Can Cooking on a Dirty Grill Make You Sick?

smoked fish on an english bbq
Why You Should Clean Your Grill After Every UseBobiko - Getty Images

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Grilling season is here, but before you get fired up there's one thing you need to do: clean your grill. Think back to last summer in your outdoor kitchen. Do you remember the last time you cleaned the grill grates? If your mind is a little foggy on the details or you've never done it, don't worry—it's okay. Your backyard isn't ruined. But don't shrug it off. Deep cleaning your grill at least once a season and maintaining it between cooking sessions is actually important for your food and your health.

Cooked-on grease clings onto your grill and builds up. The first potential side effect is burned food: "The immediate dangers are that old bits of food and grease can cause flare-ups that may make your next meal not as delicious as it should be," says Emily McGee, director of communications for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. But that isn't the only risk. Experts say it can be hazardous to use and make you sick.

The Dangers of a Dirty Grill

preparing for luxury outdoor bbq party burning fire in grill, table with snacks and wine
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First of all, a dirty grill simply isn't as reliable as a clean grill. Burnt-on grease coats the grates so that they heat up more slowly and less evenly. If your burgers are taking a century to cook—or if some get burned to a crisp while others remain raw—you probably have a grease problem to tackle. Left to fester, this can become a food safety issue. "Just like a chimney sweep gives your fireplace better performance, a clean grill that is properly maintained will improve your barbecuing experience," says chef Greg Mueller, director of culinary innovation for the grilling company recteq.

"The buildup of old grease can also catch fire, which is bad for obvious reasons," says Dave Yasuda, vice president of marketing at the beef purveyor Snake River Farms. As impressive as it might look, a plume of smoke you can see from two blocks away is really the signal of a grill that needs cleaning, stat. A big flare-up doesn't just burn any food inside to a crisp—it can also burn you and potentially even your home. If your grill catches on fire, leave the cover closed, turn it off if you can do so safely, and let it cool down.

And of course grill grease can attract unwelcome guests. "A dirty grill invites insects (like wasps) and rodents," says Yasuda. If you live in an area with bigger scavengers, like raccoons or bears, a dirty grill can tempt them too. The mix of cooked-on food, grease, and who knows what all else creates a perfect breeding ground for bacteria and germs to grow. Do you really want to eat anything cooked on that?

Needless to say, all of this impacts how long your grill lasts. A grill that is properly maintained can last for 10 years or longer, while a dirty one's days are numbered.

How Often to Clean Your Grill

You should deep clean your grill at least once a year, more often if you use your grill frequently. This ensures your grill is working at an optimal level and makes it much easier to keep clean between uses.

There are also maintenance tasks you need to check off every time you cook. "Similar to the oven and stovetop in your kitchen, a grill should be cleaned after each use. This doesn’t mean an intensive deep clean but scraping the grill, removing ash from charcoal grills, and cleaning the grease traps (if your grill is equipped with one)," says Yasuda.

How to Clean Your Grill

fire for bbq
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If all this talk about grill cleaning is making you cringe, don't worry. We all tend to ignore appliance maintenance and basic service until something stops working or an accident happens. Before you start, read the instruction manual—every grill is different. Then fire up your grill, grab your metal scraper, and get started. Pro tip: The best time to clean your grill is while it's cooling down so removing any stubborn bits is less of a workout.

Love learning how to protect your home? Take more notes from our experts here.

  1. Put a double-ply layer of aluminum foil over the entire cooking area. Leave it on for 10 to 15 minutes. The foil traps the heat so the caked-on gunk gets brittle and easier to scrape or simply burns up into ash you can sweep out.

  2. Put on gloves and scrub the grill grates with a grill brush.

  3. Clean the cooking area with mild dish soap (such as Dawn) or a degreaser.

  4. Use a scouring pad to clean the inside of the lid or grill cover. Wipe it clean with a damp microfiber cloth.

  5. Wipe down the outside of the grill with a clean microfiber cloth.

After you've done this deep clean, regular maintenance is a cinch. "Before each grilling session, use a brush to scrape down the grates," says Yasuda. "For charcoal grills, remove the ash and clear the bottom vents. For gas grills, remove the grills and remove wipe down the flavorizer bars," he says, referring to the metal tents that cover the gas outlets.

If you're using a pellet grill, Mueller suggests leaving the ashes at the bottom of the grill. "It's okay to let ash build up over the season," he says. "It creates effective insulation that will only improve your grill's performance."

What You Need to Clean Your Grill

Steer clear of chemical cleansers—they can make your food taste bad. "A durable galvanized steel grill brush mixed with a bit of heat is all you need to clean the inside of any grill," says Mueller. It's worth it to buy a good quality grill brush. You don't want any bristles sneaking their way into your food. Still, every time you use it, "check to make sure the bristles are still firmly attached to the brush by pulling on a couple," he advises. "Also, visually inspect your grates after brushing to ensure no bristles have been left behind."

Grills aren't designed to be thrown away after one season. Before you put your grill out with the trash, give it a deep clean. Cleaning your grill is inexpensive and simple once you make it a habit.

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