Flare ups happen when the fat from your food drips onto the hot coals and ignites giving you a momentary flame. Some foods such as burgers and sausages have a high fat content and can be more prone to flare ups than lean meat.
A momentary lick of flame won’t cause you any problems however with a cooking grate full of food, these flare ups can sometime become more constant and sustained.
I have vivid childhood memories of my dad standing around our red Weber kettle with a spray bottle, squirting each flare up like Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Mr. George Stephens, creator of the Weber Kettle, would have undoubtedly had a face palm moment as this is one of the reasons he invented a BBQ with a lid!
Whilst squirting your charcoal with water is not recommended, there are a few things you can do to minimise flare ups.
Try not to flip or move your food too often
Every time you move your meat around the cooking grate, some of the natural juices from inside the meat are pushed out and will inevitably fall onto the coals causing a flare up.
As meat cooks, it contracts which squeezes the natural juices to the outside as it contracts. You may notice when cooking a burger that a small pool of liquid will form on top of it. Each time you turn your meat, these natural juices run off onto the coals causing a flare up. If you turn your meat too many times, not only will your meat become dry as most of the natural juices have been lost to the flames, but you are increasing the likelihood of the flare ups becoming more consistent.
Most meat you cook on the BBQ will only need to be turned once and this minimises the loss of natural juices and therefore all your flavour won’t (literally) go up in smoke!
Try not to puncture your food
When cooking something like sausages, take a little care not to poke holes in them when you are turning them or moving them on the cooking grate. As a sausage cooks, the little chunks of fat render down and are held inside the casing to baste the meat. If you break the casings it will allow all that fat to pour out onto your coals and result in flames. Cooking at too high of a temperature can have the same effect and cause the casings to split so the principals from our previous tip about not cooking too hot also apply here.
Another thing I’d like to mention is not pressing your food onto the cooking grate. You sometimes see people flipping a burger or a steak then pressing it down onto the grates to hear that sizzle. As satisfying as that sizzle sounds, you are only squeezing all the moisture out of your food and onto the coals.
Keep the lid closed to restrict airflow
If we go back to the basic principles of what fire needs to burn (fuel, heat, oxygen) then by simply keep the lid on your BBQ, you can limit the airflow through your BBQ reducing the risk of prolonged flare ups. Cooking with your lid off will provide an endless amount of oxygen to the flames so try to keep your lid on as much as possible.
Sometimes beginners will worry about what is going on underneath the lid while they aren’t looking but there is really no need to worry. With the lid on, the airflow is regulated through the BBQ and your food will continue to cook. By lifting the lid to check for flames, you are simply feeding them with oxygen.
Food cooked directly over a charcoal fire is a joy to eat, but it can get stressful if you are constantly fire fighting and trying not to burn your food. Add your food to the grill, place the lid on your BBQ and step away. After a few minutes, you can go back and flip your food and close the BBQ again. Cooking this way allows the BBQ to do what it is designed to do and hopefully make things a little less stressful for you, the cook.