Grilling is one of the oldest methods of cooking and socializing, dating back to our cave-dwelling ancestors. We’ve advanced from the “meat on stick” mentality, but the food-handling habits of some backyard chefs still need evolution.
For example, your risk of getting food poisoning spikes during the summer, thanks to the draw of eating outdoors and the fact that bacteria grows quickly in hot weather. Yet only 23 percent of home cooks use a food thermometer to check whether their meat is cooked enough to kill such bacteria. Another pitfall: toting poorly wrapped raw meat in a cooler, which can allow its juices to migrate onto other items.
Thankfully, easy precautions can mitigate or eliminate those risks. Here’s how to prep, cook, and serve so that your meal is as safe as it is satisfying.
1. Pick the right protein
The chef Howie Velie, an associate dean at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, recommends lean and tender cuts, which are easiest to heat evenly—filet mignon and strip steak, chicken breasts, pork tenderloin, lamb chops, and fish such as salmon, mackerel, and scallops.
2. Prep the grill
Use a stainless-steel stiff-wire brush to clean both sides of the grates while they’re hot. (You shouldn’t use chemicals to clean the grates; they can leave residues and cause fumes.) Then use tongs to drag a paper towel moistened with salt water over them to remove broken bristles or residual chunks of char.
3. Control the flame
Heavily charred meat can expose you to the potentially cancer-causing compounds heterocyclic amines, which form when amino acids and chemicals in muscle come in contact with high heat. And other unhealthy compounds, such as polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons, can form when fat drips off of meat into the flame. Though occasional exposure is probably OK, it makes sense to avoid those compounds when you can. Trimming visible fat and coating meat with marinade before you grill it can help.
4. Check for sufficient cooking
Use a meat thermometer to make sure the meat has reached a sufficient internal temperature to kill harmful bacteria. That’s at least 145° F for steaks, roasts, chops, and fish; 160° F for ground beef or pork, and 165° F for poultry.
5. Dish it up promptly
Serve hot foods right away, and keep cold dishes such as pasta or potato salads in a refrigerator or cooler until everybody’s ready to dig in. They can spoil in as little as an hour when sitting in the sun.
6. Clean and clear
Never reuse a marinade that held raw meat as a sauce, and don’t put cooked food on a plate that held raw items. If you’re eating away from home, find out whether there’s a source of clean water to wash plates and hands. If not, bring some.
This article also appeared in the July 2014 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.
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