Look for signs of rust or cracks in the metal or grill lines. It's also possible that little critters may have found their way into the grill, and need removing. Get the least squeamish person in the family to do that.
There are die-hard grillers who don't see why a little cold or sleet should stand between them and a juicy grilled steak. The rest of us in colder climes throw a cover over our grills for the winter and wheel them into a garage or storage spot, wheeling them out months later as the mercury climbs back up.
None of us, however, can assume that last year's grill is ready to roll as soon as we fire it up.
What to do to get your grill ready for service again:
A THOROUGH ONCE OVER
WIPE DOWN THE OUTSIDE
Amanda Haas, a cookbook author who works with Traeger Grills, says: "Lots of grills are covered in grease, dust, and pollen when you lift that cover after a long winter of hibernation, so give the outside a thorough scrub down. Keeping it clean will extend the life of the grill and help prevent accidents due to sticky or greasy surfaces."
You probably can get away with warm soapy water, but there are also products for cleaning specific kinds of grills.
DON'T FORGET THE INSIDE OF THE LID
Whether you use gas or another type of grill, the inside of the lid will likely have buildup from the previous year. Not only does it look gross, it also can be a fire hazard. Use a strong brush, possibly the same kind you use to clean the grill grates, or maybe a nylon brush, depending on the grill material. Personally, I don't care about scratches inside the lid of my grill — I'm just happy when it's clean.
A paint scraper is also handy for cleaning out built-up gunk.
CLEAN THE INSIDE
Do all of the following with the gas off, if applicable.
Clean the "flame tamers," right over the gas burners underneath the metal grilling grates. A skewer, toothpick or paper clip are good for making sure all the little holes in the burners are open and unclogged. There are also tiny wire brushes made for this purpose. Later, when you test the grill, peek to see if any holes are still clogged. Then, once the gas is off again, give those openings an extra go-over.
Empty the grill of all ash and debris from the previous year (remove the grate to do this).
Make sure that grease pan is empty! Ideally, you would have emptied it at the end of last season, but in case you forgot, this is a big one, as grease fires are a hazard. Check this about once a week if you grill regularly.
CHECK THE FUEL LINE
One insider tip for making sure your gas line is uncompromised is to brush the outside of the gas tubes with soapy water and then run the gas. If you see any bubbles along the tubes, there are leaks and the tubes need to be replaced. If you see bubbles where the tubes connect into the grill or gas tank, these might just need tightening.
GET THE GRATES SPARKLING CLEAN
Start the season with clean grates, both for sanitary reasons and because you want to kick off your grilling with a beautiful clean grill and beautiful clean grill marks on your food. For a gas grill, turn all the burners to high, shut the lid and let the grill heat for 15 minutes. Open the lid and hopefully everything stuck to the grill will have burned off. Then, just give it a good scrub with a grill brush or grill scraper. Make sure no bristles get stuck on the grill rack. A wadded-up piece of foil held with tongs also does a good job. You can give the clean grate a light brush with oil while it awaits your next grilling session.
Haas advises, "If it's been awhile since you've cleaned your grill grates, remove them and take a nylon sponge or hard bristle brush to them along with some tough cleanser. Make sure to rinse and dry them thoroughly before placing back on the grill."
STOCK UP ON FUEL
If you need a new tank of fuel, go grab it before you marinate those chops (and consider a backup tank so you never get caught short in the middle of a fleet of sausages.)
If briquets, wood or pellets are your fuel of choice, lay in a supply of those. Jay Buzaid, owner of Powerhouse Appliances in New Milford, Connecticut, says that if you use hardwood charcoal or pellets, then take a close look at any unused fuel from the previous year. If there's any mold, it all needs to be tossed. If it's clean and dry, use it.
"In the summer, extreme temperature fluctuations from hot to cold cause moisture to build up, and sometimes the hardwood pellets and charcoal get wet from condensation — especially if the grill is in the sun," he says.
He tells customers that wet hardwood charcoal can be dried out, but he recommends tossing wet pellets. Regular grill use can help prevent this problem, and he also suggests storing pellets in the manufacturer's bag, which is designed to help them stay dry.
FIND A SAFE PLACE
If possible, your grill should be at least 10 feet from your house, and not near an open window. It should be situated on a fireproof and stable surface like concrete or brick, if possible. Make sure it's somewhere you can monitor at all times when the grill is going. And make sure there isn't an overhang, to prevent fire or carbon monoxide buildup.
CHECK YOUR TOOLS
Did you leave those tools lying on the grill under that cover all winter? Mmmm, been there.
Take a good look at your tools, and if you think they aren't shipshape, consider investing in new ones. A worn-down grill brush doesn't clean well, and a basting brush that wasn't properly cleaned before the end of the season may need replacing. Get a good instant-read thermometer for measuring the internal temperature of meat; it's one of a good griller's secrets to success.
Haas loves having long, stainless steel tongs, an oversize spatula, a perforated pan for grilling veggies, and small kitchen towels to protect hands as she puts food on and off the grill.
So now that you're ready to grill, the only big decision left is ... what's for dinner?