As many would-be grill masters quickly learn, cooking outdoors is as much of an art form as cooking indoors is. While you don’t need to be a top chef to become a barbecue pro, it’s easy to make mistakes when you’re first starting out.
We spoke with celebrity chef, cookbook author and barbecue pro and Rob Rainford, to determine the biggest mistakes amateur grillers make—and how to avoid making them.
Not understanding what you’re cooking
While it may be tempting to get overly ambitious with your meals—or go in the polar opposite direction and only ever cook hot dogs—the key to preparing any meal is to understand the basics. So before you burn that perfectly good ribeye steak beyond recognition, make sure you read up on how to cook the cut.
“Have a working understanding of what you’re cooking and follow the methods set out for you by those who have come before you,” advises Rainford, who was the host of the Food Network’s License to Grill. “Pick something easy and do it 10 times before you move to the next thing. Repetition is the best teacher.”
His go-to meal for beginners is a cut of meat such as a porterhouse steak. “Just don’t overcook it and you’ll be fine,” he says.
Scorching your meal
“Most beginners make the cardinal sin of grilling on too high of heat,” says Rainford. He recommends keeping one side of the barbecue on a lower temperature, which will allow you to move food around as required.
Not using a thermometer
Eyeballing your meat to make sure it’s done probably isn’t the best method—unless you enjoy microwaving chicken that’s pink in the middle. Instead, Rainford says that a thermometer is essential to achieving a perfect level of “doneness.”
For example, a perfect chicken breast is done when its internal temperature is 170 degrees F. If you remove it from the grill at 165 degrees F, the carry-over cooking will take you to the correct temperature. “A little trick like this will turn a novice into a pro,” says Rainford.
Turning meat too often
Pay attention to what you’re cooking—but don’t be too attentive.
“Turning food over and over is a recipe for disaster,” says Rainford. Proteins like steaks, fish and chicken should be cooked on high heat to cook both sides evenly. But for tougher cuts of meat like ribs, use an indirect heat to cook “low and slow.” Finally, don’t worry about not flipping food such as planked items. Using indirect heat will ensure perfect cooking.
Incorrectly seasoning your meat
Rainford suggests testing out your seasoning before you serve your guests. “For burgers and ground meats always portion some off and grill beforehand to see where you are with your spice blends—after the first taste you can make any necessary adjustments,” he suggests.
Getting caught up in gadgets
Don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of tools available for your barbecue. In addition to the basics (tongs and a flipper), Rainford also advises investing in a Looft lighter (a Swedish invention that will start your grill in 60 seconds without lighter fuel) and a good meat thermometer.
What other mistakes do amateur grillers make?