Cooking with a dirty BBQ isn't just nasty, it's downright dangerous. Built-up grease and food bits are a reason for flare-ups (or a full-fledged fires). Beyond that, grimy grilling surfaces also impart unpleasant flavors to your food and get in the way of those lovely sear marks.
This guide will walk you through the steps of maintaining your grill properly and safely. Not only will what you eat and serve taste better, you'll help your outdoor cooker perform at its best and last longer too. In my case I serviced a propane fueled grill, but most of the advice I give covers charcoal appliances, too.
Step 1: Open it up, pull it apart
First you'll need to open your grill and remove its various parts. This way you'll be able to access the main grill chamber. Typically sitting below the grates, this is where heavy food particles tend to fall and grease drippings land.
Start with a cold grill. Open the hood, remove the grill grates and set them aside. Some propane gas models also have one or multiple metal heat diffusers that rest over the burners. If your appliance is so equipped, take those out too.
Step 2: Clean inside the grill box
A lot of grease and food particles tend to end up inside the grill's interior, also known as the "grillbox." Use a cheap putty knife (metal or plastic) or old spatula to scrape the sides of the grill chamber free of as much gunk as you can.
Any thin flat tool will do. Just make sure it provides a good surface or handle to grip. You also might want to consider getting a pair of work gloves, too, since this is bound to be a dirty job.
Step 3: Clear the burner tubes
If you have a gas grill, one part that often gets clogged are its burner tubes. Symptoms of dirty burners include reduced flame size. They may also burn with an orange color instead of the usual blue. Both indicate abnormally low temperatures and an underpowered grill.
Typically a gas grill has multiple burner tubes, though some may only have one. Use a nylon or steel wire brush to gently clean the small holes on the tubes. Be sure to brush from the center of the tube outward, moving sideways (not up and down). Otherwise you may push debris into the tube or holes themselves instead of clearing them.
Step 4: Clean the grates
Assemble the grill, then turn it on to its highest temperature setting and close the hood. There may even be a cleaning level on your burner dials. After a few minutes, open the lid and scrape the grates vigorously with a non-bristle metal grill brush. One I particularly like is the $15 Grill Bristleless Scraper from Taylor. The gadget has multiple surfaces and edges to attack and remove grime from grill grates. It even sports a handy bottle opener.
According to Taylor this tool isn't available yet but should hit stores by September 1 and also will be sold online by Amazon. If you can't wait that long, then use a nylon brush, but make sure to do this only when the grill is cold.
Step 5: Prevent future buildup
Certain practices can help discourage deposits of dirt and grease from forming in the first place. One method is to grease the grates of your hot grill with a little cooking oil right before your start cooking. In the same vein, scrubbing grates with a raw onion is another tactic you can try. If you do have a grill brush without bristles, it's a good idea to scrape your hot grates both before and after grilling.
Another tactic is to scrub hot grill grates with the open side of a sliced (in half) onion. The thinking here is this seasons the grates while adding moisture. Organic compounds supposedly are released, too, which break down stubborn grease and dirt. I've found that it's not as effective as scrubbing, but it certainly creates a wonderful smell.
Of course, performing a full cleaning every few months is the best method to enjoy a grill that's spic and span. A little elbow grease goes a long way.