you are), chances are you’ve just started firing up the barbecue and are looking forward to a whole summer of savoury burgers, succulent steaks, and perfectly grilled veggies.

Prime barbecue season is short, so don’t let these potential cookout catastrophes dampen your will to grill.

Disaster 1: Fiery flare-ups

We’ve all been there: everything’s cooking along merrily on the grill and whoosh—a sudden flare-up claims your eyebrows. Cooking over fire involves, well, fire, but there are some tried-and-true ways to avoid really disastrous flames. Each time you finish cooking, turn the heat up high to burn off grease and residue, and clean the grill with a wire brush. Fat flares easy, so trim extra fat and skin on the meat where you can. Create a “two-zone” fire of high and low heat, and move food to the low heat zone until the flames die down. For flares that aren’t close to food, consider dousing them with baking soda, which is more effective than a squirt of water, or close the lid for a few minutes to cut the oxygen supply to the flames.

Disaster 2: Steak cinders and cremated chicken

Higher isn’t necessarily better when it comes to grilling temps, especially for meat like chicken and pork that need to be cooked all the way through before serving. Keep the temperature too high and you’ll end up with an outside that’s black and an inside that’s raw—not a nice combination. (If you like a rare steak, on the other hand, higher temperatures can be good.) Also, don’t add sugary barbecue sauces to your meat until just before they’ve reached their desired doneness—any sooner and you’ll get a bitter coating of burned sugar rather than tasty caramelization.

Disaster 3: Raw meat

This is the opposite of Disaster 2, but it’s equally avoidable. Don’t like cutting into bleeding meat? Make sure your grilling items have a chance to warm up a bit before you put them on the barbecue—don’t try and cook stuff right out of the refrigerator. And (this is especially important for charcoal barbecues) wait until your grill has had a chance to heat up before tossing anything on it.

Disaster 4: Scorched earth

Trimming back branches is probably on your to-do list, but that’s no reason to attack them with a flame-thrower…er, barbecue. To avoid unfortunate conflagrations, make sure your grill is on a level surface that’s free of anything hanging over or into it. And—this should go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway—never, ever use your barbecue in an enclosed space. Never. Ever.

Disaster 5: Getting caught unprepared

You’re all ready to go but there’s no propane. Or you’re at a delicate stage of cooking and you realize your sauce is inside. Before you grill, take the time to prep everything. Is your fuel handy and well supplied? Are all your ingredients and equipment easily grabbable? Don’t get distracted while you’re cooking, either—ask a buddy to grab you a glass of lemonade rather than wandering inside yourself.

Disaster 6: Weird flavours—or no flavour at all

This isn’t as much of a concern with gas grills, but if you’re cooking with charcoal, try and avoid using lighter fluid. A chimney for your wood briquettes will get them lit and hot quickly enough, without all that chemical taste. And don’t poke your meat with a fork to turn it over, because all that lovely meat juice will spill out onto those hot coals. Use tongs and your meat will be much more flavourful. (Just let it rest for a bit when it comes off the grill.)