Chuck’s Food Shack: Now’s the perfect time to deep clean your grill, smoker as we’re all home because of coronavirus

24 Mar.,2023


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If you don’t give your outdoor grills and smokers a thorough cleaning after every use, I get it. I tend to blow things off every once in a while, too. But with so many of us being told to stay at home throughout the San Antonio area, there’s no better time than now to tidy things up in the backyard cooking space.

Giving those grills and smokers a good scrub can prolong their lifespan, and the food will taste better, too. That caked on, black soot attached to the grates isn’t there for added flavor; it’s gunk from sauces, meat particles and everything else from past cooks that has no business touching fresh foods applied to them.

“The people that say that the charred bits add to the flavor are only saying that because they are lazy and dirty,” said David Romero, pitmaster at Holy Smoke BBQ + Taquitos, a food truck that is regularly parked on the St. Mary’s Strip. “And I think it delivers a nasty aftertaste. It’s always better to start off clean.”

Another danger, especially with smokers, can be pooled grease that can catch on fire. Grease fires can be very difficult to extinguish, and they produce a nasty blackened smoke that will completely ruin all of the meat inside the units. If the device is equipped with a grease trap, it should be regularly cleaned out.

“You can ruin $1,000 worth of meat really quickly with a grease fire,” Romero said.

Over at 225° Urban Smoke, a barbecue and Cajun restaurant off Rittiman Road on the Northeast Side, co-owner Daniel Antonio-Jimenez uses a massive boxed steel smoker that looks as big as a shipping container. Every Sunday, he gives the unit a fresh cleaning after handling dozens of briskets and other smoked meats.

He said it’s not only essential for the quality of his food, but also for the proper operation of his pit.

“That gunk can fill up those mesh holes in the grates, and that will disrupt your airflow and the way your meats take in smoke,” Antonio-Jimenez said. “A few clogged holes may not seem like a big deal, but that has a way of building up, especially for a home cook, who may not realize the effects.”

When doing those big cleans, I like to break down the units completely. Remove the grates, and spray everything down with a good hosing of soap and water to remove any caked-on grease and ash that is settled on the bottom. Pressure washers work great for this step also, however, a traditional garden hose can still do a fine job.

Water is traditionally the enemy to metal, but if you dry everything quickly with a towel, there’s no danger of rust settling inside the units. As for the grates, they should be cleaned either before or after every cook.

Most people opt to clean them with traditional wire-bristled brushes. These brushes do a solid job of removing the gunk, but they can be dangerous, because those tiny bristles can break off and find their way into your food, which could require a trip to see a medical professional to remove once swallowed.

I like to clean out the grates with a small stainless steel device that has grooves of different sizes from a company called The Sage Owl (available on $12.99). Another good option is to simply take a standard sheet of aluminum foil, crumple it up into a ball, and use it as a scraper.

And then there is what is definitely the mosr fun and cinematic way to clean those grates: give them a good torching. Congregation Agudas Achim on San Antonio’s North Side has an annual kosher barbecue competition each November, and one of the key steps is that all teams must get their units cleansed by Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham. He traverses the grounds with a blowtorch he passes over the grates to make them kosher.

“That’s one of the best incentives to compete in this event ... your smoker will never get any cleaner,” pitmaster Mike Mayberry told me in a previous interview.

I borrowed this technique by purchasing an elongated blowtorch called the Weed Dragon (available at Ace Hardware for $69.99), that attaches to a propane tank and is designed to burn off unsightly garden weeds. It has adjustable flame levels, but can generate heat blasts of up to 2000 degrees. Traditional handheld torches can do a similar job.

“That was a trick we used back when I worked at P.F. Chang’s, and it easily burns everything down to bare metal,” Antonio-Jimenez said.

So take this time to do a little spring cleaning, and take comfort in knowing that your next outdoor meal won’t taste anything like the one cooked before it.

Chuck Blount is a food writer and columnist covering all things grilled and smoked in the San Antonio area. Find his Chuck's Food Shack columns on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.comTo read more from Chuck, become a subscriber. | Twitter: @chuck_blount | Instagram: @bbqdiver

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