Don’t bungle your burger or screw up your steak

Story highlights

Meat too wet with marinade will negate your grill efforts

Don't handle the meat too much

Kosher salt, fresh-ground pepper and olive oil all are you really need

CNN  — 

We’ve all seen, smelled, eaten and regretted some mighty bad grilling mishaps over the years, and it’s always such a shame. The meat is juuust a little overdone, under-seasoned, inedibly dry, or even reeking of creepy chemicals. With a few tweaks, dinner would have been a winner.

This will not happen again. Not on our watch. Here is some of the best advice we’ve collected from readers and experts to help you avoid the biggest grilling mistakes.

Marinade mistake

“If you use a marinade, always be sure to pat your meat dry once you’ve removed it from the marinade. If marinated appropriately, the marinade will have already penetrated the meat with its flavor, sealing it inside. If the meat is too wet, you will create a steam effect and negate your grill efforts, not achieving that desired golden color.

Regarding marinade time frames, fish and shrimp need the least amount of time, about 1 to 2 hours, while beef, pork and chicken take longer, anywhere from 4 to 12 to 24 hours, depending on the cut. Place meat and marinade in a plastic Ziploc bag (with air removed) in the fridge.”

Raise up the flavor

“In order to build layers of flavor in your meat, always start with a rub and finish with a good BBQ sauce. For a basic rub, I use a combination of salt, pepper, paprika, chili powder, brown sugar, garlic and onion powders, but use your imagination and be inventive with additional add-ins. When the meat’s near done, the rub gives the BBQ sauce something to stick to, bringing out the flavor.

Always use the BBQ sauce towards the end of grilling, during the last 10 to 20 minutes, as BBQ sauces often have high sugar content, some more than others, and will burn off before your meat is done.

For a quick homemade BBQ sauce, grab some ketchup, vinegar, brown sugar, mustard and honey – this combination will give you a sweet/savory/sour flavor combination.”

Related link: Should you eat carbs?

What’s that stench from the other side of the fence?

You’re globbing on sweet, bottled barbecue sauce at the beginning, rather than daubing it on – sparingly – at the end. The sugars in that stuff burn quickly and start to smoke. It smells like brimstone and tastes even worse.

Maybe you’re using those awful little smoke pellets impregnated with microscopic shavings of “real wood” for an “authentic smoke flavor.” Know what also brings great smoke flavor? Real wood. You can soak chunks and chips of hickory, mesquite or fruit wood in water or a bit of beer and fold them into a perforated foil pouch instead of setting toxic-smelling little chunks of chemicals on fire next to food you will be serving to people you love.

Get the gunk off

Once the grate is cool, wrap it in newspapers or paper towels that have been soaked in hot water with a healthy dose of a grease cutting detergent, Put the grate in a plastic garbage bag so the papers don’t dry out, and leave it overnight.

The next day, more hot soapy water and little steel wool cleans everything right up in just a few minutes. Rinse well and let air dry, and then you’re good to go the next time around. It may take a little longer if you wait several days, or it’s been a while since the grate got a thorough cleaning.

Better beef makes a better burger

The type of beef itself is worth paying attention to first, i.e. 20-30% fat and grass-fed for burgers.

Outside of burning or overcooking the beef, what influences the flavor and texture (and whether you like the steak or not) more than anything is the origin of the beef – the specific farm, breed, growing region, diet, aging time and technique, and the talent of those who raise and age it.

I used to blame myself for a crappy tasting steak. Nowadays, I know better, says Carrie Oliver. The steak or burger from one farm might appeal to me more than that from others. It’s a matter or personal preference. If you want to have a reasonably consistent, pleasant beef experience it’s important to know who raised & aged it and how. If you find one you really like, you can stock up the freezer with more.

Smoke is no joke

When it comes to grilling, use chips that are not wet. Yes, wet chips do last longer but not by that much. Try this experiment. Take a couple of chips and soak them for 24 hours and then cut them in half. I’m willing to bet that the liquid only made it 1/16th of an inch.

A better way is to make a ‘smoke bomb’ from a single layer of aluminum foil. Put a handful of chips in the center and fold it over and seal. Make 2 to 3 1/4 inch holes and put it on the hot coals, but off to the side. You’ll get that bit of smoky flavor and not have to worry about ‘burning’ through your chips.

Brilliant burgers

Don’t handle the meat too much. Form it into loosely packed patties that are slightly lower in the middle than on the sides. The dimple will even out as the meat cooks.

For the love of all that is holy, don’t mash down with a spatula while the patties are cooking. Yes, it’s fun to hear the tsssssssss sound as the juice hits the coals, but that’s flavor you’re wasting.

Don’t fuss with the patties while they’re cooking. Cook on one side, flip once and cook the other. That’s it.

Sear-ious steak

Most of the burger tips apply to steak as well – grill screaming hot, don’t move it around too much, just the one flip, don’t skimp on fat.

We will, however, make an exception for grill marks. Halfway through cooking a side, lift the steak and rotate it 45 degrees for a killer, professional-looking crosshatch.

Blot the meat with a paper towel before you season and cook it. Wet spots just steam the meat and you’re cheating yourself out of delicious char.

Speaking of seasoning, kosher salt, fresh-ground pepper and olive oil all are you really need. It’s great to get fancy with marinades, but it’s STEAK. Just enhance the glorious flavor of it, and you’ll be good to go.

Once you take the steak from the grill, let it rest on a board for about 10 minutes to let the juices redistribute. It’ll be uniformly delicious and cut like butter.

‘Tis the seasoning

Think of your cast iron grill grates as a giant skillet. It only takes a little bit of tender loving care to keep them in tip-top, rust-free condition for a very long time.

Just rub unsalted canola or vegetable oil, lard or bacon grease onto all surfaces after they’ve been cleaned. Place them back in the grill and let them heat up to 350°F for about 45 minutes. Then, using a silicone brush or a paper towel held in some tongs, carefully coat the grates again and bump up the temperature to 450°F for another 45 minutes.

If you’ve got stainless steel grates, a coating of cooking oil works wonders to preserve them through multiple grilling seasons. After they’ve been cleaned, cover them in a light coating of vegetable oil and return them to the grill. On your next outing, make sure the grate heats up for 15 minutes before you place any food on it and add additional oil to prevent stuck-on muck.

Feel free to vent

Vents are key in controlling temperature and oxygen flow, but if smoke and air can’t drift through easily, foul fumes are just trapped inside the chamber – and your food.

Use a brush, rag or cotton swab to get into every crevice, and test hinges and screws to make sure they haven’t rusted or stuck in place. A bit of canola oil may help keep parts sliding freely.

Fuel that rules

Maximum fire flavor comes from hardwood lump charcoal. It’s generally not treated with extra chemicals and it’s a cinch to light, once you know the trick.

That’d be a chimney starter. It’s a vented, metal, handled cylinder with a shelf inside. Just grab a sheet of newspaper and start folding the long end in on itself, until halfway up. Then bring the shorter edges together in a ring, and crumple the unfolded portion of the paper into the center until it looks like a little hat. If you’d care to double down on your firepower, crumble in some additional paper and swab it with a touch of vegetable oil.

Tuck that into the bottom of the chimney starter and pour the coals into the top portion. Make sure you’re in a cleared area – outside, always outside – with no ambient, flammable branches, grass, untucked sleeves, hair, children, dogs, etc., around. Then light the paper through the bottom vents. It will catch fire, igniting the coals from below.

Once the coals are no longer glowing and have a light layer of white ash, pour them – carefully, as they tend to spark – into the bottom of your grill. If you feel like getting a bit fancy, throw in a few sprigs of water-soaked rosemary or a handful of those wood chunks or chips.

It’ll all just taste better – and your nose will know the difference.