Follow these tips for mouthwatering results.

Camp chicken dinner over grill

Thomas J. Story

Just as winter is a time for hearty stew or a cup of hot cocoa, summer is the grilling season. (After all, what better meal to enjoy on a warm summer day than a kebab of charred vegetables, a juicy burger, or a hot dog that’s topped with all your favorite condiments? Our mouths are watering just thinking about it.) 

That said, there’s more to grilling than slapping a slab of meat on your grates, cranking up the burners, and waiting until your entrée of choice has a few char marks. Like the recipes you cook inside your home, grilling is an art that takes time, patience, and some strategy. Since grilling is a learned skill, mistakes are inevitable—but, with the right culinary know-how, those food faux pas are only temporary.

Ready to make this grilling season your best one yet? We asked two professional pitmasters to share the biggest barbecue blunders—and how to fix them. That way, your time at the grill can be all sizzle and no fizzle.

Saw Naing Fans the Grill
The grill at The Dutchess in Ojai.

Thomas J. Story

Mistake #1: Under-Utilizing Your Grill

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According to Nick Prince, owner of Post Oak BBQ in Denver, the way you use your grill can affect the outcome of your meal. Instead of scattering a bunch of burger patties on the grate and hoping for the best, put a little strategy into your setup. “You can set yourself up for direct-heat grilling to sear your meats and veggies or place the coals on one side of the grill and your meat on the other and slow-cook your meat,” he explains. “If you don’t set your grill up properly for these, the results will probably not be what you’re looking for.” However, when used properly, grills can be a multipurpose tool that makes a myriad of marvelous meals.

Mistake #2: Overthinking the Cleaning Process

Though it’s important to clean your grill on a regular basis—after all, those charred crisp and burnt bits that fall through the grates aren’t doing your future meals any favors—you don’t need to bust out the harsh, chemical-laced cleaners. Some pros argue that the whole process can be as quick and easy as scraping the creosote and fat drippings from the bottom and walls of the smoker or grill. “We use inexpensive putty knives with some flex and lightly scrape the buildup and discard,” explains Wyatt Fields, owner and pitmaster of Breakwater Barbecue in El Granada, California. “This should take no more than 10 minutes.” Fields also wipes the walls of the smoker with rendered beef fat to further protect the inside “seasoning” of the smoker. “Think cast-iron pan,” the barbecue pro explains. “This prevents ‘off flavored smoke’ and promotes a good starting point for the cook.” If you don’t have rendered beef fat around, a neutral oil spray or Crisco works just fine.

Grill at Bacanora
The grill at Bacanora in Phoenix.

Thomas J. Story

Mistake #3: Adding Your Meat Too Quickly

As the saying goes, good things come to those who wait—and barbecue is no exception. While it can be so easy to rush through the grilling process, Fields says one of the biggest mistakes is adding your food to the grill too early. “Make sure to leave some time for a proper bed of coals to turn gray before adding your desired wood chunks or chips to a hot bed of coals,” Fields explains. As this pro puts it, this one small tweak is so worth the wait. “With a good coal bed developed, you now have a canvas to work with and can then manipulate your vents and or stack to get the proper smoke flavor you intend without letting that grill or smoker control you the whole cook,” Fields adds.

Mistake #4: Selecting the Wrong Wood Chips

If you want to add a smoky flavor to your ingredients, any species of wood chips or chunks will do, right? Not so much. Since all wood species have their unique aromas and notes, Fields says that it’s important to think through your selection. For example, anyone who is new to grilling through wood chips and chunks should opt for a more neutral species like white oak, almond, or pecan.“Save the hickory and mesquite for a test cook as these blends tend to be pretty powerful on smoke and can smother lighter meats like ribs, chicken, or fish with intense smoke flavor that may overwhelm the food,” Fields explains.

Pork Ribs and Big Sur Smokehouse Brisket recipes
Big Sur Smokehouse Brisket

Iain Bagwell

Mistake #5: Deprioritizing the Process

Make no mistake, you could add some burgers to a grill, flip after a few minutes, and serve. However, if you want to take your grilling to the next level, it’s important to do some research into the best steps and practices. “The most common mistakes with grills and smokers that we hear of center around people not understanding the entire cooking process for the meal that they are trying to make,” Prince says. 

Case in point: A tender brisket. “If I’m cooking [one] on an offset smoker—which has a large cook chamber, fire on one side, and a smokestack on the other—I need to know how the heat and smoke travel through the pit and how it will affect my cook,” he explains. “I need to understand where the hot spots on the unit are, the way that the fire reacts when I build it in certain ways, and the desired look and feel of the meat at the end of the cook.”

Though your grill or smoker’s manufacturer should have tips and tricks for making the most of your setup, you can always check out our summer-ready recipes for inspiration.

Mistake #6: Eating Your Meat Too Quickly

Remember what we said about waiting to add your food to a grill? Well, that same mentality applies when allowing your meat to rest. “It’s as important as the cook,” Prince says. “While resting, the meat has a chance to relax, reabsorb juices and seasonings, and become as tender as it should be.” For some pointers, Prince says that a steak should be rested for an equal amount of time that it was on the fire cooking. Meanwhile, a brisket can be rested for up to 12 hours or more with “fantastic results.” “Beware however, meat continues to cook during this process,” he adds. “So make sure you’re taking your meat off the fire at the proper temperature to account for this carryover effect.”

Matt Horn Ribs
Perfectly Smoked Spare Ribs

Thomas J. Story

Mistake #7: Rushing the Process of Shopping for Your Meats

While good grilling know-how will get you far, the cut and quality of meat is at the core of any excellent barbecue. You could pick up a pre-packaged filet at the supermarket, but the pros recommend buying from a knowledgeable butcher. “Make sure to develop a relationship with your local butcher shop,” Fields says. “Getting to know them by name will prove to be such a valuable relationship!” Who knows? If you become friendly with your local butcher, they might even offer their pro tips or give you an extra-special cut.