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Grilling burgers on propane grill iStock

Nothing announces the arrival of summer like firing up the grill. Unfortunately, nothing sours a summer party faster than a grill that won't light, smokes too much, or cooks unevenly.

Don't get caught with your tongs down! Before the season really heats up, give your barbecue an annual checkup. Follow our how-to advice to get your grill up to snuff for the big Memorial Day cookout.

Grill Prep Checklist

1. Deep-clean your cooker

Deep clean grill with brush iStock

A charred coating on a grate doesn't add flavor, it's just dirt, says Barry "C.B." Martin, Char-Broil's CGO—that's chief grilling officer. Any shiny black flakes on the underside of the hood are unlikely to be chipping paint; they're burned-on residue, a fire risk. Here, Martin's step-by-step for gunk removal.

How to clean the inside of a grill

  1. Dry-scrub crud from grates, burners, and inside surfaces with a non-scratch sponge or a nylon brush. You can even use emery cloth or a wire brush on uncoated steel or iron.
  2. Then wash surfaces with dish soap and water, rinse well, and dry thoroughly. Martin suggests reseasoning cast-iron or metal grates with oil as you would a similar pan, but there's no need to coat chromed-steel or ceramic grates.
  3. Consider replacing these grates if they're rusty or chipping.

How to clean the outside of a grill

  1. Sponge off both stainless-steel and enameled surfaces with warm soapy water and wipe dry. (To prevent streaking on stainless steel, go in the direction of the finish.)
  2. Use high-heat spray paint to touch up surfaces that don't come into contact with food.
  3. For cleaning after cooking, you shouldn't turn up the gas, close the top, and walk away. Instead, run the burners on high for only 5 minutes—set a timer—before turning them off.
  4. Then scrub the grates with a grill brush or a ball of foil pinched between tongs. If you don't feel like cleaning right away, try this next-day trick: Fill a spray bottle with equal parts vinegar and water, coat the interior of the grill, close it, and let it sit for an hour. This softens residue for your brush without the need for heat.

2. Prep the propane

Propane grill iStock

Do a gas check—it's essential for safe, efficient cooking, especially if a grill's been idle. Run a leak test. Coat the regulator, valves, and hoses with soapy water, then turn on the tank to pressurize the system.

Look for bubbles, which indicate escaping gas. Tighten connections and try again; if there's still a leak, replace the hoses or the tank, if need be. Next, if your grill lacks spider guards, use a bottle brush to clear out debris or insect nests from the venturi tubes, which connect gas to burners.

Finally, fire up the burners without the grates in place and look for spots that aren't flaming evenly. Once cool, clear any blockages in the burners with a paper clip.

3. Check propane tank gas levels

For grills without a built-in gauge, get a scale, like the Grill Gauge (about $11; Ace Hardware), or use a bathroom scale. Tanks list their tare weight (TW), or weight when empty. Weigh the tank and subtract the TW to gauge the gas inside.

A pound of propane produces 21,600 Btu per hour; divide this by your grill's max Btu output to see how many hours of cooking on high you'll have left per pound of gas. It's smart to keep an extra full tank on hand; store it upright and outdoors in the shade.

4. Find and fix your grill's hot spots

Illustration of grilling hot spots Jason Lee

Even heat is the holy grail of grilling, but it's often not what your burners deliver. To identify the heat pattern, cover grates with slices of white bread and run burners on high for a few minutes. Cut the flame and flip the slices to see which toasted most, indicating where the hot spots are.

To even out the heat, add grates of hard-anodized aluminum, an excellent conductor. Or place indirect-heat food on cooler areas and direct-heat food on the warm ones.

5. Learn your burger basics

Grilling burgers on propane grill iStock

Achieving a juicy, delectably charred burger requires a certain degree of skill. Grillmaster Martin provides some pointers.

  • Think thin. The best burgers are three-quarters to an inch thick. Too plump and they tend to char on the outside and undercook on the inside.
  • Make an impression. Use the back of a spoon to make a shallow, inch-wide dent in each patty (unless it's stuffed). That'll help them cook flat so they don't look like oversize meatballs.
  • Pat your patties. Dab each burger with a paper towel and sprinkle with salt. Both will wick moisture from the surface, allowing for better browning.
  • Start hot. A temperature of 450 degrees is just right for cooking burgers. Place patties over direct heat.
  • Go easy on 'em. Stabbing burgers with a fork when turning them drains their precious juices. Instead, use a spatula and flip when you see moisture rising to the surface.
  • Know when to stop. Grilling times vary, so getting a temperature reading is key. Medium-rare burgers are ready at 130 degrees, medium at 140 degrees. For safety, Martin recommends the USDA guideline of 160 degrees—well-done.

Touch, don’t pierce.

Illustration of how to test meat temperature when grilling Jason Lee

Most meats require a food thermometer for gauging doneness. But to conserve juices in steak the way pro chefs do, try this touch test.

  • Rare: The outside consistency of beef with a cool red center should be about that of the spot between the thumb and forefinger of a relaxed hand.
  • Medium: To gauge if steak is just pink inside, compare how it feels with the density of the center of your palm when you hold your hand flat.
  • Well: Meat that’s cooked all the way through should be firm but with a slight give, similar to the texture of the tip of your nose.

Adapted from Weber's Way To Grill. Used with permission.