Like most of summer, grilling is supposed to be stress-free, easy, and fun. You can prepare big-batch recipes for the week on the grill while also enjoying the backyard. And since most grilled meals are casual and share-friendly, grilling is perfect for friends and family in the park on a warm afternoon, or at the beach after a long sunny day. But grilling can go wrong. Mary Ellen Camire, Ph.D., CFS, a professor of food science at the University of Maine and a fellow in the Institute of Food Technologists, says that the most common grilling mistakes are innocuous and can happen very quickly. They can lead to foodborne illnesses, injuries, or adverse effects to your health over a long period of time.
"There's a lot of miscommunication out there about even the simplest of grilling safety tips, including the best way to measure if your grill is hot enough to get cooking," Camire says. "How long you can hold your hand over the grill before feeling the urge to pull it away isn't good enough; after all, after a couple of beers, who knows if you'll really feel the heat."
Cooks who are committed to safety as well as the best quality possible know to insert a thermometer into meat to check for doneness before serving, but the essential information here goes beyond checking the temperature of beef, pork, poultry, and fish. Some of it isn't related to cooking at all. Make room in your grilling routine for these tips and rest easy knowing your alfresco meal is as harmless as it seems.
Use a Grill Thermometer
You may already have a meat thermometer on hand, but that's not the only temperature read you need on a grill, Camire says. Unlike ovens, not all grills are not equipped with precise temperature control and gas grills often have three temperature settings, which make it hard to determine if the grill is actually hot enough. "Once you've got the grilled turned on, I actually think you should close everything up and place your cover back on, which allows the entire grilling chamber to heat up evenly," she says.
Purchasing a digital thermometer for the grill will give a precise temperature reading on the inside of your grill at all times. Camire says that a grill should reach a range of temperatures between 550°F degrees and 700°F degrees for beef: "You want to get a nice sear on a steak. It's important for burgers to be cooked on high heat because that meat has been ground up, there's a high surface area in a hamburger, and you want to cook it quickly all the way through," she says. For poultry and fish, however, aim for temperatures under 500°F degrees; these delicate proteins will cook much faster at lower temperatures. And for fruit or vegetables, a low heat between 225°F and 300°F degrees is best, as romaine or peaches can easily scorch.
Don't Leave Ingredients Outside
"In general, the Food and Drug Administration recommends not keeping anything outside for more than two hours—and if its 90°F degrees outside, an hour or less," Camire says. "Keep food in a cooler, on a bed of ice, which then you'll have to throw out. If you know you have to leave your ingredients outside for longer than usual, keep drinks in a one cooler, so you can keep perishables tightly closed in another."
Always Clean Properly
It's important to clean your grill after you've finished cooking—rather than leave until the next time you want to grill. "Turn the temperature of the grill all the way up in order to carbonize the grill top," Camire says, and any harmful foodborne bacteria will be burned off. Camire also recommends wiping the grill surface down with a wet paper towel before you grill the next time. "With animals sometimes making their way inside the grill, you just want to be sure both racks are free of any carbonized debris before you make your next meal," she says.
Have One Set of Utensils for Raw and Another for Cooked Foods
Unless you're sanitizing kitchen utensils in the middle of a grilling session, you need to own at least two sets of tools. "You might accidentally use something that could contaminate something with foodborne bacteria that's been fully cooked—have one set for raw foods, and another for cooked foods," Camire says. This applies to plates and platters, as well: Don't carry out raw ingredients on the same plate you intend to eat off of.
Use a Grill Scraper Not a Bristle Brush
While it's important to scrub away the debris from your grill's racks, Camire says the professionals at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have picked up on a new safety issue plaguing Americans. According to a CDC advisory, the bristles on grill brushes have the ability to snap off into the grill and can later attach to food. Over 1,600 Americans went to the emergency room between 2002 and 2014 after having ingested wire bristles in grilled food, according to research published in the journal Otolaryngology. Camire recommends cleaning with a scraper tool instead, as these will eliminate caked-on debris but they don't have potentially harmful bristles.
Be Careful with Kebabs
Cooking raw foods in close proximity to each other on the grill top, like raw poultry and potatoes, isn't generally a problem. Kebabs are the exception; vegetables usually cook much more quickly than meat, so with mixed skewers, the vegetables will be done but the meat won't be cooked sufficiently. "It's better to load skewers with different ingredients on them and then take each one off when they're done cooking," Camire advises.
And plan on using the top rack of the grill for vegetables and breads—Camire notes vegans and vegetarians expect their food not to share space with animal byproducts.
Most airborne allergens can survive on a hot grill top, Camire says. "There was a very highly publicized case of a small boy who died simply from inhaling the fumes coming off his grandmother's stovetop earlier this year," Camire says. Allergens can be a serious risks for cross contamination when it comes to grilling, and it's best to be aware of your guests' allergies before they arrive. Try to avoid cooking with these ingredients altogether, Camire says.
Watch Out for the Char
Lastly, Camire says there is some truth to the claims that charred foods often contain carcinogens—but the likelihood that these agents will negatively impact your health depend on how frequently you eat charred meals from the grill. Carcinogens are created when sugars and protein are caramelized under intense heat on the grill top. "Marinades will help combat this: typically they are used for cheaper cuts of meat, to tenderize them, but marinades may also be helping to counteract acid and prevent the formation of these harmful compounds," Camire explains. If you grill meals multiple times per week throughout the whole year and purposefully char ingredients when you do, you'll have more of a risk due to higher exposure to these chemicals.