With summer’s long-awaited approach, grilling season—a time beloved by skilled chefs and amateur foodies alike—is officially on! For the latter, an interesting factoid to note: Though grilling and barbecuing both involve cooking food on an outdoor grill using indirect heat, be it gas, charcoal, kamado, pellet, or propane, they are actually not the same thing. “Barbecuing technically refers to a low and slow method of cooking on a grill, usually with the lid closed, whereas grilling is done at higher temperatures for shorter periods of time,” explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N. Either way, these methods yield delicious results.
Cooking on the grill can have several health benefits, too. Because food cooked on the grill tends to contain more moisture and flavor, you may be less tempted to rely on excess condiments, which are often high in salt and sugar, notes Blakely. “Plus, although food prepared on the grill is richer in moisture, it does tend to be lower in fat content, since a lot of the fat drips off during cooking, which can help reduce total calories and saturated fat.”
Still, that doesn’t mean grilling up any ol’ food any ol’ way is guaranteed to be healthy. Here, experts share some common mistakes worth avoiding if you want your warm-weather eats to be as good for your health as they are tasty.
1. Charring the meat
Burning or charring your meat might give it a rich flavor and crunchy texture, but those aren’t its only impacts. “Charring grilled foods changes the food’s molecular structure so that it is potentially more carcinogenic,” explains functional nutritional therapy practitioner Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P., “Eating this food can then cause DNA changes that may contribute to certain cancers and other health risks.”
To avoid this, Rodgers recommends cooking your meat in smaller quantities so that you can keep a closer eye on the doneness of each piece before turning it over, which can help prevent charring. It’s also a good idea to turn down the heat to 325 degrees or lower to better monitor the quality of the grilling process.
2. Cooking smoked and cured meats
Some barbecue mistakes are made before even firing up the grill—and this is one of them. Many beloved barbecue favorites include smoked and cured meats, such as hot dogs and sausages. Unfortunately, these foods can be filled with nitrates and nitrites, compounds that are used as a food additive to boost flavor and prevent bacteria growth, according to Rodgers. “When grilled over higher heats, the nitrates and nitrites in these meats can form into carcinogens,” she says. “If you want to enjoy these types of foods this summer, look for hot dogs and sausages that are nitrate- and nitrite-free (or ‘uncured’) and make your own hamburgers from fresh ground beef.”
3. Not cleaning your grill and equipment
Just as with any tools or equipment you use for cooking purposes, it’s prudent to properly clean any and all barbecue equipment you use, including the grill itself, tongs, and other tools and utensils. If the equipment used for barbecuing is not properly cleaned and sanitized between uses, food that remains can spoil, promoting the growth of bacteria, which can then cause illness, warns Nicole M. Avena, Ph.D., nutrition speaker and consultant. So, no matter how tempted you are to crash after your next backyard hang, clean all of your cooking gear properly.
4. Missing the marinade Mark
Marinades and glazes aren’t just delicious, but they often include spices and other ingredients that contain antioxidants, natural substances that can serve as a barrier to protect against those cancer-forming agents (carcinogens), according to The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N.
For the most health bang for your buck, she recommends avoiding packaged marinades that contain additives or preservatives, and instead prepping your own marinades with antioxidant-rich herbs and other plants, like rosemary, thyme, turmeric, garlic, and onion. Ideally, marinate for a few hours.
5. Not washing your hands after handling raw meat
Since grilling often involves meat in some form or another, it’s especially important to be mindful of safe hand-sanitizing practices. “Not washing your hands properly after dealing with raw meat can increase the risk of foodborne illness,” says Avena. As easy as it may be to skip it, she recommends washing your hands within minutes of touching raw meat. “The handwashing process should last no less than 20 seconds and should use soap and warm water,” she specifies.
6. Not cooking foods to the correct internal temperature
Different types of meat must be cooked to different internal temperatures in order to be safe for human consumption. For example, poultry should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, beef should be cooked to an internal temperature of 145, and all ground meats should be cooked to at least 165, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
7. Letting fat drippings fall onto your heat source
This might be one of those barbecue mistakes that goes unnoticed, but it’s still important. When fats hit fire or hot coals, the resulting smoke contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), according to Blakely. “The PAHs are also carcinogens and can then adhere to the surface of the meat,” she says. To reduce this, she recommends trimming as much excess fat as possible before grilling and avoiding cooking directly over the heat source. Just place a layer of tin foil under your meat to catch the fat drippings, she suggests.