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Chat Leftovers: Grill grime

Once again, Wednesday is upon us, which means it's time for another Free Range chat. Got crabs on your mind? Then you'll want to tune in at 1 p.m., when our guest chatters will be chef-author-TV host John Shields, who writes in today's paper about making a little crab go a long way, and Real Entertaining columnist David Hagedorn, who fills us in on a crabby party he threw for family members.

You'll have exactly one hour to ask advice from them, or from any Food section staff member who'll be on hand, before time runs out.

And run out it will, as we know all too well. Seems like every week we're left with piles of unanswered questions. Here's one we couldn't get to:

Is it safe to assume that the self-cleaning oven cycle would also work to clean cast-iron grill grates that are horribly gunked up?

On the face of it, doesn't that sound pretty smart? And if you check out the Internet, you'll find scores and scores of testimonials from folks who have done just that and say it works great (with the caveat that the grates must be re-seasoned once they're burned clean). Genius!

Ah, but not so fast. I asked a pro, and I got a different story.

"This is not a great idea." That's from Steve Swayne, a chef and cooking expert who works for the Whirlpool Institute of Kitchen Science. "The grease that tends to build up on grill grates could cause a fire in your oven." he said.

Then I talked with Mike Kempster, the executive vice president of marketing for Weber.

"It's a bad idea," he said. I was starting to sense a trend.

Kempster told me much the same thing Swayne had: the heavy grease that coats dirty grill grates will generate a lot of smoke, plus acrid fumes -- stuff you don't want in your kitchen. He said many customers who have tried the oven method have called to relate "horror stories" about their experiences.

Are there other grill-cleaning methods that should be avoided? Indeed there are. "Some people say to put the dirty grates in the dishwasher and run it," Kempster said. "That'll ruin a dishwasher." With all the grease that the grill racks give off, "it's really difficult to get your dishwasher back into a condition where you would want to put your dishes in there,"

So that's what not to do. What's the right strategy? Both Swayne and Kempster endorsed the same general technique for removing grill crud. For a gas grill, turn the burners on high, close the grill and let it run for 20 minutes or so. The high heat will do the trick, turning the gunk into ash that you should be able to just brush off. For a charcoal grill, Kempster said, use "a grill brush, a scouring pad and an Earth-friendly cleaner" -- in other words, nothing caustic.

So you can believe the cautionary tales of the experts, or you can listen to the backyard amateurs who swear the method works fine for them. Or you can wait for modern science to solve the problem altogether. But it might be a long wait.

"The holy grail around our R&D department is to come up with a self-cleaning grill. But we haven't been able to do it," Kempster said. Well, at least we know they're trying.

-- Jane Touzalin

By Jane Touzalin  |  June 9, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Chat Leftovers  | Tags: Chat Leftovers, Free Range, Jane Touzalin  
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This may not be an option for everyone, but twice a year I clean the grill grates with my pressure washer. It is amazing what 2500psi can do! I have a 4-burner Cooks On grill purchased 10+ years ago from Barbecues Galore (sadly, no longer in business, at least locally) that looks nearly new - heavy stainless steel grates and upgraded stainless steel burners. When the inside looks cruddy I remove the ceramic bricks and give them a scrub with an abrasive kitchen pad and knock the big pieces of gunk off the other components.

I heat the grill on low for 10-15 minutes, remove the grates and spray them liberally with straight Simple Green. Another 10 minutes and I hit them with the pressure washer. I like Simple Green since it is non-toxic and it will not hurt my grass.

Posted by: TheOneWhoHurtsMost | June 9, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

For the people looking for dried hibiscus flowers--try a Mexican/Latino market. It may be called Jamaica. It's used to make an iced herbal tea.

Posted by: di89 | June 9, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

I commented on the actual article, but I meant to say something in the chat as well. Hagedorn wrote a great article except for the part where he suggests that eating female crabs is acceptable. While there may be nothing in the world like she-crab soup, the sale of female crabs, generally at lower prices than male, and thus the over-catching of these crabs, is a direct cause of the crab population problems in the Bay. Please promote responsible crabbing and do not buy or eat female crabs and try to buy from places that only sell males. This year's greater harvests are a direct result of last year's prohibitions on crabbing of female crabs. The crabs have enough problems with the environmental degradation of the Bay, let's not make it any harder for them. It would be great if the food section could come out and help promote sustainable crabbing.

Posted by: mdsails | June 10, 2010 2:39 AM | Report abuse

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