8 Tips For Healthy Barbecuing
Before you light the coals or turn on the propane, learn how to prep and grill food so no one gets sick
Whether you're grilling up juicy burgers, steaks, brats or your special barbecued chicken or shrimp, the food is sure to be a hit as long as you don't burn it — and as long as you don't accidentally make anyone sick. Cooking outside brings some special challenges and means taking a few extra precautions.
Before you grab your tongs and apron and brush on the marinade, brush up on these tips.
1. Start with a clean grate
Before you grill, scrape the grate with a bristle brush to remove char and residue if there is any. Next, attack lingering bacteria by cleaning the grate with hot soapy water and letting it dry. (When you’ve finished grilling, scrape the grate again before it cools down. Gunk will release more easily from still-hot metal.)
2. Be chill about defrosting
No matter how eager you are to dig into the sirloin you just pulled out of the freezer, don’t rush to throw it on the grill. Allow frozen meat and poultry to defrost completely before cooking so that it cooks evenly. (Undercooked spots can cause food poisoning.) If you have time, let it thaw slowly in the refrigerator (never on the counter). If it’s tightly sealed you can also submerge it in cold water. And if you truly are in a hurry, you can use the defrost setting on your microwave to take the chill off.
Related: How to Thaw Meat
3. Marinate with care
Marinating is a great way to tenderize meat, add flavor or both, but be mindful of how you do it. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends marinating food in the fridge — never on a countertop or other unrefrigerated area. According to foodsafety.gov, poultry and cubed meat can marinate for up to two days. Beef, veal, pork and lamb roasts, chops and steaks can safely sit in a marinade for up to five days.
If you want to turn the marinade into a sauce after you’ve removed whatever was soaking in it, bring it to a boil first to kill any bacteria that may have leached in. Or simply make extra marinade and set some aside.
4. Have a clean platter ready and waiting
Never use the same platter for raw and cooked foods. Bring uncooked items to the grill on one platter and have a second, clean one on hand to hold food once it’s done. Thoroughly wash any dishes that have held raw meat, poultry or seafood. Tip: To simplify things, use paper plates for raw meats and toss them as soon as you transfer the food onto the grill.
Related: How to Clean a Cutting Board
5. Watch (and wash) your hands
Spend at least 20 seconds scrubbing your hands with soap and water before cooking, advises the FDA. Keep a bottle of hand sanitizer that contains between 60 and 90 percent alcohol beside the grill. Use it every time you touch meat that’s still raw or not yet thoroughly cooked. Pump a dime-sized portion of sanitizer into one palm and then rub your hands together energetically.
If your hands are noticeably dirty or greasy, however, take the time to scrub them with soap and water: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even super-strength hand sanitizers aren’t likely to be effective on soiled skin.
If you prefer to use gloves when you grill, keep two pairs handy — one for handling uncooked food and one for cooked food.
6. Cook meat thoroughly…
Color can be deceiving. Even beef that’s turned deep brown may not be cooked through. On the flip side, pink doesn't always mean it's not done: Some meat, including ground beef, is treated with gasses that help it maintain color. So burgers that have been safely cooked through still may appear pink, tempting you to overcook them into dry, flavorless discs.
The best way to make sure meat and poultry reach the perfect state between safely cooked and still juicy is to take its temperature. Insert an instant-read meat thermometer into the thickest part of the food and compare the temperature to these numbers from the USDA Safe Minimum Temperature Chart:
- Beef, pork, veal and lamb (in steaks, chops and roasts): 145 degrees Fahrenheit
- Ground meat:160 degrees F
- Poultry: 165 degrees F
- Fish and shellfish: 145 degrees F
Clean off the thermometer between uses so you don’t re-contaminate cooked food.
When smoking meat — a great way to impart flavor and tenderness to tough cuts — keep the temperature inside the smoker between 250 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit, advises foodsafety.org.
Related: 5 Chef-Approved Food Safety Tips
7. … but not too much
There’s some evidence that when proteins are exposed to very high heat (such as direct flames from a charcoal grill), they may form cancer-causing compounds called heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, that are especially linked to colon and stomach cancers.
To help prevent HCAs from forming when barbecuing meat, poultry or fish, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) suggests opting for lean cuts that are less likely to drip fat and cause flare-ups that could lead to charring. It also recommends cooking at a slightly lower heat or over coals that have burned down a lot, and flipping food frequently. And don't forget to marinade: According to the AICR, studies have shown that marinating meats can lower HCA formation by up to 96 percent.
8. Keep food out of the temperature danger zone
Bacteria thrive in temperatures between 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. For that reason, it’s important to minimize the amount of time food spends in that temperature range. Never allow uncooked food to sit out at room temperature for more than two hours. On a hot day (90 degrees Fahrenheit or more), food should not sit out for more than an hour.
If you’re transporting food to be barbecued, pack it in a cooler with ice or ice packs to keep it at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Wrap meats and tuck them in the bottom of the cooler so that they’re separate from other foods and beverages (or use two coolers). Put the cooler in the main part of the car rather than in the hot trunk.
Once food is cooked through, keep it on a cooler part of the grill where it will stop cooking but still maintain a temperature of at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit, which will keep bacteria at bay.