How to use that grody public grill without fear of poisoning your picnic

Updated Jun 29 2016
Guest post by Dootsie Bug
By: James FellerCC BY 2.0
Public grills get a bad rap. I can definitely see why. They're always coated in the mysterious carbony remains of meals past. There's usually some bird poop on or around them. The ash pile inside is a ghastly reminder that anything — anything — could've been cooked on these rusty little public servants.

I promise with just a little work, a public grill can be a totally serviceable cooking option. Whether your back yard is too small for get-togethers, you don't have a grill of your own, or you just want a change of scenery, grilling in the park is a completely doable thing!

Clean the top

The cooking surface needs a little scrubbing — even if you plan to cover it with tin foil (which I recommend. More on that later.) If you happen to have a grill brush, awesome, use it. If you don't, a wadded up ball of aluminum foil will do just fine. If you'd like to add some soapy water, even better! Just scrub the grates until the big chunks of burn stuff flake away.

Empty Out the ashes

I find it easiest to wrap my hand in a plastic bag, then scoop the ashes out into another plastic or paper bag for disposal. If you see anything weird in the ashes, move to a new grill.

Cover it with foil

Build a fire as normal. When the coals get close to ready, rip off a sheet of aluminum foil and spread it out over the grill using a spatula. Pierce holes in it with a fork or the edge of the spatula. This sheet of foil will protect your food from the grill's surface. If you love char marks and feel particularly brave, remove the food from the surface and carefully remove the foil, then plop everything on for a quick scorch at the end of cooking.

Clean it up?

It takes a long time for grills to cool down completely. If you happen to be around when it's safe to clean, then feel free to do so. However, it's pretty much expected that you'll leave your ashes and char. Some parks will have posted signs asking you to clean up afterwards, but for the most part, it's not considered rude or anything. Just clean anything you might've dropped and pick up after your picnic.

What are your tips on de-grossing public grills? Because they're awesome in theory, but in practice can be quite disgusting.

  1. Foil is also great if you have anyone you're cooking for with food allergies or sensitivities at a cookout! Make them their own little foil packet, cook it and then fewer worries of them getting sick!

  2. I normally let the fire roar up for ten minutes and then cook straight on the grill. No aluminum foil here. I just make sure that the meat reaches food safe temps with my handy dandy food thermometer.

    • My mother raised me with a near-phobia of these things. I seriously wouldn't even wander near one for fear I might touch the mysterious, certainly deadly contents.
      As I grew up, I noticed that a ton of people use public grills with absolutely no ill effects or lingering plague. I went to a couple birthday parties in public parks where parents gave their children public grill-grilled hot dogs–to eat! I braved a burger myself and survived to tell the tale. When I finally gave a public grill a go, I was amazed to discover no evidence that a frat boy had used it as a toilet, nor had someone coated it with drugs/calf livers. In fact, it was pretty much just an average grill, used by normal people. IMAGINE!
      So I thought maybe this quickie tutorial could help someone who–like me–figured that a HazMat suit, a flamethrower and a bucket of alcohol might be required to clean one.

  3. They can look really scary! But remind yourself – they get way hotter for way longer than, say, a dunk in dishwater or a turn in the dishwasher. Exactly what makes them so messy (they take so long to cool down that only the next user can clean it) also makes them safer – they get super hot, for an extended period of time.

    I tell myself that every time. Ok, I confess – but I still scrub it down a little, and use foil.

    • I scrub the grates mostly because I'm afraid some of the charred bits will break off and stick to my food. It's the same reason I scrub my parents' grill, so I don't think it's overkill.
      And I use foil because most public grill grates are rusty. Doctors will tell you not to consume rust (especially rust flakes, which COULD cause intestinal damage), though trace amounts are not likely to cause any harm. I sometimes have problems with food sticking to the rusty parts, as well. Since public grill tops are rather small, avoiding rusty spots can be tough, especially since the rusty spots are almost always in the middle, where all the heat will be. I just find it much easier to stick with foil.

  4. Um, what kind of "weird" things could be in the ashes, out of curiosity? (It's possible that I've been watching too much Fringe lately, so please pardon my paranoia.)

    • My mom swore to me that people poop in those things.
      But in reality? There's very real potential for there to be broken bits of plastic from utensils or litter, which could burn off and be really smelly or gross on your food. And there's almost certainly some bird poop in there.

  5. We use a grill brush and then start the fire. Once its hot, we rub a half an onion over the top to sanitize.

  6. This baffles me. I have never seen a public grill outside of a campground (and very few of them seem to have them anymore, because New Mexico is ALWAYS ON FIRE. We always have serious fire restrictions). Do these really exist in places like city parks?

    Also I've never been squicked out by the grills at campgrounds. I figure fire kills most everything. But if I happened to notice bird poop I would probably bust out the steel wool

    • I've noticed that places prone to fire are usually pretty choosy about where they place public park grills, and often only put them somewhere surrounded by tons of concrete. But if your area is prone to fires, it wouldn't surprise me if your public parks don't have any grills. Since most people do leave while the coals are still hot, I can imagine that would be a huge fire risk.
      But yeah, almost every public park I've been to has had grills. My experience with public parks is limited to the Eastern half of the US, though. It'd be interesting to hear how many grills there are in the Western half of the US and other countries? Are public grills a thing, y'all?

      • Yes! We have them in Australia too, but our local ones have mostly been switched out to electric hotplates. The grills are still around in some national parks, but I'm not sure how many are left.

        Our local council cleans and disinfects them early every morning, I've spotted various teams out doing that while I walk the dogs. The hotplates are always spotless stainless steel, but I prefer to run them through a heat cycle just in case. Others heat the bbq, pour a little bit of beer over it to clean it, and begin cooking as soon as the beer evaporates.

      • In Southern California they're everywhere. Less so in some of the more rural, high fire danger state parks. But city parks surrounded by trees and grass.

        • I've seen them on the grass by the beach (at Exmouth) but that's it – never anywhere else. I suppose we don't have reliable enough weather for it to be common.

      • Calgary (and southern Alberta/Kananaskis country) is also a yes. I don't remember seeing them much growing up in SE Ontario through – but did see them down Windsor way. I think you might be right about it depending on the fire risk.

      • Public grills are all over Oregon! I've never used one personally but I've enjoyed quite a few meals cooked by others on them.

    • I see them in Berlin a lot- Germans have a huge thing for grilling. A lot of the young people do it, and they seem to usually be in parks but far away enough from trees.

    • I live in NM, and we have grills in a few of our city parks. I'm pretty sure that when we go into fire restrictions they're off-limits, though.

    • I live in Colorado, where we regularly have high fire bans. But most of our larger public parks have grills. The small, neighborhood ones usually don't, but the ones that are more popular/looked at by the city more often usually do. . They're pretty proud of the outdoor activities around here though lol

  7. I live on Vancouver Island and I can't think of any place I have ever seen them here, I remember being surprised to see them when I visited friends in California.
    We probably don't have them because we can get some pretty serious forest fires here in BC in the summer time, all the parks here are full of trees there aren't usually big open areas.

  8. For no reason that I can explain, these grills are called "fryers" in Sheboygan, WI. As in, "We are having a brat-fry at the park this afternoon."

    Good times.

  9. I'm not surprised… People in WI have a bunch of weird names for things. A water fountain is a "bubbler" and traffic signals are "stop-and-go-lights". There's more and they only get sillier. It's almost as if the local dialect was decided upon by a group of toddlers.

  10. Thanks for that wonderful tip as well, these tips are awesome, i had a microwave once…became faulty and i became lazy…still on my budget to-do list, glad i had not purchased yet, glad to have stumbled upon these tips, at least now i can buy one with ease.

  11. You know that aluminum foil is toxic, especially under high heat? You are letting aluminum leach into your food. People need to stop using aluminum foil for cooking. Aluminum cookware is even banned in most European countries.

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