This post was originally published on May 2, 2016 and updated on May 21, 2021.
I love how food tastes when it’s prepared on a grill. It’s so much fun to create a meal outdoors with friends and family nearby. But while outdoor grilling is an American tradition, common mistakes, such as using the wrong oil in your marinade, can be disastrous to your taste buds and bad for your health. This year before you prepare your marinades or fire up your grill, run through this list of precautions.
Before you grill
- Thaw meat in the refrigerator. Defrosting food on the counter encourages the growth of disease-causing pathogens such as listeria and salmonella.
- Thaw proteins completely before grilling. That’s the best way to ensure food cooks evenly. Use a meat thermometer in the thickest area to ensure doneness. Healthy internal temperatures are: poultry, 180 degrees; burgers, 160 degrees; pork,160 degrees; and steaks, 145 degrees for medium rare and 160 degrees for medium.
- Marinate with the right cooking oil. A lot of people marinate their proteins in olive oil before grilling. Over-heating olive oil can cause it to break down into dangerous carcinogens. Plus, your food will probably taste rancid. Better to use an oil that will stand up to high heat, such as Malaysian sustainable palm oil. It’s got a nice buttery texture, it’s filled with healthy nutrients and it’s good for the planet. I’ve posted some of my favorite recipes.
- Wash your hands thoroughly before transferring food onto the grill.
Cooking with charcoal or propane
- To avoid inhaling smoke and help prevent accidental fires, position the grill away from your house, and out from under eaves and tree branches. Each year, home grilling is responsible for thousands of home fires and for sending thousands of people to the hospital for burns.
- Start with a clean grill. A build-up of extra grease and fat can cause a flash fire, in addition to contaminating your food with potential carcinogens.
- Only use charcoal starter fluid with a charcoal grill. Stay safe by never adding flammable fluid once a fire is started.
- Keep meat and vegetables separate on the grill. You want to keep meat drippings from falling on your vegetables. That’s because vegetables don’t cook long enough to destroy any bacteria present in the drippings.
Serving your food
- Always transfer cooked food onto a clean platter. Don’t use the same plate that you just used for the raw food.
- Keep food hot until it’s served. Move it off the fire but keep it on the warm grill.
- Throw away burned or charred portions before eating. The char and soot may contain dangerous chemicals or carcinogens.
- Keep food away from flies. Use food covers to keep insects from sharing your meal and spreading germs.
- Step away from the food (and downwind) before spraying on insect repellent. You don’t want to eat the chemicals. And, they’ll taste terrible!
Treat leftovers with care
- Refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible.
- Discard food that’s been sitting out for two hours or more.
Grilling is fun and can be delicious. With a few precautions, you can keep foodborne pathogens, fires and exposure to carcinogens from spoiling one of our best warm weather pastimes.
Chef Gerard Viverito, is an culinary instructor as the Director of Culinary Education for Passionfish, a NGO non-profit organization dedicated to educating people around the globe on the issue of sustainability in the seas. He is also operator of Saveur Fine Catering.