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Grill Safer and Smarter This Summer

Health concerns about eating grilled foods have evolved as more research shows the dangers of carcinogens from charred food and grill smoke. A steady diet of grilled meats is also linked to conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Still, certain precautions, preparation methods, and diet considerations can make grilling a healthier practice, and there is some “wiggle room” in determining what makes grilled foods healthy or not, depending on who is consuming them and how often.

When it comes to grill safety, however, there is not much margin for error. Put another way, healthy grilling begins with safe grilling. This means proper food handling, preparation, and storage before and after grilling – all of which help prevent foodborne illness.

Illnesses caused by bacteria from food are rarely deadly, but they easily can ruin a weekend at the lake or a backyard party. By taking a few precautions and using the proper techniques, anyone can enjoy a safe summer at the grill. Below are some basic tips, along with two heart-healthy recipes.

Shopping and Handling

If you’re loading up on groceries for a weekend of grilling, the meat section should be your last stop in the store. Meat will not stay cold in a shopping cart, and “cool” isn’t safe enough. For the drive home on hot summer days, placing your purchases in a cooler on ice is far safer than leaving them in the back of an SUV or in the car trunk, especially if the drive takes longer than 30 minutes.

The safe approach with poultry is to assume that it is already contaminated at some level. Several studies have shown that even with the precautions taken by sellers in the United States, two in five packages of chicken purchased from grocers contain significant levels of pathogens such as enterococcus, E. coli, campylobacter, and/or salmonella.

It’s not a bad idea to be equally wary of raw beef and pork, especially ground meats. The key point is that anything that comes in contact with raw meat is likely contaminated at that point. For that reason, follow these precautions:
  • Don’t rinse poultry in the sink. Doing so will not remove pathogens in the muscle tissue, and it’s likely you will simply splatter contaminated water to other areas of the kitchen counter, your clothes, or utensils. Some salmonella strains can thrive for longer than 25 days on dry surfaces, in large enough concentration to pose a health risk.
  • If you are not preparing meat right away, keep it cold. Temps above 38 degrees are risky.
  • Anything that touches raw meat must be washed, and not just your hands. If you want to ensure that a cutting board is safe for re-use, clean with a bleach solution.
  • Use separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables. Once the cutting board has developed deep grooves, dispose of it. Wooden boards that can be sanded to smoothness are an exception.
  • Anything that cannot go in the dishwasher should be cleaned with a bleach solution. The same goes for countertops and cabinet and faucet handles.
  • Think of your kitchen and grill areas as biohazard zones, because sometimes they are.
 

Grilling

  • The tongs or other utensils used to place raw meat on the grill should not be used to turn the meat while cooking, unless it is washed in between. This rule applies to all cutting boards, knives, bowls, platters, foil pans, and any items used to handle or transport raw meats to the grill.
  • Clean your grill with wadded foil. The tiny bristles of a steel or brass wire brush can break away and remain on a sticky grill. The next stop for those metal particles may your esophagus or stomach. Today there are some effective hard nylon grill brushes, but they must be used before heating the grill.
  • Grilling steaks kills any bacteria that may have dwelled on the meat surface. However, if you used a fork to tenderize or infuse marinade into the steak during prep, you probably pushed surface bacteria into the center. Unless you plan to grill that beautiful rib eye you’ve punctured to well done, you are risking illness.
  • You gain nothing by allowing burgers to reach room temperature before grilling, but you risk a lot.
  • Marinades should not be converted to a basting sauce, and boiling them isn’t adequate.
  • Meat juices on the surface can be contaminated, so basting meat with a brush and dipping it into a marinade or sauce can contaminate the meat, brush, and basting sauce. The brush used to apply marinade when meat first touches the grill should not be the brush used to continue marinating.
  • Dispose of bastes after cooking. They can’t be saved for another grilling session and cannot be consumed as a dipping sauce.
  • Always clean the meat thermometer probe after each use.
  • Refrigerate uneaten grilled items within one hour. Keep cooked foods in your fridge no longer than seven days. When in doubt, throw it out.
 

Pro Tips

  • After five beers or three mixed drinks, it’s a rare grill master who has any business near an open flame.
  • An A-B-C-rated fire extinguisher is the best grill accessory purchase you will ever make.
  • Chimney starters are ideal for starting charcoal fires. Starter fluid is dangerous and often causes grilled foods to have an unpleasant flavor.
  • Never activate the ignition on a natural gas or propane grill unless the lid is up. With propane, a delay between opening the valve and igniting the gas creates a risk of the heavy gas pooling at the bottom of the grill well, so even if the lid is up there can be an explosion from buildup. In short, don’t allow a delay between turning the valve on and ignition for any gas grill.

Mighty Spicy Rubbed Pork Chops (for four chops)

Rub ingredients
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon coarse salt, either kosher or sea salt
1 teaspoon light brown sugar
1 teaspoon arbol chili powder (or 2 teaspoons cayenne)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic or garlic powder

Preparation
Prepare the dry rub and place in a shallow bowl.

Coat the chops with the rub mixture, seal in a large plastic bag, and refrigerate for at least 6 hours.

Remove the chops from the refrigerator and let them sit, in bag, for five minutes.

Prepare a hot and warm side for the grill. Brown chops on hot portion of grill for three minutes each side. Move to warm portion of grill, cover with foil pan, and grill until internal temp is 145. Note: Don’t judge by color! Use a meat thermometer to check temp often, and remove chops the moment the required temp is reached.
 

Mexican Street Corn (for six ears)

Charred, fresh corn coated with a spicy dressing, then rendered still more delicious with crumbly queso and lime juice, may make you forget about butter.

Ingredients
2 limes, cut into wedges
¼ cup mayo
¼ cup sour cream
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon ancho chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
4 oz crumbled queso fresco
Preparation

Whisk together mayonnaise, sour cream, chili powder, cayenne, and cumin, and juice of one lime wedge. Keep ingredients cool but do not chill.

Place husked corn directly on grates over medium hot fire, rotating until ears are golden and charred in many spots, roughly 9-12 minutes.

Remove and plate.

Coat corn with mixture, cover with queso fresco, and serve with lime wedges.