Summer food safety - outdoor grilling

May 21, 2008|By LYNN LITTLE

Memorial Day marks the beginning of the summer grilling season. Grilling, one of the easiest low-fat cooking methods, can be a centerpiece for summertime meals. It is important to follow food safety guidelines to prevent harmful bacteria from multiplying and causing foodborne illness.

Grills need annual cleaning after winter storage by scouring the grate with a wire brush. Spray the grid with oven cleaner and rinse thoroughly. Before each use, remove charred food debris to reduce exposure to possible cancer-causing substances formed during high heat cooking. Apply non-stick cooking spray to prevent food from sticking to the grill.

Pick a safe area - Position the grill in a well-ventilated, flat, level surface away from overhangs, deck railings and shrubbery. Keep children and pets away from the grill when in use.

Preheat the grill - Before placing food on grilling surface, heat the entire grill.

Avoid flare-ups - Use lean meats and trim away visible fat. Raise the rack to the highest position away from the heat. Keep food on one side of the grill and coals or other heat source on the other side to avoid meat juices dripping on coals and causing flare-ups.


Use proper tools - Tongs and a spatula help to turn food without piercing it. This prevents food from losing juices and drying out. A vegetable grilling basket can hold smaller foods. Other useful utensils include a wire brush for cleaning, long-handled tongs and flame retardant mitts to protect hands.

Handle food safely - Food safety should be a priority while grilling. If food is handled or cooked improperly, health risks can dampen the experience.

Foodborne illnesses increase in warm weather. Following four simple steps - wash hands and surfaces often, don't cross-contaminate by placing cooked foods on platters used for raw foods, cook foods to the proper temperatures, and refrigerate promptly - will reduce the risk of foodborne illness during the summer grilling season.

Food safety tips

· Keep meat cold until ready to grill. Do not leave it out at room temperature. If starting with frozen products, thaw in the refrigerator or microwave. Grill immediately after thawing in the microwave.

· Save time with precooking. Precooked meats can still be grilled to add authentic flavor and shorten grilling time. Partially cooking meat in the microwave or oven to reduce grilling time is safe only if the food then goes immediately onto the grill. If you are precooking well ahead of time, be certain to cook the meat thoroughly to destroy all bacteria, then refrigerate. Reheating later on the grill will give a barbecued flavor.

· Marinate in the fridge. Marinades enhance flavors, tenderize and keep foods moist. Marinate meats in the refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter, so bacteria won't have a chance to grow. If you want to use some marinade for a dip or basting sauce, reserve a portion in advance. Don't reuse marinade that's been on raw meat.

· Cook meats thoroughly. Use a meat thermometer to be sure the food has reached a safe, minimum internal temperature. Meat and poultry cooked on a grill often browns very fast on the outside, but exterior color is not a reliable indicator of whether meat has been thoroughly cooked on the inside. Ground meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees; poultry should reach 165 degrees; pork is cooked at 160 degrees; and steaks are cooked at 145 degrees. For a complete list of recommended cooking temperatures, visit: or

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association ( recommends making ground beef patties about a half-inch thick by four inches in diameter (about four patties per pound). This helps assure the burgers will cook thoroughly and evenly. Patties this size will take 11 to 13 minutes to cook to a safe internal temperature of 160 degrees, based on beef that has been removed directly from the refrigerator, cooked over medium, ash-covered coals and grilled uncovered. Consult your owner's manual for grilling guides if you are using a gas grill.

· Don't put cooked meat on a raw-meat platter. Do not use the same platter or utensils to handle raw and cooked products. Wash any utensils and plates that have come in contact with raw meat before using them for cooked foods. Be sure to keep vegetables or fruits that are intended for grilling separate from raw meat.

· Keep meat hot. Once taken from the grill, keep the meat hot at 140 degrees or warmer by transferring the food into a warming tray or slow cooker until serving time.

· Wrap fish in foil. Cook fish in foil packets to retain natural flavors and protect it from smoke and fire.

Try grilling vegetables and fruits: eggplant, summer squashes, bell peppers, sweet onions, Roma or cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, mangoes, pineapple or peaches. Cut vegetables into half-inch slices or large chunks. Brush with warmed, seasoned oil. Turn only once, and grill until tender. Fruit should be halved with pits removed. Grill with the pulp side down.

Place leftovers in the refrigerator, dividing larger quantities into small, shallow containers so the food will cool more quickly, with less chance for bacteria to grow. Discard any food left out more than two hours or one hour if the temperature is above 90 degrees.

The food-safety rule of thumb is: When in doubt, throw it out.

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

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