Tips for Grilling Safely This Summer
Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer and that means prime cookout season. Many of us will be lighting up the grill, pulling out the yard games and reigniting the “Who makes it better?” debate for the first time this year. Since safety is usually the last thing that comes to mind when we’re gearing up for backyard barbecue season – and there’s an average of 9,600 grill-related fires in the U.S. every year – brush up on these proper use tips for using charcoal and propane grills.
1. Inspect the grill for signs of wear and tear.
Pulling out the grill for the first time in a while? Check it over for damage. Decommission a grill if its body is broken or rusty. Same goes for a fuel tank – if it’s beat up with rust, dents or cracks, it’s at risk for explosion and you need to replace it.
2. Check for leaks on gas grills before you get started.
Inspect the valve and hose running from the fuel tank for any leaks: Make a light soapy solution with water and dish detergent, then sponge it onto the valve and hose. Turn the gas on (do not ignite the grill) and watch the gas line carefully. If there’s a break anywhere, you’ll see bubbles form at the sight of the leak.
If there’s a leak, repair or replace parts before using your grill again. Replacement grill hoses are available at many home improvement stores and you may be handy enough to replace them yourself. However, valves can present more of a challenge. Professional repair and/or grill replacement is recommended if there’s serious valve damage.
3. Grill away from the house, garage, trees and other structures.
The heat of the grill can melt siding, cause smoke damage or grease stains, and may even ignite any dry grass, leaves, branches, shrubs and decks. Leave plenty of clearance on all sides of the grill and make sure there’s nothing overhead that can melt, catch fire or otherwise incur damage from heat and smoke.
If you’re cooking something with lots of fat or oil, be aware that melting fats can cause fires to momentarily sputter and spark. Also, charcoal grills tend to need even more space, since the open flames during the warm-up period are much more volatile than the controlled flames on a gas grill. Charcoal is also more likely to produce sparks.
4. The grill should be placed on a stable, non-combustible surface. Do not grill in enclosed spaces.
Wooden porches and decks aren’t the safest places to grill, because the associated heat could damage or set fire to flammable materials like wood floors. Fires produce carbon monoxide as they burn, so don’t use your grill anywhere that’s not extremely well ventilated or there will be a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
5. Light the grill correctly.
How to light a gas grill
When you’re lighting a gas grill, a misstep can cause a minor explosion or worse. Hint: Do not close the grill when the gas is on, but the fire’s not burning. This causes propane to build up to dangerous levels, which may explode once you introduce a spark or match! Don’t be one of the unfortunate people who learns this from experience.
- Step one: open the grill.
- Step two: turn on the gas via the valve on the propane tank.
- Step three: light the grill using the grill’s quick ignition switch or a match (this final step depends on the make and model of your grill, so consult its instruction booklet or website if necessary). Once your burners are functioning, you’re free to get your grill on.
How to light a charcoal grill
Charcoal grills require you to light the coals and then allow them to burn down into the ashy-white embers that provide steady, even heat for cooking. This can take 10-30 minutes depending on factors like how much coal you’re using and the size of the grill. To aid in this process, people usually use either a charcoal chimney, lighter fluid or quick-lighting briquettes that are pre-treated with fuel. We recommend the chimney method because it’s safer (it’s way too easy to use a dangerous amount of lighter fluid, and briquettes may contain toxic additives) and less likely to leave unpleasant tastes behind.
- Open the grill vents – there’s usually one on top of the grill and one on the bottom.
- Place newspaper at the bottom of the charcoal chimney, then fill the rest with charcoal and light the newspaper. The newspaper will act as kindling for the charcoal, which will burn hot for several minutes before reaching an ashy-white condition appropriate for cooking.
- Once the coals reach temperature, you can pour them out into the bottom of the grill, below the cooking grates. Check the manufacturer’s instructions for any specific indications and use a heavy-duty oven mitt to protect yourself from burns.
6. Turn it off correctly, too!
How to shut down a gas grill
Many people like to leave propane grills on for a few minutes after cooking to burn off excess sauce or food from the grates. If you do this, keep a timer nearby so you can set it to go off for about five minutes after you remove the food.
- Once you’re ready to turn it off, turn the grill’s knobs to the “off” positions then twist the propane nozzle to “closed”.
- If you turn off the gas before you turn off the burners, some grills have a safety bypass valve that can prevent the grill from starting up next time. Check your grill instructions if you have any questions about this feature.
How to shut down a charcoal grill
With a charcoal grill, you need to take special care to cool off the coals and dispose of them properly.
- To suffocate the flames, put the lid on the grill and close all of its vents; this cuts off the oxygen supply, which eventually extinguishes any visible flames or burning.
- Dumping water on the coals is not recommended because it creates a hazardous amount of steam and possibly a wet mix of charcoal dust that’s difficult to clean out of the bottom of the grill.
- Once the coals look extinguished, they will still retain heat and remain capable of sparking an accidental fire for a long time. Many grill manufacturers recommend leaving a charcoal grill closed for a full 48 hours and allowing it to cool to the touch before disposing of the ashes.
- If you can’t give it the full 48 hours, leave the grill closed as long as possible and then use mitts and tongs to carefully transfer the coals into a heatproof bucket of water.
- Transfer fully cooled coals and dust to a heat proof non-combustible container like a metal canister, or wrap them in foil. Then they can be placed in a non-combustible outdoor trash can (metal is best).
7. Be prepared to put out fires.
Grill fires often contain fat or grease, and these types of cooking fires can’t be put out with water. In fact, water makes grease fires worse. Instead, have a dry chemical fire extinguisher nearby. Remember, you will need to act fast because of the cooking fuel involved.
If a spark from your fire ignites something nearby and there’s no cooking grease or oil involved (for example, if your charcoal flame catches some dry brush) then you can use water to prevent it from spreading. You may want to have your garden hose or a bucket of water at the ready just in case.
8. Food safety goes beyond fire prevention.
You don’t want guests to remember your cookout for the wrong reasons! Avoid illness, discomfort and spoilage by handling your food properly.
- Avoid cross-contamination between raw foods and cooked or ready-to-eat foods. Discard marinades used on raw meats and bring any dishes used to hold them right back to the kitchen for cleaning. Wash your hands after handling raw meat and use fresh plates for freshly grilled food.
- Use a meat thermometer to ensure you’ve reached the requisite internal temperatures for meat doneness. Consult a meat temperature guide if you have any questions.
- Don’t allow prepared foods to sit at room temperature for too long. Foodborne bacteria proliferates the fastest at summertime temperatures (70-117 degrees F) which can make people sick, especially immunocompromised people like children or the elderly. Keep prepared food hot until it’s ready to be served. Once you’re done eating, wrap up perishable foods and get them into the refrigerator or on ice.