Always Do This One Thing Before Using Your Backyard Barbecue

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Summer means grilling — lighting the hardwood charcoal or briquets or igniting the propane to impart that inimitable outdoor culinary magic on hot dogs and burgers, chicken and shrimp, maybe even vegetables.

There are many good recommendations for seasoning the food, tending the fire, and the like, and recommended using a meat thermometer to determine the right temperature for cooking meat and poultry.

But the single most important piece of advice — the one thing every grill cook should do first, no matter the apparatus, the fuel source, or the raw materials — according to experts is to clean your grill thoroughly before using it.

The reasons for this are threefold: A clean grill healthier, will last longer, and produces better-tasting food.

Grilling proteins, even on a clean grill, comes with its own risks: According to the National Cancer Institute, cooking muscle meat — including beef, pork, fish, or poultry — over high heat can cause possibly carcinogenic compounds to form. Since few of us are willing to give up the pleasures of shrimp (or whatever) on the barbie altogether, the least we can do is to scrub any potentially dangerous residue off the grill. Another issue is that dirty grills, especially when they’re left for days in humid summer weather, can be a breeding ground for bacteria that can easily be transferred to the food cooked on them.

Cleaning your grill regularly will also help stave off rust and corrosion, making it less likely that you’ll have to replace the grates..

And cooking food on metal or ceramic bars that are rusted or caked with grease, baked-on food, or the remains of sauce or marinade will negatively affect the flavor of what you’re serving. You wouldn’t cook dinner inside in a filthy skillet (we hope), and a dirty grill is just as bad or worse.

What’s the best way to clean a grill? Some sources recommend a deep cleaning several times a season, soaking the grate overnight in a solution of one part vinegar, two parts baking soda in a plastic garbage bag closed tightly with a rubber band, then rinsing it well with a garden hose.

That’s fine if you want to do it. After every use, however, you should simply scrub the grate thoroughly with a grill brush — wire for metal bars, nylon for ceramic — and then wipe it clean with a damp rag. Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton of The Canal House, a cookbook publishing, photography, and design studio in Milford, New Jersey, shared another method with 24/7 Tempo: “Wad aluminum foil into a rough ball about four inches in diameter, heat your grill, then hold the ball with a pair of long-handled tongs and use it to scrub the grill clean.”

Grilling isn’t a particularly complicated process, but as with so many simple things, you’ve got to know the basics if you want to do it right. That’s why 24/7 Tempo recently asked seven top culinary professionals from around the country for their expert tips for the perfect backyard barbecue.