Is grilling a healthy way to cook?
I don’t eat much meat but I love my gas grill.
I love that it cooks things quickly. I love that I can cook enough at once for several meals. I love that it cleans up in a flash, literally. And I love that on a summer’s night, I can stand in the cool of my backyard instead of the heat of the kitchen.
Grilling is much simpler and more diverse than it used to be. Back in the day, my dad would load up our charcoal grill with briquettes, squirt some flammable liquid over them, and throw on a huge sirloin, cooking it until it he thought it was done. If it was overly done or too rare, it was the fault of the coals, not the cook. These days, while purists still love their charcoal grills, it’s easy to use a small gas or electric one to get a convenient touch of that barbecue flavor, without the hassle and mess of charcoal. New tools make it easier to tell if something’s safely cooked. And we are open to throwing anything on the grill, from pizza to peaches.
In fact, we are probably better off doing things other than red meat, according to Dianna Carpentieri, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian at Cape Cod Hospital Davenport-Mugar Cancer Center. She recommends following guidelines established by the nonprofit American Institute for Cancer Research, which says that broiling, pan-frying or grilling red meat over high heat releases cancer-causing chemicals that increase the risk of colon cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research, a nonprofit that aggregates cancer research. If you do cook meat, the AICR recommends marinating meat in a mixture that includes an acid such as lemon juice, vinegar or wine for at least 30 minutes to help to prevent the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). By the way, nutritionally pork counts as red meat, despite being marketed as the other “white” meat.
Don’t think of that as a limitation but as an opportunity to try all kinds of other things: seafood, vegetables, fruit and some things you never imagined.
“I’ve done cookies on the grill. I’ve cooked breakfast,” said Ken Foster, the Cape’s own “Doctor of Grillology” and owner of Breakaway grill stores in South Dennis and Mashpee, as well as Hall Oil Co. “Don’t be afraid of trying anything,” he said.
There’s lots of grilling advice out in the world. A good place to start is the instructions that came with your grill. But the basics fall into three categories: safety, tools and what you’re actually going to cook.
Foster had several safety tips for barbecuing, including:
- To avoid a fire or curling your vinyl siding, keep your grill at least 24 inches away from any walls. “When the cover’s shut on a grill, all the heat’s coming out of the back of it,” he said.
- Consider a nonflammable grill mat under your grill to prevent any errant bits of grease or hot embers from hitting your deck.
- If you have only a small patio, deck or balcony, stick to an electric or gas grill. Check if your condo or apartment association has any rules about charcoal or grills on balconies.
- Never walk away from your grill once you turn it on or leave it burning for an extended period of time. Foster learned that the hard way when the wooden shelves in his grill caught fire after he’d cranked it up to clean the grates.
- With experience, you can learn to tell by touch if meat or seafood is done enough to safely eat. In the meantime, consider a temperature probe. The newest ones cost about $40 and work wirelessly to send temperatures to a receiver or your mobile phone. Follow the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ chart on safe cooking temperatures.
The Right Tool
I don’t have anything fancy but these are the essentials:
- Long-handled spatula and pair of tongs. Save the short-handled tools for the kitchen.
- A good wire grill brush. When you’re done cooking, crank up the heat, then brush and burn off the worst of the crud before you turn your grill off. Don’t end the session with a disgusting grill. When you start it up again, run it high for a few moments and brush again. And follow the manufacturer's directions for giving it a deep cleaning occasionally.
- A grill skillet or basket. These usually come with holes in the bottom and are good for grilling anything that’s hard to turn or might fall through your grates, such as vegetables and shrimp.
- Tin foil. Some things are better wrapped and baked on the grill and tin foil saves a lot of messy clean-up. To cook bluefish, for example, Foster spreads a filet with mayonnaise, then wraps it in tin foil and puts it on the grill for about 10 minutes, turning once. (Don’t be snobby about bluefish; it’s great on the grill and one of the most inexpensive fish to buy.) Some folks use tin foil to clean grill grates, but I haven’t tried it.
- Neutral oil with a high smoke point. Sometimes you want oil like canola or peanut that doesn’t add much flavor and has a high smoke point. Olive oil, which has a low smoke point, can contribute to flare-ups, but is OK in marinades. To help prevent sticking, fire up your grill, brush it down and then rub it with a bit of paper towel dipped in a high-smoke oil.
Ready, set, cook!
This list could be endless. If you want the traditional grilled red meat, Foster recommends London broil. He marinates it for about an hour and, once it’s cooked, slices it thinly on a 45-degree angle going against the grain. “I love it and it’s inexpensive,” he said. London broil cuts are usually about 2 pounds and run about $7 a pound, cheaper than other steaks. So, a London broil offers solo cooks lots of leftovers for salads, fajitas, sandwiches, or cold slices dipped in a little BBQ sauce.
My grill, however, gets the most action from vegetables. They cook quickly and are great to keep in the fridge to add to salads or sandwiches or just serve cold with a sprinkling of your favorite vinegar. But you can put almost any edible plant over a flame, even leafy ones like kale, or fruit such as mangoes and watermelon. My nephew, a professional chef, recommends you make the slices as consistent as possible and pull fruits and vegetables a few moments before you think they are done; then let them rest for a few minutes.
To spark up your summer, here are 10 grilling suggestions from friends and family I polled on social media or that are adapted from “The Essential New York Times Grilling Cookbook,” one of my cooking bibles.
- Thinly slice beets and brush with olive oil. Place directly on the grill over low heat until slightly tender. I don’t bother peeling them until after they cook so I just have to cut off a bit of rind. Serve with a schmear of goat cheese or chop and mix with feta cheese, sliced red onions and a bit of balsamic.
- Lay Tuscan or other flat kale leaves directly on the grids until the edges crisp a bit. Trim out the stalks and toss the leaves with a bit of caesar or other dressing.
- Peel a few whole carrots. Rub with a tad of olive oil and then roll in about 4 tablespoons of brown sugar, a teaspoon or so of ground cumin, salt and pepper. Let the sugar char a bit then move them off the direct flame for about 10 minutes. I don’t even like cooked carrots and I could eat these all day long.
- Grill sliced pineapple and top with this sauce, which might be good with everything, including the aforementioned London broil: ½ cup peanut butter, 1 tablespoon soy sauce, a dash of sriracha, and a handful of mint or basil. Or, marinate the pineapple in rum and brown sugar, then grill.
- Slice onions in thick slabs, brush with cream and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper before grilling. (The cream helps the cheese to stick.)
- Slice peaches in half, brush with a neutral oil and then grill. Slice and put on pizza with fresh mozzarella, arugula, prosciutto and a balsamic reduction (meaning, you’ve boiled some balsamic vinegar down until it’s a tad syrupy). You can cook the pizza on the grill rather than heat the oven or you can cheat by buying a pre-made crust or flatbread. Brown one side of the crust, flip and then add the toppings.
- Cut romaine lettuce or bok choy in half lengthwise, brush with olive oil and grill until charred and slightly soft. Top with shaved Parmesan and a bit of Caesar dressing.
- Slice eggplant about ½-inch thick; brush with olive oil and herbs, salt and pepper or with a mixture of 1 tablespoon neutral oil; ½ cup miso and ¼ cup honey.
- Lightly char wedges of cabbage and carrots, being careful not to let them get mushy. Let cool, then grate for coleslaw.
- Grill ripe figs and brush with balsamic. Put in a salad with arugula and blue cheese, dressed with olive oil and a touch more vinegar.