How to Prevent Grilling Flare-Ups

Knowing what causes flare-ups and how to deal with them will keep your valuable food from catching fire.

So you’re feeling pretty good, Master of the Flames, with your spotless grill and two-zone medium-high fire rolling along, nicely cooking some food. Then, without warning, that grilled beauty is enveloped in flames, with the threat of being burned beyond recognition. Will you let all of your hard work go up in smoke? With a limited understanding of the issue, that is certainly a “no.”

What Are Flare-Ups?

A flare-up can be a dangerous thing, appearing rapidly and posing a direct threat to whatever is on the grill. These powerful flame bursts are created by oil or fat dripping from food and striking the coals, resulting in a grease fire. They usually happen shortly after the item is placed on the grill or after it has been flipped. Knowing what to do when you come across one of these begins with determining the degree of the flare-up.

A minor flare-up, where the flames are minimal and do not even reach the food, is unlikely to necessitate intervention. It may only add a little extra heat, so pay close attention to cooking time because it may be less than planned. When the flames come up to or surround the food in more severe instances, two good techniques can be employed exclusively or combined to deal with the situation.

Two-Zone Method

Assuming you have a two-zone fire, you can move the flame-producing food from the zone with no coals to the zone with no coals. Once the flare-up has subsided, return the food to the coals and continue cooking, closely checking things to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Because of flare-ups, I usually leave a little indirect zone around each fire I make.

Cover-and-Wait Method

If you don’t have a two-zone fire, or if the flames are too dangerous to dive into safely, the cover-and-wait strategy is the way to go. Given that fire requires oxygen to survive, cutting off the flare-up’s supply will effectively extinguish it. Cover the grill as soon as you notice a flare-up, and keep an eye on the flames by peeping through the air vents. When the flare-up has subsided, uncovering and resuming normal duties is safe.

When I have a large flare-up, I employ both of these procedures, first taking the food off the coals and then covering the grill to swiftly extinguish it, ensuring that my food does not get burned and that I spend as little valuable cooking time as possible. There are times when I do nothing, even when there is a major, terrible flare-up. A steak, for example, can benefit from a wonderful crusty sear created by the extra flames.

The issue is estimating how large and long the flare-up will remain because there is a delicate line between charred and burned. To do this, you must first determine the fat level of what is cooking and then make a decision on whether that fat will continue to feed the flare-up or if it will burn out almost as quickly as it came. Take the flare-up to town and save the food if in doubt.

Alternatively, some foods should never be allowed to remain in a flare-up, necessitating a rapid and immediate response. This includes everything with a sugar-based sauce or marinade, as well as items rubbed with a mild spice blend. These will undoubtedly be incinerated, skipping the charring stage entirely.

What Not to Do

Whatever you do, and no matter what advice you get, never use a water squirt bottle on a flare-up. Again, the 1 percent oxygen in the water will feed the fire rather than quench it, making the situation much more deadly than it was before. A few squirts of water will often not be enough to put out a flare-up—at least not without extinguishing the coals—and the flare-up will just reappear. I’ve read and heard that having a water bottle near the grill to cope with flare-ups is a good idea, but I can’t endorse it based on my experience, especially because relocating the food or covering the grill works so effectively.

Finally, while any amount of fat or oil that may ignite a genuine fire should never be present near the grill, it’s always a good idea to keep a fire extinguisher handy in case the unthinkable occurs. I’ve never used it and have no plans to, but it’s there in case I burn down the neighborhood, as an old neighbor predicted I would.

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