You may be ready to grill this summer, but is your grill actually ready? It’s very likely coated in a thick layer of cooked-on food and grease that can make you sick or even start a fire.
To help you figure out how to get your grill in proper working order, we’ve consulted a group of professional cleaners and grilling experts to explain why it’s important to clean your grill, how to do a thorough “deep clean” and how to maintain your grill throughout the busy summer season.
The dangers of a dirty grill
Cleaning a grill before starting a season of heavy usage (like the summer) and doing smaller cleanings throughout that busy time serves a number of valuable purposes.
For one thing, leaving grease and food buildup on the grill “is a food safety issue,” said Elizabeth Davis, eco-cleaning professional and founder of Hudstone Home, an Australian company that produces eco-friendly cleaning goods. “If there is food or grease buildup on your grill, it can attract bacteria” like salmonella, listeria or E. coli, which can transfer to the food on the grill and cause foodborne illness.
Dirt, food particles, ash and grease can also turn a grill “into a fire hazard,” warns Davis. When an overly greasy grill is ignited, the flames can travel and spread, and bits of inflamed food residue may drift off the grill top, which can then ignite grass, sticks or other flammable materials around the grill.
Finally, a failure to maintain your grill may lessen the life span of this piece of equipment. “If you don’t clean your grill, it can cause rusting,” Davis said.
How to deep clean your grill
To kick off barbecue season on the right foot, take the time to give your grill a thorough deep clean. This in-depth process only needs to be done once a year, but it will set you up for success throughout the summer season and beyond. Susie Bulloch, the Utah-based owner and founder of Hey Grill Hey (an online resource for barbecue advice, recipes and product links), gave us a step-by-step guide to the annual grill deep clean:
1. Remove the grill accessories.
Bulloch starts by “removing all loose components, including the grates, burner covers, drip trays, grease catchers and even the burner knobs.” She then sets these pieces aside for cleaning.
2. Scrape out the interior of the grill.
Bulloch recommends picking up “a cheap putty knife from the hardware store.” She then “uses the sharp edge of the putty knife to scrape off any caked-on debris from inside of your grill or from your loose components (the grates, burner covers, drip trays and so on).”
3. Degrease the accessories.
To clean the grates, drip trays, burner covers and other accessories, “use a natural, food-safe citrus degreaser to spray down your loose components. All the grates, trays and knobs get thoroughly saturated in degreaser and then wiped down. The best tool for this job is a classic kitchen sponge with a scrubby (but not overly abrasive) side,” Bulloch said. Instead of a store-bought degreaser, you can also use a DIY spray made with equal parts water and white vinegar.
4. Clean the interior of the grill.
While the grates and trays are cleared out of the grill, use the degreaser (whether store bought or homemade) and sponge to spray down and wipe out the grill’s interior. “Be sure to avoid getting cleaner inside any elements where fuel needs to flow (especially those tiny holes on the burners of your gas grill),” Bulloch warned.
5. Clean the exterior of the grill.
Use a microfiber cloth to wipe down the exterior of the grill. If you encounter grease stains or stubborn bits of residue, “use additional degreaser or a stainless-steel cleaner” to clear them away, Bulloch advised.
6. Reassemble the grill.
Now that the accessories, the interior and the exterior are clean, it’s time to put the pieces back together. “You’ll want to add all your cleaned components back to your grill and re-assemble according to the manufacturer’s instructions,” Bulloch instructed.
7. Heat the grill.
The final step to cleaning the grill is to ignite it and “turn it to high heat. This will help burn off any residue from your cleaning process and ensure that your grill is ready for cooking,” Bulloch said.
If you’re using a wood-burning grill or a charcoal grill, Leroy Hite, the CEO of Cutting Edge Firewood (a company that sells wood for grilling and smoking), said high heat exposure is really “the best way to clean grills.” He advises opening the vents at the top and bottom “for maximum airflow,” putting a large amount of charcoal or wood pellets into the grill, and using a fire starter to ignite. Then, you’ll close the lid once the wood or charcoal is lit and “burning well.”
Bring the internal temperature to 500 degrees Fahrenheit and partially close the top and bottom vents to cut off some of the airflow and slowly increase the temperature. Let the temperature rise until it’s above 500 degrees and below 600 degrees. “If you get too close to 600 degrees F, it will cause excessive wear and tear on the grill,” Hite warned.
He said to keep an eye out for “dark smoke billowing out of the top (the darker the smoke, the dirtier the grill is).” When the smoke fades away and becomes colorless, that’s when the grill is clean. You can now “let the temperature drop for several hours or overnight. Once the grill/smoker is no longer hot, remove all the ash.”
How to maintain your grill throughout the season
Clean the grates and drip trays once a month.
While the big deep clean should be an annual tradition, it’s important to do smaller upkeep cleanings during the grill season. Cole Hansen, a corporate chef for Johnsonville Sausage in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, recommends cleaning those grates at least once a month. The drip trays should also be cleaned at least monthly, and as for the rest of the grill, Gabby Martin, cleaning supervisor with Bio Recovery eco-friendly cleaning services, suggests “cleaning if the grime is noticeable or at least an inch thick. When left uncleaned, residue from the charcoal or heat can build up carcinogenic material and not only affect air quality but also transfer potential health hazards to your foods.”
Vacuum pellet and charcoal grills out on a regular basis.
As Hite mentioned above, wood grills and charcoal grills produce a significant amount of ash. For that reason, it’s smart to “vacuum the barrel [of these grills] after every five uses,” says home improvement expert Kathryn Emery, who runs the Be The Best Home blog. Emery tells us that “a small handheld vacuum” is a good tool for this purpose.
Keep your grill covered when it’s not in use.
One easy way to maintain your grill’s cleanliness is to “be sure to keep your grill covered.” This will prevent pollen or dust buildup, and if you’re working with a stainless steel grill, the cover will also help you avoid rusting or discoloration.