You're grilling it wrong: Top chefs share the worst mistakes they see at every cookout

These indispensable tips will help you level up from amateur hour to legend in your own backyard

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor
Published May 29, 2017 10:30AM (EDT)
Updated May 27, 2021 3:25PM (EDT)
 (Afp/getty Images/ MIGUEL MENDEZ)
(Afp/getty Images/ MIGUEL MENDEZ)

For many, Memorial Day weekend is the official signal that summer is here, and with it comes pool time, beach trips, day drinking — and, often, a string of disappointing cookouts.

That's why Salon spoke with three top chefs about their favorite tips to take your barbecues from blasé to gourmet.

Turning up the heat

José Andrés alum Katie Button was a semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef award from 2012 to 2014 and a finalist in 2014. She also received a nomination for Best Chef Southeast in 2015. Currently, she is the chef and owner of Cúrate Tapas Bar and Nightbell in Asheville, N.C.

"Not giving the grill enough time to heat up — this is probably the biggest mistake that people make grilling," Button said. "When you get the coals started you have to let them heat up for at least 30 minutes."

You need to burn off the dark black exterior of the coal and get that white-hot appearance before they are truly ready to be used; you can control the heat by using the flue, something Button doesn't see too many people utilize.

"So, most grills have a lower vent and an upper vent," she said. "To get the grill started, you want them both wide open because you need as much oxygen as you can get to light them."

Finally, before you grill or barbecue your meat, Button recommends allowing it to come up to room temperature (rather than just slapping an icy slab of beef over the open-flames!).

"This is really important because it allows more even cooking," she said. "If your steak is at room temp, you can grill it pretty quickly on both sides and hit a great even cooking temperature throughout."

Getting too saucy

Alex McCoy — who was the chef/owner of Duke's Grocery in Washington, D.C. until 2014 and has since created the menus for a number of area establishments — said one of the biggest mistakes he sees at holiday cookouts is over-marinating. He's talking about plates full of grilled chicken sitting in a pool of Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce, with a few stray flecks of garlic powder clinging to the skin. If you walk over to the burgers, you'll see the same thing. Everything — from chicken legs to pork chops — gets over-marinated.

"If you are doing [something] like a carne asada, which is traditionally meant to be marinated, that's great," McCoy said. "But you know, when you're dealing with really high-quality, good meat? Just kind of let it be what it is."

McCoy said this is a best practice for a few reasons. First, depending on the cut of meat, marinating may not even be necessary.

"The point of marinating isn't just necessarily just [to add] flavor, but it's generally used to tenderize," he said. "Originally, if you had a really cheap piece of meat, you would marinate and the sugars and salts and such in there kind of tenderize it."

This is why you don't often see marinated filets on menus — that cut is already super tender, with a natural meaty flavor.

Again, depending on the cut of meat, marinating with too much salt can actually leach the moisture out, resulting in a dry, shriveled bite.

"If you want something to kind of jazz it up a bit, start thinking about sauces as opposed to marinades — chimichurri or a romesco," McCoy said. "Things like that which are easy to make can enhance a dish without actually changing the dynamic of the meat itself."

Forgetting the details

Loreal Gavin is the author of "The Butcher Babe Cookbook: Comfort Food Hacked by a Classically Trained Chef." The Louisville-based chef who is best known for her appearance on "Food Network Star" as the "Butcher Babe." 

Tomatoes are one of Gavin's favorite burger toppings — but only if they're fresh and prepped properly.

"A common mistake when putting a nice and ripe piece of tomato on a burger is forgetting to salt and pepper the tomato," Gavin said. "It's those little attentions to detail that will take you from 'hum-ho' to 'grilling pro.'"

But let's say you go to the supermarket, and all the tomatoes look squishy or discolored. That's when Gavin would advocate for going green: "Even though we don't consider a green tomato to be a great burger topper, it actually is. All you need to do is slice it very thinly lengthwise and pickle it."

Not into planning that far ahead? Gavin has tips for stacking the perfect burger every time.

"Basically, you're building an edible house out of meat and salad fixin's," she said. "I try to layer the various ingredients in a way that protects the integrity of the veggies while letting the burger patty remain in the star role."

That means separating the wet ingredients, like the tomato or pickles, from the bun — which, she says, is "crucial" to toast.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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