Bristled by wire brushes? Here are alternatives for cleaning your barbecue

Butchers, chefs and barbecue aficionados give their bristle-free suggestions for cleaning your grill, from tinfoil to robots.

Onions, tinfoil, even a barbecue robot can clean the gunk from your cooking surface

Wire bristles from grill brushes can get stuck on the barbecue and then swallowed. Doctors haven't found a surefire way of removing the thin, sharp wires from people's mouths and throats. (Irishoffspring/Pixabay)

This story was first published on Sept. 5, 2016, after several instances of barbecue bristles getting caught in people's throats.

Frightening stories of wire brush bristles getting caught in mouths and throats are reported every time barbecue season starts up.

Doctors have yet to find a surefire way to remove the thin, razor-sharp metal bristles after they've been swallowed — their tiny size makes them difficult to find.

Some surgeons recommending people to stop using the wire-bristled barbecue brushes entirely.

A tiny bristle got stuck in six-year-old Anthony Fiore's throat when he was eating a burger. Surgeons at Toronto's SickKids Hospital were able to remove the bristle but first had some trouble finding it. (Submitted by Nadia Cerelli-Fiore)

"They can kill somebody," celebrity barbecue chef Ted Reader told CBC News. "You don't want your barbecue party to be ruined because someone is choking on a bristle."

But what's the backup plan? Here are a few bristle-free cleaning suggestions from butchers, chefs and barbecue aficionados across the country.

Half-onion scrub

It may seem like an unconventional approach, but it does the trick, says Andrew Hart, a butcher at the Getaway Farm Butcher Shop at the Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market.

"It doesn't clean it up as well as a brush can, but it does a great job and it also seasons your grill with an onion flavour," he said.

Halifax butcher Andrew Hart opts to clean his grill with half an onion. (stux/Pixabay)

Hart picked up the technique while working in kitchens with other chefs. Hart chops the onion in half and moves it around the grill with tongs. The onion can also be dipped in oil beforehand. It's doable with potatoes and zucchini, but onions work best because of their layers, he said.

Crumpled tinfoil

Another approach is crumpling tinfoil into a ball and rubbing it around the grill with a pair of tongs. It's the go-to technique for Michele Vanderzwan, a supervisor at Well Seasoned, a gourmet food store in Langley, B.C., that offers cooking classes.

"You always have tinfoil and you always have tongs," she said.

The store hosts cooking competitions where, according to Vanderzwan, almost all the competitors use the tinfoil technique. She has competed in barbecue competitions where competitors can be disqualified if "foreign objects" like bristles end up in the food.

Wooden scraper

Danielle Bennett has travelled the world competing, judging and teaching barbecue — she's the host of the grill-focused TV series BBQ Crawl. Bennett is originally from Barrie, Ont., but now lives in Florida.

When it comes to cleaning gunk off her grill, she uses a wooden scraper that looks and works like a paint scraper. 

It's a similar approach to celebrity chef Reader, who uses a small paddle-like piece of hardwood, among other tools. He said he's still on the search for the ultimate grill brush.

"The grill is like a car … if you put crappy gas in it, your car is not going to run as well as it could," he said of poorly made barbecue brushes.

Bennett agrees. "They are cheap and inexpensive, but people don't think to change them out often enough," she told CBC News in an email from Germany, where she is at a barbecue convention. "It's a kitchen tool and you should treat it as an investment."

Bennett said the weirdest thing she has seen someone cleaning their grill with is sandpaper. "It was horrible to watch."

Bristleless brush

Others opt to keep the brush, but without the bristles. The bristle-free brush is a circle of tightly coiled steel. 

Rob Reinhardt, who runs Prairie Smoke and Spice BBQ in Regina and teaches barbecue classes, prefers this type of brush.

Rob Reinhardt says it's important that barbecue owners clean their grill. He uses a bristle-free brush, which he orders online. (Facebook/Prairie Smoke & Spice BBQ)

He switched to a bristle-free brush three years ago because of safety concerns. "We cook a lot of barbecue," he said. "The last thing we want is a bristle embedded in the food that our customers eat."

He will also use crumpled tinfoil when he doesn't have his brush handy. "In a pinch, it does a pretty good job."

Here are some of your grill cleaning suggestions

  • Grill cleaning blocks.
  • Nylon bristle brush.
  • Welding wire brush.
  • Pumice stones.
  • Stainless steel pot scrubber.
  • Modified cedar shingle.
  • Stick barbecue parts in a self-cleaning oven.
  • Spray water on a hot grill and clean with steam.
Reader Eric Onasick said he uses a small piece of wood with a bevel cut on the end to clean his grill. "Simple and cheap." (Eric Onasick)
  • Steam cleaning brush.
  • Baking soda and damp cloth.
  • Pressure washer.
  • Tooth brush.
  • Grill cleaning robot (like a Roomba, but for your barbecue).
  • Barbecuing on other surfaces that are easier to clean, like a reusable grilling sheet.
  • Turning the barbecue on high to burn all the gunk off.

Have a special bristle-free technique? Send an email to haydn.watters@cbc.ca and he will try to add it to this list.

About the Author

Haydn Watters

Haydn Watters is a Toronto-based journalist. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

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