Photo Credit: D. Hoff/getty images
At the beginning of barbecue season (if you're not a year-round griller): Take the grill out of your garage or basement. If you are using a gas grill, make sure there are no spiders or cobwebs under the burner knobs or in the grill manifolds (dislodge any you may find with a slender bamboo skewer). If any of the tiny pinholes on the burner tubes are clogged, unclog them with a pin. Make sure the burner valves turn freely: If any feel stuck, spray in a little WD-40. Check that all connections are tight and that there are no holes or worn spots in any of the hoses. And most important: Follow all of the manufacturer's maintenance instructions.
At the end of the barbecue season: Scrub down your grill. Remove any ash from a charcoal grill or from the smoker box of a gas grill. Oil any parts of the grill that seem prone to rusting. If you have a gas grill, disconnect the tank. If you are leaving your grill outdoors, cover it with a tarp or cover. Even indoors, it doesn't hurt to cover it.
How to Clean a Grill
Grill jockeys can be a pretty grubby lot, but they're quite fastidious when it comes to their grill grates. That's because this is the part of the grill that actually comes in contact with the food. Besides being disgusting, a dirty grate causes food to stick, and it won't give you well-delineated grill marks. So savvy grill jockeys keep their grates clean and always oil them before putting on any food that may stick.
The tool of choice for cleaning the grate is a long-handled, stiff wire brush. Use it twice and brush vigorously, first when the grate is preheated but before the food goes on (heating the grill sterilizes the grate and loosens any burnt-on debris). Brush the grate a second time after you are done cooking -- again, while the grill is still hot. Many wire brushes come with scrapers on the end; use these to dislodge any particularly stubborn debris. I don't generally bother with cleaning the firebox, unless it gets really disgusting. Should this happen, a scrub brush and a grill cleaner or soapy water will do the trick.
How to Oil a Grill Grate
The other secret to keeping food from sticking to the grate is to oil or grease it first (a well-oiled grill grate also gives you better grill marks). You have a choice of three greasing techniques: using an oil-soaked paper towel or rag, a piece of bacon or beef fat, or a can of spray oil. When you oil the grate with a paper towel or rag, you give it one last cleaning. If you are working on a large industrial-size grill, tie a tightly folded clean dish towel or washcloth to the end of a pole and use it for oiling. Be sure the grate is very hot before oiling it.
Oiling a grill grate with a piece of bacon or beef fat may give you a little extra flavor. It certainly looks expert. Spray oil is the quickest way to oil a grill grate, but be sure to remove the grate from the fire when spraying. Never spray the oil onto the grate over the fire. The tiny droplets of oil can catch fire, causing a conflagration. AVOID THIS! The grate should always be oiled when grilling fish, chicken breasts, steaks and other foods that tend to stick. Oiling is optional when grilling fatty cuts, such as ribs, and vegetables with smooth skins, such as corn.
How to Empty an Ash Catcher
Many charcoal grills come with an ash catcher, a saucepan-shaped metal receptacle attached to the bottom that's designed to hold the ashes that accumulate as the charcoal burns out. To use the ash catcher on a Weber kettle grill, open and close the bottom vent several times to knock the ashes into the catcher. When the catcher is full, unfasten it from the base of the grill and discard the ashes. Warning: Never discard hot ashes in a paper bag or plastic trash pail. Be sure ashes are stone cold before transferring them to the trash. I usually wait until the day after I've used the grill to discard the ashes. The last thing you want to do is to combine hot ashes with other potentially flammable rubbish.
How to Empty a Drip Pan or Catch Pan
Grilling a chicken or pork shoulder using the indirect method generates a lot of drippings. If you've set up your charcoal grill properly, with the drip pan under the food, it will be full of fat at the end of your grill session. Let the grill and drip pan cool completely before discarding the fat (this will take a couple of hours). Remove the grate and carefully lift out the drip pan. Drain it into an empty milk carton or other resealable container, or place a disposable pan, drippings and all, in a sturdy plastic garbage bag. Some people are tempted to save the drippings for another use. If you're of this school, strain them through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean jar. The strainer must have a very fine mesh to remove any ash.
On gas grills the catch pan or grease pan takes the place of the drip pan. It's positioned under the firebox. Empty it after the grill has cooled off.