Nothing gets your heart racing quite like the sight of flames leaping up from the grill—especially when they leap a bit too high. It’s the bane of every outdoor chef, and one that can affect the quality of your food even if you manage to escape with your eyebrows intact. In our guide, we’ll provide you with tips on how to prevent grill flare-ups and how to deal with them when they do occur.
About Grill Flare-Ups
Anyone who’s ever grilled before knows that a certain amount of fat is required to prevent sticking. For vegetables and lean meats, this often means coating the cooking grates with a thin layer of neutral oil. For burgers and certain cuts of beef or pork, however, the fat content in the meat provides enough lubrication to get the job done. In either case, if there’s too much fat on the grill, it will drip down onto the coals. That’s what causes the flames to leap up.
Flare-ups occur most frequently when the food is flipped over after it’s finished cooking on one side. That’s because the fat that collected on the top gets dumped into the fire all at once. One way to minimize this effect is to use ingredients that are less fatty to begin with (see Cut Down on Fat, below). You can also try moving the food to the cooler half of the grill when you flip it over, gradually moving it over to the hotter section as the uncooked side begins to sear.
Because most gas grills are outfitted with built-in drip guards that are designed to redirect this fat runoff, flare-ups are more common in charcoal grills. As lifelong proponents of charcoal grilling, this is understandably upsetting to us. Although we recognized that some flare-ups are to be expected, we prefer to avoid them whenever possible.
Are Flare-Ups and Grease Fires The Same Thing?
Not exactly. Grease fires occur when a large amount of fat catches on fire, causing the flames to spread and continue to burn. Flare-ups, meanwhile, are caused by small concentrations of fat, and they typically ignite and burn out quickly.
Does that mean that you shouldn’t be concerned about grease fires when grilling? Not at all. In fact, the drip guards on gas grills can actually contribute to the risk. That’s because all that excess fat builds up over time, which could be disastrous if it’s ignited accidentally. For advice on how to deal with this situation, see How To Extinguish a Grease Fire, below.
How To Prevent Grill Flare-Ups
Understanding what causes the flare-ups is a step in the right direction. Now let’s go over all the things you can do to avoid them.
Clean The Grill
This is excellent advice in general, but it’s just as important for food safety as it is for cosmetic reasons. As we mentioned, grease buildup can increase the risk of grease fires as well as flare-ups.
After cooking, wait until the grill has had a chance to cool down, then remove the cooking grates. Scrub the grates with a stiff wire brush to remove any stubborn food particles, then wash them thoroughly in hot soapy water. Don’t neglect the underside of the lid or the cooking chamber itself.
If the grill has a drip tray or grease pan, empty it and clean it thoroughly after each use. It might put a damper on your evening, but it’s better than dealing with excess flare-ups the next time you grill.
Cut Down on Fat
If the food you’re grilling is naturally oily to begin with, don’t be tempted to add any more. Chicken thighs, sausages, burgers, and well-marbled steaks won’t need any outside help. In fact, we would advise trimming steaks so that there’s no more than 1/4-inch of fat around the edges. Not only will this reduce your flare-up risk, but it’s also a healthier way to grill.
You can also minimize the amount of fat that goes on the grill by reducing the oil content in your marinades. Many of these recipes rely on other ingredients for flavor and tenderizing, so there’s no need to use a great deal of oil. If the meat does look oily when you take it out of the marinade, blot away the excess with paper towels.
Preheat the Grates
This is important for any unit, but it’s vital if you’re using a gas-fired unit, particularly one that’s equipped with drip guards that might be harboring grease buildup. After lighting the burners, allow the grill to heat up for 15-20 minutes before adding any food. During that time, most of the excess grease should have a chance to burn off.
Build a Two-Zone Fire
When you create a fire that’s hotter on one side than the other, you minimize the risk of flare-ups. It also means that you’ll have a place to put your ingredients while you wait for any existing flare-ups to die down.
To build a two-zone fire in a charcoal grill, pile your coals on one side of the grill and leave the other half empty. Use a chimney starter or whatever method you prefer to light the coals. When the grill is ready, you’ll have one side that’s hot enough to sear meat and a cooler side that will merely keep foods warm. Remember not to build the pile too high—if they’re too close to the food, the coals will catch the fat drippings more quickly.
If you’re using a gas grill, creating a two-zone fire is a snap. Just ignite one half of the grill and cook all your ingredients on that side.
Grill With The Lid Open
When grilling foods that are high in fat, keep the lid open. You’ll be able to see any potential flare-ups as they occur, giving you more time to react.
Keep The Grill Out of the Wind
Your grill should be set up in a relatively sheltered area, away from any drafts. Excess oxygen will cause the fire to burn hotter, increasing the risk of flare-ups. This is why charcoal grills are equipped with air vents—to control the flow of oxygen.
Burn Off Buildup
Keep a close eye on the drip guards when cooking on a gas grill. If you notice grease beginning to build up, take the food off the grill immediately and remove it to a plate. Turn the burners to high and wait for the grease to burn off before returning the food to the cooking grates.
How To Control Grill Flare-Ups
Knowing how to prevent grill flare-ups is only half the battle. If you’ve taken all the suggested precautions and find yourself dealing with a flare-up anyway, don’t panic. It happens to the best of us, and there’s usually a quick fix.
Move The Ingredients
Since the issue arose from something you placed on the grill, the first thing you should do is move the offending object (or objects) away from the heat source. If you’ve created a two-zone fire as we suggested, this should be simple. Grills that are outfitted with upper warming racks make the job a cinch as well. We would also recommend keeping a platter handy, as this can be used to hold your ingredients during a flare-up if all else fails.
We should also note that it’s fine to leave certain foods where they are, even during a flare-up. Steaks, bone-in pork chops, and whole chickens won’t be harmed by a little extra searing action. Tenderloin steaks in particular will benefit from the crisp crust that the flames provide.
Conversely, foods that have been treated with a spice rub should be moved away as quickly as possible. When spices burn, they have an unpleasant bitter taste. The same rule applies to any food that’s coated in a sugar-based sauce. That’s another reason why you should always wait until the last few minutes of cooking before adding barbecue sauce to your grilled chicken or pork.
Cover The Grill
Although it’s a good idea to leave the grill open for monitoring purposes, you should close the lid if a large flare-up occurs. If you can, move the ingredients to the safe zone first, then close the grill as quickly as you can to douse the flames.
Never Use Water
Most seasoned grilling aficionados know that you should never use water to douse a flare-up, even if it’s just a quick squirt from a spritz bottle. That’s because oil and water don’t mix. Adding water to the grease will only compound the issue, especially if you add enough to create a splashing effect.
Another important point: Even if it weren’t dangerous, spraying water on the coals will coat your food in a layer of ash. Your goal is to salvage the meal, not cause it further damage.
How To Extinguish a Grease Fire
While we certainly hope that you won’t find yourself dealing with a full-blown grease fire, it’s best if you know how to handle the situation.
As soon as the flames begin to spread, cover the grill and close any air vents. This will cut off the oxygen supply, which fires can’t survive without. For gas grills, turn off all the burners, then close the lid.
If this doesn’t work, you’ll need to bring in reinforcements. Pour a box of baking soda or kosher salt over the flames, taking care to stand as far back as possible. It’s also a good idea to have a fire extinguisher handy. For fires that spread rapidly, or flames that are too hot for you to move in close enough to extinguish them, call 911.
If this situation does occur, it will be too late to save your meal, which is unfortunate. However, we’d rather place a call for take-out pizza than for a fire truck.
For a visual demonstration on extinguishing grease fires, take a look at this video tutorial.
Grilling is our favorite pastime, but it’s not without peril. Whenever you deal with open flames, there’s a slight risk involved. Fortunately, the risk is minimal if you know how to control grill flare-ups when they happen, and take all the necessary measures to prevent them from occurring in the first place.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!