Not Prepping Your Grill Correctly Could Make You Sick—Here's How Do It

Have you ever wondered why barbecue upsets your stomach? We’ve got answers and solutions.

Eager cooks can find myriad reasons to make dinner on the grill every night. From chicken and steak to pizza, parboiled potatoes, bread, and even dessert (you can grill raspberry s'mores or apple crisp), almost everything becomes more delicious after a spin over charcoal or the flames of a gas grill. However, have you ever wondered why barbecue upsets your stomach sometimes? One thing no one wants to take away from their smoky piece of grilled fish is a food-borne illness. Find out why grilled foods spike food poisoning cases in the summertime. Also, learn how to prep your grill to make sure your food doesn't harbor any hidden bacteria that can make you and your family sick.

Grilled Food Safety

It is entirely possible an over-eager cook could set up their family and dinner guests for an upset stomach or worse if they don't do this one essential step:

Preheat the grill and scrub it clean before cooking.

Why? Grills can harbor pieces of food for days, weeks, or even months after the dish has been consumed. The food that remains on the grill is an attraction for birds, insects, and other animals. These creatures can introduce any number of bacteria (and even waste) to the grill's surface if the grill top is left open. Plus, leftover food bits are a magnet for bacteria, and the remnants can produce unusual odors or flavors in the food you're cooking on top of them.

If you fire up the grill and plop tonight's steak over the remnants of last night's pork chop, you might introduce bacteria that could lead to gastric distress, bloating, cramping, diarrhea, or vomiting. What's more, if you don't clean tonight's steak off the grill when you fire it up for tomorrow's corn on the cob, you could repeat the tummy-turning experience. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says cases of food poisoning spike in the summer, in part because cooking outdoors and grilling introduces a lot of opportunity for costly mistakes.

Don't assume high heat kills off harmful bacteria.

Many cooks assume the high heat of a grill's fire is all that's needed to destroy any bacteria that linger on the grates. While it is true the flames will do a decent job of blasting away those germs, they aren't 100 percent effective. And if you don't give the flames time to do the work, they won't have any cleaning impact whatsoever, which is why it's essential to preheat the grill.

How to Properly Prepare a Grill

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Preheat the grill for five to 10 minutes.

Don't skimp on this part of the process, even if you're in a hurry. Not only will the preheating phase begin the process of burning away the stuck-on food bits and destroying bacteria, but it also helps prime the grates for tonight's meal. Grates that aren't preheated are too cold, relatively speaking, to properly cook your food. If you stick a piece of chicken on grill grates that are too cool, the piece of grilled chicken will bond to the grates, and removing it will be nearly impossible. What you'll get when you try to move the stuck-on chicken is shreds and tears with no perfect sear marks.

Gas grills may need a 10- to 15-minute preheat stage because the flames and heat on these cookers aren't as strong as charcoal grills. It takes longer for the metal bars or ceramic rods to get warm enough for cooking food safely. Charcoal grills naturally produce more radiant heat, so they may not need as long to heat up.

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Scrub the grill surface.

Don't waste your time scrubbing a cold grill, and don't spend the extra minutes after you've cooked cleaning it. The best time to clean your grill's grates is immediately after it's preheated and before you begin cooking again. That's when the grease and residue on the grill grates will be easiest to remove, and any food—or remnants of animals that visited between your meals—will be scrubbed away. Make sure you have a sturdy wire brush in your arsenal of grilling tools. The Cuisinart Wood Grill Cleaning Brush is one of our favorite grill cleaners. If bristles pop loose while cleaning, throw the brush away. You don't want loose wires near your food.

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Oil the grates if necessary.

Many foods won't stick to properly heated grill grates, but some delicate ones—fish, vegetables, or fruit—might just because of their tender nature. You can help keep these foods from sticking by using a nonstick oil designed for grills. This oil coating will reduce any stuck-on residue that can later become a bacteria target.

Use a cooking oil with a high smoke point, like canola oil or corn oil. Olive oil may burn too easily, leaving the food with a bitter or off-flavor. To quickly oil the grill, dip a paper towel in a small bowl filled with the oil. Grab the paper towel with long tongs and rub it over the grates. If flames are shooting up from the charcoal or burners, wait until they've died down so you don't risk igniting the paper towel.

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