How to Get Picture-Perfect Grill Marks on Meat and Fish

Follow our step-by-step guide to creating a pro-level crosshatch on grilled food.

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There's something supremely satisfying about getting those criss-crossed grill marks on meat and fish. Achieving these results is a picture-worthy moment (that is, if your hungry diners are willing to wait). But can you consistently create that perfect crosshatch design, and do they have culinary value—or are they just for looks? We consulted with two grilling experts to find out.

What Is the Purpose of Grill Marks?

Grill marks (called quadrillage in French) are mostly just for aesthetics, but if you can achieve them correctly, it likely means you cooked the meat well, says Christopher Arturo, a chef-instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. Searing protein on a hot grill grate (or the heat and fire from a grill) cooks the outside while also locking in flavor and moisture, he says.

Not everyone is a fan of grill marks, according to pitmaster Ray "Dr. BBQ" Lampe. "Grill marks have a great look and that's why they are often preferred, but there's a school of thought that says they leave much of the surface unbrowned and less flavorful," he says. When Lampe sees a piece of meat with dark grill marks, he views the unbrowned spaces in between as a missed opportunity for flavor. 

Tools You Need to Get Grill Marks

There are a couple of tools you should have on hand if you want to achieve grill marks.

Cast-Iron Grate

"Cast iron holds a lot of heat and is generally a thicker grate," Lampe says. Your grill may have cast-iron grates, but if it doesn’t—or you're a big fan of grill marks—you can buy a grill topper that makes it basically foolproof, he adds.

Instant-Read Thermometer 

An instant-read thermometer ensures your food not only looks good, but is cooked well, too. By checking the meat or fish's internal temperature, you will know exactly when to take food off the grill. "I like an instant-read thermometer that you can keep in your pocket, and then use to check as needed," Lampe says. "You have the ability to check the food in multiple places very quickly and that helps if something is bigger on one end." His go-to is the Thermapen Mk4.

Grilled Balsamic Flank Steak With Peppers and Onions

Petrina Tinslay

How to Get Grill Marks on Food

Our experts share the simple steps to getting perfect grill marks on your food.

Step 1: Preheat, Clean, and Lightly Oil the Grill

Use medium-high heat and a cast-iron grate or grill topper if you have one, says Lampe. Arturo emphasizes the importance of scraping the grill with a wire brush to clean it, then brushing the grate with a very lightly oiled towel; this will help to prevent whatever protein you're cooking from sticking.

Step 2: Oil the Food

If you're not using a marinade, lightly oil the fish or meat it to further keep it from sticking to the grill. If you've marinated the protein, Arturo recommends gently wiping off any excess liquid before placing it on the grates. "Too much marinade will cause flare-ups, leading to a fire hazard and your meat tasting like propane," he says.

Step 3: Grill the Food on an Angle

Locate a hot spot on the grill, then lay your food on the grill at a 45-degree angle to the grates. "Lightly press the food to make sure you have good contact with the grate," says Lampe.

Step 4: Peek

After a few minutes, use a grilling spatula to lift the edge of the food to see if you have browned grill marks, taking care not to move or fully lift it. When the sides look like they are starting to release from the grates, it's a good time to take a quick peek, Arturo says.

"Once you've placed the item onto the grill, resist the urge to constantly check and adjust the meat," says Arturo. "If you're moving the meat around frequently, you might mess up the grill marks."

Step 5: Rotate

Once you have visible grill marks, rotate your fish or meat 90 degrees and place it on a new hot spot on the grill. Cook until the marks have the same color.

Why is it necessary move the meat to a different place? The original spot where you started the cooking process will be slightly cooled by the food, says Lampe.

Step 6: Flip and Repeat

Flip your food, placing it on a new hot spot on the grill; then, repeat the process on this side.

The second side isn't as important as the first—and you may have to sacrifice the grill marks on this side for the perfect doneness, explains Lampe. "Cook until you've reached your preferred level of doneness (using the instant-read thermometer if needed), and serve with the side with the best-looking grill marks facing up," he says.

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