Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer, and millions of Americans will rush outdoors to light up a grill in celebration. Take some simple steps before, during and after the party to minimize any hangover, gastronomic or otherwise.
Here are some basic do's and don'ts from experts who know how to prevent the most common grilling mishaps.
1. Read or reread the owner's manual for your grill, says Leslie Wheeler, spokeswoman for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, a trade association based in Arlington, Va. Pay particular attention to the manufacturer's safety hints.
2. Give the grill a thorough inspection and cleaning. "Make sure the legs are sturdy, that things haven't rusted out, the vents are working properly and the burners are clean," Wheeler says. With gas grills, make sure there are no holes or leaks in any hoses, that the hoses are properly hooked up and all connections work properly.
3. Use care in positioning the grill. "Lots of people put the grill outside the back door but, really, is that the best place?" Wheeler asks. Grills need to be out of high-traffic areas so children and pets won't bump into them. Ideally, the grill should be at least 10 feet away from the house to reduce fire risk. If you live in a condominium or apartment building, make sure grilling is permitted and know what type of grills are allowed.
4. Pay attention lighting the grill. Open the hood before igniting a gas grill to vent any fumes that may be gathering there, Wheeler says. Don't pour additional lighter fluid on coals after they're lit; you risk a big flare-up.
5. Watch chicken especially. "People are terrified the chicken will be undercooked, so they leave it on too long or on too high a flame," says Cheryl Jamison, co-author with her husband, Bill, of "100 Grilling Recipes You Can't Live Without" (Harvard Common Press, $16.95). "You get a charred surface and chicken sushi inside." Chicken should be grilled over medium heat, Bill adds.
6. Stay focused: "We get frustrated when we see people not sticking with the food," Bill Jamison says. "They're going away, getting a beer, drinking a beer, while the food cooks without them paying any attention to the time or the temperature."
7. Don't move the food about. Put it on the grill, let it get a good sear on both sides, then move the food to more moderate heat to cook through, say the Jamisons, who live in Tesuque, N.M., just outside Santa Fe. Searing eliminates the risk of food sticking to the grill, Cheryl Jamison says.
8. Don't squash the burgers onto the grill. "All the juices will run out," Cheryl Jamison says.
9. Never sauce too soon. "Most sauces on the market are ketchup based, and there's sugar in them," says Myron Mixon, author of "Everyday Barbecue" (Ballantine, $24) and a judge on the reality television series "BBQ Pitmasters." "The sugars caramelize and start burning." He recommends applying sauce to food at the end of the grilling time or serving the sauce in a bowl at the table.
If you want to dab something on the food as it cooks, Mixon, who lives in Unadilla, Ga., recommends an old Southern trick, a mop made of vinegar, salt and red pepper flakes. "Use it for basting, for flavor and for keeping the food from burning," he says.
10. Practice, practice, practice. Mixon says you should try out any unfamiliar grill recipe a few times before adding it to your party lineup. Don't sweat it if the dish doesn't debut on Memorial Day; there's always Independence Day fast approaching.
11. Clean the grill while it's still hot. The work will go faster, Wheeler says. Use a sturdy brush to get any food residue off the grill rack. Make sure the gas is turned off before closing the grill lid. Close the grill vents so a charcoal fire dies out quickly; you should be able to reuse some of the coals next time, she says.