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"I'm Becoming a Grill Master"

When I was single I occasionally cooked food on a charcoal grill during warm summer months. For our wedding Julie Garden-Robinson, PhDin 1993, my husband and I received a gas grill as a gift.  It became my husband’s favorite appliance and he became the grill master.  That was fine with me.

Lately I’ve been writing educational pieces about safe food handling during outdoor grilling. Since I am giving advice, I thought I should experience gas grilling firsthand. After 16 years of observing the grilling process, I asked my husband to teach me how to use our gas grill.

During the tutoring session, my husband showed me how to check the propane level and ignite our old grill, which he has rebuilt twice in the last 16 years. This wasn’t so hard, I thought to myself. 

We fired up the charcoal grill, too. I put together foil-wrapped packets of potatoes, Mexican-style canned corn and onion slices, and we placed the packets on our small charcoal grill.

I got a little distracted when I went inside to get a clean plate and a clean pair of tongs. I began setting the table for dinner, then, remembering my original task, I hurried back outside.

“Well, you incinerated that piece of chicken,” my husband commented as he inspected my first attempt at cooking on the gas grill.

I glanced at him through narrowed eyes. I know a piece of chicken with his name on it, I thought to myself. Then he softened his commentary.

“I guess I didn’t warn you about the hot spot on the grill. The other pieces of chicken look really good,” he added, trying to smooth things.

“I’ll eat the burned piece, Mom. I like burned food,” my 14-year-old son said.

“Burned meat isn’t good for you,” I said as I measured the temperature of the other pieces of chicken with a food thermometer.  The thermometer read 167 degrees. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends cooking chicken and other poultry to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees, so dinner was ready.

I sliced the burned part from the “incinerated” piece of chicken. It wasn’t that bad. I served the trimmed piece of chicken to myself.

“What will eating burned meat do to me?” my son asked.  I was half expecting him to roll his eyes when I gave him the explanation.

“Meat is high in protein, which is made of building blocks called amino acids.  When fat from meat drips on charcoal or hot stones, flare-ups can happen and this can result in the formation of compounds called heterocyclic aromatic amines.  Eating a lot of extremely overcooked and charred meat over time can increase your risk of getting cancer. That’s why we use a food thermometer for safety and for quality,” I told him.

“I just ate a burned marshmallow at our friend’s house last night. Is that bad for me, too?” he asked. 

“Marshmallows and vegetables aren’t high in protein, so they are not a big issue.  Food tastes better when it isn’t burned, though” I said as a served up plates with vegetables and some good looking chicken at the proper temperature.

To reduce the amount of heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA) in grilled meat, follow these recommendations from the American Institute for Cancer Research:

  • Use a marinade, especially one that contains an acidic ingredient, such as lemon juice or vinegar. Researchers have shown that marinating meat as little as 30 minutes can reduce the formation of HAA by more than 90 percent.
  • Use a lower heat setting or raise the grate to reduce the intensity of the heat.
  • Trim visible fat from meat to help prevent flare-ups on the grill.
  • Leave the grilling fork in the house. Use tongs to turn the meat to reduce fat dripping and potential flare-ups and smoke formation. Keep a spray bottle at hand or consider covering the coals or stones with punctured aluminum foil to prevent flare-ups and smoking.
  • Turn food frequently. Flipping meat often lessens the formation of HAA. Cook smaller portions of meat, such as kabobs, to reduce the amount of time the meat spends on the grill.
  • Trim off any burned parts before serving grilled food.
  • Consider grilled vegetables as a side dish.  Because they are very low in protein, HAA formation is not an issue. Colorful vegetables contain antioxidants and other natural cancer-fighting chemicals.

For more information about safe food handling and other grilling tips, including some recipes for grilled fruits and vegetables, see these new publications from the NDSU Extension Service:

Becoming the Grill Master:   www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/foods/fn1412.pdf

Grill Something Different: www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/yf/foods/fn1420.pdf

More articles by Dr. Julie Garden-Robinson

For more information about nutrition and health, visit this Web site: www.ag.ndsu.edu/food

You can learn more about your nutrition needs by visiting http://www.mypyramid.gov/. For an archive of “Prairie Fare” columns, which include recipes, visit www.ag.ndsu.nodak.edu/nutrition.htm

Julie Garden-Robinson, PhD, LRD is an Associate Professor and Extension Food and Nutrition Specialist at North Dakota State University in Fargo, ND. She is a registered dietitian with a master's degree in food and nutrition and a doctorate in cereal chemistry/food technology. An award-winning educator and writer, she does research in the area of nutrition and food safety education. She is married with three energetic children, ages 6, 11 and 14, and two equally energetic dachshunds. She is an avid musician in her spare time.

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