Who hasn’t popped the hood on their grill only to find a messy, rusty eyesore left behind by the last guy?
Maybe you’re that last guy, maybe your brother-in-law borrowed your barbecue, or maybe you share a communal neighborhood grill.
Whatever the situation, you’re now wondering, just how safe is it to grill those burgers and steaks on that?
Let me explain what exactly rust is, and why it isn’t that harmful, although it is ugly. We will also take a proper look at how to clean those rusty grates and how to prevent them from rusting in the first place.
What Exactly is Rust? Is it Harmful?
The thing that freaks most of us out is the rust that builds up inside grills that are left uncleaned.
Rust is the natural chemical product that occurs when iron is mixed with water and oxygen. It is properly called iron oxide, and there’s no way to keep it from happening unless you can keep the grill completely dry.
But that’s hard to do since they’re left outside, and we cook food inside, which creates steam.
The material in your grill contains iron in various quantities. For example, many grill fireboxes and frames are steel, which is mostly made of iron. In addition, many grills have cast-iron grates, which will rust readily if not properly seasoned.
Is Cooking on a Rusty Grill Safe?
Rust in and of itself is not dangerous to ingest. So you don’t have to worry about getting sick or anything.
Of course, you wouldn’t want to eat pounds of the stuff, but it is nothing to worry about if a few specks get on your food.
However, it’s not a very pleasant thought to have rust in your food, even if it isn’t harmful. And that’s why I prefer to keep my grill clean and tidy.
How to Clean Rusty Grill Grates?
There’s really no excuse for cooking on a dirty grill. Like any other dish or cooking appliance, grills require routine cleaning and maintenance to keep them working their best.
You can’t expect great flavors or perfect performance from a dirty grill.
While it might not be dangerous to cook, do you want the funky flavors from last week’s salmon fillet working their way into tonight’s chicken?
To avoid getting rust (or general funk) on your food, clean your grill before every use. There are as many effective ways to clean a grill as there are backyard pitmasters.
Here is our recommended procedure, which you can modify as you see fit:
Step 1: If you have a gas grill, turn all burners on high. With a charcoal grill, just load in enough charcoal and light it up. Get the grill super hot for about 10 minutes — this will annihilate any food particles or dangerous bacteria on the grill.
Step 2: Take a wire grill brush and scrape the grates clean. There shouldn’t be much left after getting the grill hot enough, and the bits that are there should be mostly ash now. Use high-quality grill brushes and replace your brush if it starts to fall apart. The last thing you want is a brush that loses its wire bristles in your grill!
Step 3: Oil the grates briefly before use. Roll up a dishcloth or paper towel, dip it in cooking oil, and use your grill tongs to put a little oil on the cooking grates. This adds a little slickness while also cleaning any remaining bits of gunk that the grill brush left behind.
Step 4: Remember to add a little oil on the food as well to help it keep from sticking.
Step 5: After you’re done cooking, use your grill brush to scrape off any gunk. This will reduce the cleaning you have next time and ensure that cleaning it is no big deal in the future.
The steps above describe how to clean your grill with each use. However, it is also necessary to routinely do a “deep clean.”
For this, you can remove the grates and get them looking like new. Scotchbrite pads are also a big help, along with oven cleaner or a mixture of vinegar and baking soda.
During the same cleaning, scrape the interior of the grill and wash the exterior of the grill with warm, soapy water. Make sure to empty all ash and grease traps and ensure that nothing is clogged up. This deep cleaning is a great opportunity to inspect the inner workings of your grill and replace any burners or burner covers that are starting to wear.
If you use any water to clean your grill, make sure to light the grill and get all of the water to evaporate before letting it sit. Water on your grill is an open invitation for rust to form, so get it completely dry and then treat the grill grates with oil.
Taking the time to care for your grill properly will eliminate problems you might have with rust and grime.
How to Prevent Your Grill from Rusting?
Rust is a natural chemical reaction and is inevitable to some extent. Anyone who has experience cooking with cast-iron pans can attest to the prevalence of rust. But it’s not a big deal — it’s easy to clean, and working out a steady cleaning routine will make it no problem at all.
The first step is preventing rust in the first place. One of the easiest ways to do this is to buy a premium grill with stainless steel or enameled cast-iron grates.
These types of grates need no seasoning. However, seasoning the grates prevents food from sticking and makes cleaning easier. Also, the enameled grates will rust rapidly if the coating begins to chip off.
Take a look at my Weber Q3200 grill below — it has porcelain-enameled cast-iron grates and there is still no rust after 8 years:
If you have cast-iron grates, you’ll definitely want to season them. Seasoning is the process of baking on a layer of oil to seal the iron and keep water out. It keeps the grates from rusting while also making them non-stick. You can season your grates right in the grill by coating them in oil and letting them get very hot for a few minutes.
With an old cast iron or steel grill, you need to put some effort into preventing rust in other places too. This comes with treating any surface that contains iron with either paint or baked-on oil.
The grill and the firebox’s iron or steel exterior surfaces should be kept rust-free by carefully cleaning and scraping all rust off. Then, treat the metal and use heat-resistant paint to prevent that rust from returning.
Rust and Stainless Steel Grills
The appeal of stainless steel is that it does not rust. But it can still corrode, and it isn’t completely maintenance-free. And the best stainless steel grills are often heavy on the wallet.
The most apparent form of corrosion on stainless steel is simple surface corrosion that looks a lot like rust. This might appear on the shiny surfaces of your beautiful grill after it has been outside for a while. Thankfully, these spots clean off easily with a stainless steel cleaner or polish.
Stainless steel grates are easier to keep rust-free when compared to cast iron. A wire grill bush can usually do a good job of getting them shiny again. You might also want to try a grill stone for cleaning.
That, plus an occasional deep clean, should be all you need to keep the cooking area rust-free.
Cooking on a Rusty Grill – Final Thoughts
Keeping your grill clean doesn’t take much time and is well worth your efforts. And cooking on a clean grill is a pleasure!
You shouldn’t have to put up with random flare-ups, funky flavors, or rust particles in your food.