We’re likely all on the same page here: Burgers, steak, chicken, vegetables and even some fruits simply taste better fresh off the grill. And it can be a healthy option — especially if you’re watching portion sizes and throwing on a few veggie skewers, too. But there are some serious health hazards associated with our beloved outdoor cooking method. Check out the most common grilling mishaps below, plus cooking tips for for a safer, healthier barbecue.
7 Grilling Mistakes That Could Be Making You Sick
Mistake #1: You don’t make time for marinades.
Often made with spices and juices full of polyphenolic compounds (an antioxidant), marinades can act as a barrier against dangerous grilling byproducts. Studies show marinating meat, poultry and fish for at least 10 minutes can reduce the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs), a cancer-causing compound formed when meat cooks at high temperatures.
So which one do you grab? One study suggests certain marinades are more effective than others. A Caribbean mixture decreased HCA content by 88 percent, an herb marinade cut 72 percent and Southwest reduced 57 percent. Another recent study found marinating meat in beer reduces polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — the carcinogenic byproduct of grilling meats over an open flame. Black beer varieties, aka dark lagers, were found to reduce PAH formation the most (though pilsners were a close second).
Anything that coats the meat and protects it from burning — like oil for instance — is key to keep away the carcinogens that can form when meat burns, says Julie Lanford, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN, and author of CancerDietitian.com. “I always recommend making your own, to avoid additives you don’t need,” she says. Whip up marinades with fresh herbs, healthy oils and citrus juices. “If homemade isn’t an option for you, be sure to read the ingredient list and choose a marinade that doesn’t have a lot of simple sugars, salts and artificial food ingredients in it,” Lanford says.
Mistake #2: You don’t preheat long enough.
Heat up that grill for 20 to 30 minutes before cooking to kill off bacteria and other pathogens leftover from past grill sessions to reduce the chances of foodborne illness. Though it’s easy to believe a little cook time on the almighty grill will destroy any scary stuff, a British study found the average grill contained twice as many germs as a toilet seat (yikes!). Better safe than sorry.
Mistake #3: You use only one cook method.
Though the grill is supposed to do all the work, there’s yet another quick, simple way to cut back on those grill-induced chemical compounds (like the ones mentioned above). Food purists might cringe, but researchers have found that proteins cooked briefly in a microwave before heading to the grill can reduce levels of HCAs. The quick zap (shoot for one to three minutes) reduces the time it takes to cook meat over an open flame, but you’ll still get that desirable grill flavor.
Mistake #4: Your grill is a flare-ups war zone.
To reduce flare-ups, which can expose the air and your food to those carcinogens, start by cutting down on fat. An easy way to decrease the amount of fat making it’s way on the grill is to choose leaner cuts of meat, such as loin, round, flank or boneless and skinless, and trim off any visible fat. Ditch any extra marinade, too. Pouring it over meat may cause spillover, resulting in a flare-up. If flames do reach meat and create charred portions, trim and discard those bits before eating.
Mistake #5: You don’t measure your temps.
It’s tempting to think grilling over an open flame will have dinner ready in no time. But while grilling is in fact a relatively quick cooking method, it’s important to judge a steak not just by its grill-marked outside, but by the temperature inside. The color of meat isn’t a reliable indicator of doneness, but a thermometer is just about foolproof.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends cooking pork, beef, veal and lamb to 145 degrees, then allowing the meat to rest three minutes before cutting or eating. (The rest time allows the internal temperature of the meat to continue to rise slightly to destroy any remaining harmful bacteria). Poultry should reach at least 165 degrees and fish should come to 145 degrees at minimum. “When checking the temperature, it’s important to check at the thickest part of the meat,” Lanford says. Remember, it’s always safer to rely on a thermometer rather than eyeball it.
Mistake #6: You’re at risk of cross contamination.
Tongs, check. Spatula, check. Though a grill set generally includes only one of each utensil, there are two easy and important ways to cut down on cross contamination, or when juices from raw meats make contact with ready-to-eat foods. When placing uncooked meat on the grill, either wash utensils thoroughly with hot, soapy water before using them again to remove the cooked meat, or have a second set of clean utensils on hand.
By the same token, use two separate plates — one for raw food, one for cooked — to prevent foodborne illness. And if you have leftover marinade, make sure to boil it if you plan on reusing it after it made contact with raw meat. Even easier — make extra marinade to douse on cooked food rather than save the initial liquid.
Mistake #7: You aren’t a clean freak.
“Cleaning a grill before and after use can help to ensure the safest food environment,” Lanford says. It’s important to scrape down grill grates to clear off potentially harmful residue that builds up over time and reduce exposure to bacteria growth. Coffee, because it’s acidic, can help cut cooked-on grease in a snap. Plus, since it’s something many of us ingest anyway, it’s a healthy alternative to other common grill cleaning products, such as ammonia.
Two other tried-and-true non-chemical cleaning tools are a stiff wire grill brush and tongs. Carefully brush down the grates while they’re still hot — and the grease and any food particles are loose. Then, wad up a piece of paper towel dampened with a little vegetable oil (that’ll keep it from burning). Use tongs to rub the towel along the grill grates to pick up any remaining particles. If you’re in need of a good de-gunking before cooking (and maybe you forgot to clean the grill after the last use) preheat for 15 minutes, then scrape and employ the paper towel method.
Originally published May 2014. Updated July 2016.