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How to get your grill ready for the outdoor season

Tips on cleaning and, in some cases, updating your backyard cooking gear.

Billy Steele/Engadget

As winter’s chilly grip thaws, it’s time to spend our days on porches, patios or in the backyard. A key part of those warm weather activities is showing off your outdoor culinary skills to friends and family. During the cold months, your grill has likely been dormant, so it’s time to give it a thorough cleaning before it gets fired up several times a week. Some of us keep the grill going year-round, but spring is a great time to do a deep clean before the official outdoor cooking season starts. Here are a few tips and tricks that will hopefully make things easier.

Disassemble, scrub, reassemble

Weber's first pellet grill has potential to be a backyard powerhouse, but the smart features need work.
Billy Steele/Engadget

A good rule of thumb when it comes to cleaning anything you haven’t used in a while is to take it apart as much as you feel comfortable and give it a thorough wipe down. For grills, this means removing the grates and any bars or burner covers – basically, anything you can take out that’s not the heating element. This gives you a chance to inspect the burners of your gas grill or the fire pot of a pellet model for any unsightly wear and tear. If those components are worn out or overly rusted, most companies offer replacements that you can easily swap out with a few basic tools.

Once all the pieces are out, start by scraping excess debris off all sides of the interior – with the help of some cleaner if needed. For a gas grill, this likely means pushing everything out through the grease trap. On a pellet grill, you’ll want to scrape the grease chute clear and out into the catch can, but you’ll also need to vacuum the interior with a shop vac – just like you would after every few hours of use. And while you’re at it, go ahead and empty the hopper of any old pellets that have been sitting since labor day. Fuel that’s been sitting in the grill for months won’t give you the best results when it comes time to cook so you might as well start fresh.

Thankfully, pellet grill companies have made easy cleaning a key part of their designs. Weber’s SmokeFire has a set of metal bars on the inside that can be removed quickly to open up the bottom of the chamber. This is also a design feature of the company’s gas grills. Simply vacuum or push the debris out the grease chute. The catch pan where all of the garbage ends up is also easy to access from the front of the grill, and you can remove the aluminum liner and replace it with a new one in seconds.

Traeger’s most recent pellet grills were also redesigned to improve cleaning. Most notably, grease and ash end up in the same “keg” that’s easy to detach from the front of the grill. The company also allows you to quickly remove all of the interior components, though they’re larger than what you find on the SmokeFire. Lastly, Traeger moved the pellet chute to the front of the new Timberline and Ironwood, making it a lot more convenient to swap out wood varieties or empty an old supply.

You’ll want to get as much of the food leftovers out of your grill as possible for a few reasons. First, that stuff is old and lots of build-up over time can hinder cooking performance and might impact flavor. The last thing you want is old food or grease burning off right under an expensive ribeye. Second, in the case of pellet grills, not properly clearing out grease and dust can be dangerous. It’s easy for grease fires to start at searing temperatures and if there’s enough pellet dust in the bottom of your grill, it can actually ignite or explode. That’s why companies tell you to vacuum it out after every few hours of use.

Weber's first pellet grill has potential to be a backyard powerhouse, but the smart features need work.
All of that dust, grease and debris should be removed before you fire the grill back up. (Billy Steele/Engadget)

To actually clean the surfaces, you’ll want to get an all-natural grill cleaner. There are tons of options here, and it may take some time to find one you like. I typically use Traeger’s formula since it’s readily available at the places I buy pellets and I’ve found it works well cutting through stuck-on muck. You want an all-natural grill cleaner over a regular household product as it’s safe to use on surfaces that will touch your food. They’re also safe to use on the exterior of your grill without doing any damage to chrome, stainless steel or any other materials.

Spray down the inside and give things a few minutes to work. Wipe it all clean and go back over any super dirty spots as needed. Ditto for the grates, bars and any other pieces you removed. I like to lay these out on a yard waste trash bag (they’re bigger than kitchen bags) so all the stuff I scrape or clean off doesn’t get all over my deck. You can use shop towels if you want to recycle or paper towels if not, but just know whatever you choose will be covered in nasty black grime so you won’t want to just toss them in the clothes washer when you’re done. A pre-wash in a bucket or sink is needed to make sure you don’t transfer gunk from your grill to your business casuals.

In terms of tools, you don’t need much. I’ve tried that grill robot that claims to do the job for you, but I’ve found sticking to the basics is more efficient. And honestly, when you get the hang of it, it doesn’t take all that long. It’s a good idea to have a wire brush specifically for the grates that you don’t use to clean anything else. After all, this will be touching the same surfaces you put food on. I recommend another, smaller wire brush – the ones that look like big toothbrushes – for cleaning the burners on a gas grill. If you notice the flame isn’t firing through one of the holes, you can use this to clean the pathway. Lastly, plastic is the way to go for a scraper, anything else and you risk scratching the surfaces of your grill. Sure, any damage done would be on the inside, but it’s still not a great feeling to knick up your previous investment.

Check for updates before your first cook

Traeger WiFire app
Traeger

If you have a smart grill from the likes of Traeger, Weber or another company, you’ll want to plug it in and check for software updates well in advance of your first grilling session. Chances are you haven’t cooked much since last fall, which means companies have had months to push updates to their devices. Trust me, there’s nothing worse than spending an hour trimming and seasoning a brisket only to walk outside to start the grill and it immediately launches into the update process. This could extend the whole cooking time significantly depending on the extent of the firmware additions and strength of your WiFi.

Thankfully, checking for updates is quick and easy. All you need to do is turn on your grill and open up the company’s app on your phone. If there’s a download ready for your model, the mobile software will let you know and it’s usually quite prominent. If there’s not a pop-up alert that displays immediately, you can check the settings menu just to make sure. Sometimes for smaller updates, a company might not beat you over the head to refresh. However, starting a fresh slate of firmware is always a safe bet and will ensure your grill is running at its best when it comes time to cook.

For a good time every time, clean after each use

Traeger Ironwood 650
Billy Steele/Engadget

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t adhere to my own advice here, but it’s nice to have goals. I will also be the first to tell you every single time I smoke a Boston Butt or some other super fatty cut of meat that I wish I would’ve done at least a quick cleaning right after the meal. Grease buildup is not only highly flammable but it’s much harder to clean once it cools and solidifies. Ditto for stuck-on sauce or cheese that’s left on your grates after chicken or burgers. It’s best to attack these things while the grill is still warm, but cooled down from the cook.

You don’t necessarily have to break out the shop vac each time for your pellet grill or empty the grease bin. But you’ll want to make sure that stuff is away from the main cooking area for safety and so any burn off won’t impact the flavor of your food. A few cups of hot water can cleanse the grease run-off while that wire brush I mentioned is best for the grates. It also doesn’t hurt to do a light wipe down with an all-natural cleaner so everything is ready to go when you want to cook again.