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Enjoy safe summer grilling

May 23, 2007|by LYNN LITTLE

As Memorial Day approaches, many holiday gatherings will include grilling outdoors. The unique taste of food prepared on the backyard grill is a great summertime treat.

Grilling is one of the easiest and most delicious low-fat cooking methods. However, you need to be aware that grilling occasionally results in food poisoning from improperly prepared food and that it might produce chemicals linked to some cancers.

Some studies suggest a cancer risk related to eating food cooked by high- heat cooking techniques such as grilling, frying and broiling. Based on current research findings, eating moderate amounts of grilled meats like fish, beef and poultry - cooked without charring - to a safe internal temperature does not pose a problem.

To prevent charring, remove visible fat that can cause a flare-up. You might want to precook meat in the microwave immediately before placing it on the grill to release some of the juices that drop on coals. Cook food in the center of the grill and move coals to the side to prevent fat and juices from dripping on them. Using a gas or electric grill carries the same risk as a charcoal grill.


Clean the grilling surface thoroughly before cooking to remove any charred food debris left over from previous uses. Removing charred food debris reduces exposure to possible cancer-causing substances. Heat the grill to kill bacteria before placing food on it. If you're using charcoal, let the excess starter fluid burn off before putting food on the grill. Coals should be grayish-white in color. Never squirt starter fluid on smoldering charcoal. It can cause an explosion.

Choose lean cuts of meat to grill, rather than higher-fat varieties such as ribs or sausages. Also, trim any visible fat and remove skin from poultry. Defrost meat before grilling. The outside of frozen meat chars while the interior remains cold. After grilling, always remove blackened material from the food's surface. Avoid fire flare-ups by using lean meats, trimming away all visible fat, raising the rack to the highest position away from the heat (or adjusting the flame to low on a gas grill), and keeping food on one side of the grill and coals or other heat source on the other side.

Have a spray bottle filled with water to keep coals and flames under control and to stop flare-ups. Aim the spray where the fat or marinade is dripping onto the coals. Grill at a lower temperature away from direct flame and raise the cooking rack to its highest level. Turn meat, using tongs or a spatula, at least once during grilling to help cook evenly throughout. Don't pierce meat with a fork. That allows juices and fat to drip down onto the coals and cause flare-ups.

Precook foods such as poultry or ribs by microwaving or boiling. Then, use the grill briefly for that special "outdoors" flavor. Use a food thermometer to monitor internal temperatures and doneness. Do not rely on color to determine doneness. For a guide to recommended cooking temperatures, visit and click on food safety education. Don't let juices from uncooked meats contact ready-to-eat foods. For example, when removing food from the grill, don't put it on the same plate that held raw meat.

Use oil-free marinades to enhance flavors, tenderize and keep foods moist while grilling. Research indicates that marinating before grilling might be helpful in minimizing cancer risk. If you plan to use the marinade later as a table sauce, it must be boiled for at least three minutes to eliminate bacteria.

Try grilling vegetables and fruits: eggplant, summer squashes, bell peppers, sweet onions, Roma or cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, mangoes, pineapple or peaches. Cut vegetables into 1/2-inch slices or chunks. Brush with warmed oil (canola or olive) seasoned with garlic or other herbs. Grill until tender. Turn only once. Fruits such as peaches should be halved with pits removed. Grill as is (no oil needed), pulp side down.

Cook fish in foil packets to retain natural flavors and protect it from smoke and fire. Do not cross-contaminate. Use separate, clean plates and utensils for raw, cooked and ready-to-eat foods.

Cool leftovers quickly. Put leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer as soon as possible. Put food away within two hours of cooking, or sooner in hot weather. If this is not possible and the perishable foods will sit at warm temperatures longer than two hours, the safest course is to throw it out.

For more information, contact the USDA Meat and Poultry hot line by calling 888-674-6854 or e-mail

For safety and good health, it is important to make sure the recipes and grilling methods you use discourage the growth of bacteria and the production of cancer-causing components. Use these simple guidelines for safe, outdoor meals.

Lynn Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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