It’s a terrible feeling trying to flip a steak, chicken breast, or piece of fish on your grill, only to find it fused the the grates, and I don’t like feeling bad. But stickage isn’t inevitable. You can save those delicious browned bits from this horrible fate, you just have to lube up correctly.
Should you grease the food or the grill grates?
I have always been a fan of greasing the food, whether that means rubbing steaks with a thing coating of vegetable oil, wrapping fish in fatty bacon, or brushing shrimp with mayo. It just seems a little less wasteful, though I had never given much thought as to which method was better for preventing food stickage.
I reached out to Meathead Goldwyn of AmazingRibs.com and, sure enough, he had plenty of information to share. “I’m with you. Oil the food, not the grates,” he said before directing me to this article on his site.
There are a few reasons oiling the food makes sense. Unless you hate having eyebrows, spraying oil from an aerosol can onto a hot grill is a bad idea, as those little droplets are highly volatile, but even applying oil with a paper towel and tongs (or onion) doesn’t guarantee a nonstick surface. According to AmazingRibs.com science advisor Prof. Greg Blonder, results vary based on the temperature of the grates and smoke point of your oil:
Metal grill grates, even shiny clean ones, are not really smooth. Under a microscope there are numerous scratches, pits, valleys, and ridges. The compounds in food are much colder than the grates and when the two meet a bond forms between them. If you oil the grates, below the smoke point of the oil, let’s say 400°F, the oil actually does coat the grating and helps release protein and fat. But if you ‘keep it hot’, above the smoke point, the oil cracks, smokes, and carbonizes almost instantly. The carbon and smoke don’t taste good, and the dry uneven carbon layer simply makes sticking worse. Even at high temps if you brush on oil and then immediately add food, the oil and food cool the grate and if it cools enough, the oil may not burn off. But no way it creates a stable non-stick surface.
By oiling the meat (or other food), you have a little more control:
As you lay the oiled meat down, the oil fills the microscopic nooks and crannies in both the food and the grates and makes a relatively smooth, slippery surface. The cool food lowers the temp of the grates and will keep that burnt oil residue off the food. But you want to use an oil that has a high smoke point. Most refined cooking oils will do the job.
Keep your barbecue grates clean
Charred on gunk and carbonized crap are sure food-stickers, so clean your grates while they’re nice and hot (either before adding food or at the end of each cooking session).
What about grilling fish?
Fish is notoriously sticky and delicate, but you can ease yourself into cooking fish without tearing any filets. For extreme beginners, I recommend wrapping whole fish in bacon. The bacon protects the fish with fat, while adding a light, smokey flavor. I’m also a big fan of brushing seafood with mayo, which contributes a lovely crust, but not much flavor. You can also use a fish basket, which feels a bit more secure. This is one instance where Meathead recommends oiling something other than food, so give the basket a quick swipe with an oily paper towel before adding the fish. Having a fish stick to a grill grate is arguable worse than having it stick to a basket, but not that much worse.