There’s no question but that grilling food adds a certain flavor that’s hard to achieve by other cooking methods. Especially if you’re a meat eater, those seared black stripes on your dinner seem almost a guarantee of a satisfying meal. But the barbecue brings with it a few dangers that need to be considered when planning your evening of outdoor cooking.
Whatever you’ve read, the main problem with grilling for many people is simple the bad choices regarding what to grill and what to eat along side it. There’s a psychology to grilling – it’s summer, it’s time to relax, feel a little spoiled. As a result, it’s all too easy to reach for the hot dogs and burgers, and next thing you know you’re finishing off the tub of ice cream and wishing it had all never happened. So the best think you can change about your grilling is your attitude. It’s not a license to eat anything, it’s simply a wonderful way to cook and enjoy the garden while the days are long and the nights warm. If you enjoy meat, choose quality organic meats, seasoned with herbs rather than with some gluey sugary BBQ sauce. Grill salmon and vegetables (more on that later). Make grilling a new way to enjoy the foods you know are healthy rather than as an excuse to eat junk.
There are, however, some health concerns with grilling itself. Cooking meat at high temperatures carries with it a potential cancer risk because it causes the amino acids in meat react to produce heterocyclic amines (HCAs). As temperatures increase above 400°F formation of HCAs can increase by 700%-1000%. These compounds have been shown to be carcinogenic in animal studies, and although the data isn’t conclusive for humans, the US Department of Health has concluded that it reasonable to assume for now that HCAs can cause cancer in humans. Likewise, meat juices dripping on the hot charcoals create smoke that contains other compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), also believed to cause cancer.
So when cooking meat, follow these 5 good practices to reduce your intake of carcinogens:
- Choose lean meats. Less fat dripping on coals means less PAHs.
- Marinade meat before cooking – a simple marinate of lemon juice, low flame-point oil (avocado or safflower) and some herbs not only adds flavor, but it forms a shield from the flames and reduces HCA formation.
- Flip meat frequently – this prevents the meat from reaching too high a temperature.
- Cook smaller pieces – a large chunk of beef takes much longer to cook through, meaning increasing risk of forming HCAs.
- Cook away from direct flame. Use a low flame if using a gas grill. If you are cooking over charcoal, always let the flames die down before cooking, and try cooking at the edges of the grill. If the coals flame up underneath your food, move it around.
But don’t forget that grilling isn’t just about red meat. Chicken skewers, salmon or tuna steaks and vegetables all make for a great barbecued meal. Here are five vegetables that are delicious on the grill and will leave you wondering why you ever wasted charcoal on a hot dog.
- Eggplant – Slice them thin and brush them with olive oil or they can become tough. Eggplant contains nasunin, a powerful antioxidant also believed to have cancer-fighting properties.
- Zucchini – quarter them lengthwise, brush them with a bit of olive oil and add some dried oregano and black pepper. Zucchini is a good source of folates, vitamin C, vitamin A, and potassium.
- Peppers – Bell, poblano, whatever you like. Peppers are a good source of thiamine, vitamin C, beta caratene and folic acid. The red ones also have lycopene to help fight cancer and heart disease.
- Asparagus. Brush with olive oil and a bit salt, and be sure not to overcook them! These are packed with antioxidants, as well as nutrients such as folates and vitamins A, C, E and K.
- Onion. Half them lengthwise (don’t remove the root base or they’ll fall apart) and throw them on with the skin. Among other good things, onions contain compounds that break down into allicin, which is believed to have anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal properties.
And if that’s not enough for you, these wonderful veggies are all great low-calorie alternatives to those traditional potato or corn based side dishes. Following these tips can make your barbecued meal healthy and delicious, and with both main dish and side vegetables done on the grill you’ll have less cleaning up afterwards.