How to Keep Food From Sticking to a Grill

There are three essentials to prevent food from sticking to a grill, according to grilling expert and cookbook author Steven Raichlen: "Keep it hot; keep it clean; keep it lubricated."

Proper Heat

Food is less likely to stick once it has formed a sear on the outside. Searing tightens the proteins, allowing the food to release more easily from the grill. Different foods require various temperatures to cook properly, but you can follow a few guidelines to avoid sticking:

  • Leave it alone. Avoid flipping food too soon or too often. Foods will often stick early in the cooking process, but release easily once the outside has seared. 
  • Don't use sticky glazes or marinades during grilling. Sugary barbecue sauces stick to the grill as they caramelize. Brush sauces onto the food after cooking.

Smoothing Grill Bars

If the grill bars are caked with burnt-on morsels from the last time you barbecued, your food is more likely to stick than it would on a clean grill. Public grills, such as those provided at campsites and parks, are often left dirty. Here's how to clean and sanitize them at the same time:

Heat the grill.

On a gas grill, turn the burners up to their highest setting. On a charcoal model, light the coals; close the lid until they glow red-hot and you can only hold your hand above the grill for 2 to 3 seconds. At this point, the fire is between 450 and 650 degrees Fahrenheit -- more than hot enough to kill bacteria.

Brush the grate.

Use a stiff wire brush to dislodge any bits of food or debris that are stuck to the grate. Let them fall into the fire, where they will incinerate.

Wipe it down.

Wad up one or two paper towels. Hold them in a pair of tongs, and then dip in cold water. Use the wet paper towels to wipe down the grate. This step removes any remaining dust or dirt, and picks up bristles that may have dislodged from the wire brush.

Lubrication Options

Raichlen recommends lubricating the grill both before and after cooking. There are two ways to do this:

  • Paper towels dipped in cooking oil 
  • Cooking spray designed for grilling.

Cooking Oil

Use the same method you used to wipe down the grill -- crumple up one or two paper towels and then dip them in cooking oil. Use a pair of tongs to wipe the grate with the oil-soaked paper towels.

Your choice of oil is important. You need an oil with a smoke point above 450 degrees F -- the typical cooking temperature for grilling. The following oils are good options:

  • Safflower oil
  • Light or refined olive oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Corn oil.

Cooking Spray

Several manufacturers have created cooking sprays specifically designed for grilling. These products are the same as the cooking spray you already use in your kitchen, except for the choice of oil. Sprays designed for grilling use oils with higher smoke points.

Refillable pump-action spray bottles are available at cooking stores. These products work well for the grill as well, as long as you use a high-smoke-point oil.