Stick happens, but that doesn't mean it has to ruin your meal. Anyone who has grilled chicken, fish, or even a steak has had it happen. The best way to prevent food from sticking to your grill is to properly care for your grill in the first place.
Unfortunately, some foods (like fish and skin-on chicken) just seem to be pros at sticking. Thankfully, there are some steps you can take to prevent sticking from happening. We've also got an inside tip for you that will stop food from sticking on your grill forever.
Why Do Foods Stick to the Grill Grates?
Understanding why food sticks to a hot grill is the first step in figuring out how to keep it from happening. Food sticks because of the physical and chemical reactions that happen when the meat is exposed to high heat. Moisture on the surface is quickly evaporated and the proteins in the meat become sticky. Since the natural oils have yet to heat up enough, the proteins in the meat burn which creates a layer of dry, hard material that won't allow the natural oils to escape.
The meat is now stuck to the grill.
No matter how much longer you cook the meat, it won't unstick. Sooner or later, you'll have to bite the bullet and tear or scrape the meat off the grill. This also compromises the layer of meat that is holding the moisture in, which then causes the meat to dry out.
How to Keep it From Happening
Physics tells us that heating the meat and the grill at the same time will prevent sticking, but since this isn't a practical solution from a food safety standpoint, we've had to come up with another way to keep chicken from sticking to the grill.
Oil the Meat
A very light coating of oil can help prevent sticking to the grill grates because the oil will delay the burning of the proteins long enough to allow the natural fats to melt. Use a flavorful oil that is appropriate for high-heat situations. Grapeseed oil and avocado oil make good choices for fish, chicken, steak, and other meat. One trick is to use the oil to your advantage. Wipe the meat down with the oil, then toss or roll the meat in seasonings and spices. This is sort of like a wet rub-meets-dry rub process, but it will help stick the flavor to the meat and prevent the meat from sticking to the grill.
Clean Your Grill
A dirty grill is the fastest way to ensure you'll get sticking. The little burned-on particles are oil-resistant, so they actually encourage sticking. You should be cleaning your grill grates thoroughly after every use so it should only take a few minutes to wipe them down.
Wiping the grill grates with a light coating of high smoking point oil and a paper towel can help to prevent sticking. We have found that porcelain-coated grill grates and cast iron grates benefit tremendously from a wipe-down with oil before cooking.
Use Oil With a High Smoking Point
We have brought this one up a few times already, but it is worth mentioning in detail. Among the best to use on your grill are avocado oil and grapeseed oil. Both have very high smoke points above 400 degrees and have a light flavor that won't overwhelm delicate meats like fish and chicken breast.
Avoid low-smoke oils like extra virgin olive oil, unrefined oils like coconut and sesame, and fats such as lard and butter. These oils are going to burn off quickly, can cause sticking, and will leave a distinct, burned oil flavor on your meat.
So, unless you are trying for that 1978 Ford LTD with a worn-out engine flavor, stick to high-smoke point oils on the grill.
Most cooking sprays can be useful but only when the grill is off. There is a risk of starting a serious fire by spraying cooking oil onto a hot grill. Instead, lightly oil a paper towel with cooking spray and wipe the grill down.
Preheat Your Grill
Preheating your grill and oiling it will get the grates in the proper temperature range to start cooking quickly. The quicker that you get the meat to the proper temperature for the natural fats to begin melting, the less likely sticking will be.
A good preheat should last ten to fifteen minutes and the grill should not be smoking when you put the meat on. If the grill grates are smoking, it means either oil is burning off or there is food burning on the grill grates.
Clean the grates before you start cooking.
How to Keep Chicken from Sticking to the Grill Permanently
If you want to stop chicken sticking to the grill once and for all, we've got the secret. This trick works particularly well for leg quarters, chicken thighs, and skin-on chicken breasts that tend to stick to the grill.
Instead of placing the raw chicken on the grill grates, place a sheet of aluminum foil on the grates, then place the chicken on the foil. Cup the foil so that juices are not draining into the burners and cook the chicken for several minutes until it is beginning to come to temperature. Once the chicken is beginning to cook, you can remove the aluminum foil and place the chicken directly on the grill grate to get the perfect sear marks and char up the skin.
A quick wipe-down with high smoking point oil will ensure that you don't have any sticking and your chicken will have the perfect grill marks. Cooking chicken this way on a charcoal grill also prevents flare-ups that can ruin your chicken.
Reducing the burners to a medium-high heat will also help prevent chicken from sticking. You can even cook chicken with indirect heat using an offset burner or the upper rack in your grill.
The direct heat side of your grill surface is perfect for searing, but always apply a thin layer of oil to the hot grates and cooking surfaces.
Tips for Fish
Fish can be particularly tricky on the grill. It tends to stick easily since there is very little natural fat and it begins to flake as it cooks, making it doubly difficult to manage. A fish basket is a handy tool for grilling flaky fish that both prevents sticking and avoids losing chunks of perfectly grilled fish into the depths of the gas grill. A thin layer of sunflower oil or refined canola oil on the fish basket will make it easier to clean up by preventing the fish from sticking.
How to Unstick Stuck Meat
When sticking does happen, you will want to be careful with loosening up the meat from the grill grates. Use a wide spatula with a sharp edge and coat the spatula with oil. Work slowly around the edge of the meat, tilting the spatula to gently lift the meat. The oil on the spatula will help release the meat from the grill and prevent tearing the surface – which can dry the meat out.
It's a good idea to reduce the heat if your meat has stuck until you have unstuck it.
Always use a scrub pad or a grill brush to remove stuck-on meat, even just after your meat has stuck. Flipping your meat onto the hot grill with stuck-on food is a sure way to get the other side to stick also and ruin your meal.
Keep Your Grill Grates Cleaned & Oiled
We really can't stress enough the importance of keeping your grill grates clean and oiled. That simple step will prevent so much frustration that it is just silly to skip it. Regularly cleaning the grill grates keeps the gunk from piling up and makes cleanup much easier.
Food from a clean grill tastes better, too.
Oiling the grill grates usually does the trick, but you can also add a thin coat of oil to the meat, particularly when the meat is very lean to help prevent it from sticking.
Keep chicken from sticking by starting the process on aluminum foil, then transfer the chicken to the top rack or to indirect heat to finish cooking for stick-free chicken.