Cooking out with the fam and friends is the highlight of any summer, but beware some dangers. Here are our top rules to know before firing up your backyard cooker.
Grilling vs. Smoking
Grilling is relatively quick food prep method, but smoking is all about low and slow. Most grilled foods are cooked at a temperature of at least 400°F. Smoking can be done in special smokers or on a closed grill with a pan of water beneath the meat; average temperatures only reach between 225°F and 300°F. Grilling is considered a direct heat source. Hot grates on the grill come in contact with the food, cooking it. Smoking works through indirect heat — hot smoke surrounds and cooks the food and infuses it with that smoky flavor.
Make sure to check the manufacturer’s directions on grills and smoking equipment for proper instructions for use and cooking fuels. Also, you don’t want these heat sources to be too close to trees, shrubs or your house!
Rule #1: Wash those hands
As many times as I say it—people still don’t do it. Hands should be washed with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before touching food. This is sometimes difficult when cooking outdoors but make it a priority to reduce the spread of harmful bacteria. If it’s truly impossible to access a sink, then some hand sanitizer will do the trick.
Rule #2: Defrost safely
Think about what you plan to grill or smoke ahead of time, and place it in the refrigerator to defrost. Make sure meat and poultry are completely defrosted before cooking so the food cooks evenly. Never defrost on the countertop — that’s how bacteria spreads like wildfire. This is especially important for smoking meats because food is usually left in the smoker for hours.
Rule #3: Marinate smart
Marinating adds flavor, tenderizes meat and helps minimize bacterial growth (those guys don’t like very acidic environments and many marinades have highly acidic ingredients like vinegar or lemon juice). Marinating works best for a minimum of 30 minutes. Always marinate in the fridge and keep foods in a tightly covered container to prevent spills. As for leftover marinade, discard or boil it before serving with cooked foods.
Rule #4: Pre-cook immediately
Some folks like to partially cook food in the microwave, oven or stove to reduce cooking time. This should be done immediately before you put the food on the grill or smoker. Letting partially cooked food hang out increases your risk of bacteria growth.
Rule #5: Use a thermometer
Using a meat thermometer is the only sure way to know your food is cooked through. When using a smoker, have a meat thermometer handy and use an oven thermometer inside the smoker to make sure you maintain a proper cooking temperature. FightBac.org has a quick cooking temp guide I always follow.
Rule #6: Don’t leave food sitting around
We’ve all been tempted by leftover burgers and ribs still sitting on the picnic table a couple hours after dinner. Resist! And not just to avoid the extra calories. Keep hot food consistently hot (140°F or warmer). Store cooked meats on the side of the grill rack (not directly over the heat) or in a 200°F oven. No food should sit out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. In hot weather (over 90°F), make it an hour and then toss.
Rule #7: Don’t reuse plates or utensils
Never take cooked food off the grill and place it where the raw meat was. This is a classic case of cross-contamination and can make you sick. Same goes for utensils like tongs, forks and basting brushes you dip in marinades — use separate ones for cooked and ready-to-eat foods.
If you don’t think cross-contamination is a risk, think again. A Milwaukee Sizzler restaurant just settled a lawsuit with the family of a girl who died after eating an E. Coli-tainted watermelon. Where did the E. Coli come from? From ground beef that workers prepared on the same counter as the melon.
Rule #8: Keep it spic & span
When the cooking is done, clean up your grill and utensils well. Use a sturdy grill brush to scrub your grill grates clean (it’s actually easier to do when the grill is still warm) — you’ll get more mileage out of your grill and keep that nasty grime off the next thing you cook.