Cooking up a Healthier BBQ – Tips, Tricks, and Recipes

Preparing foot for the family at picnic

 

An outdoor BBQ is one of the great American pastimes, like cheering on your favorite baseball team or savoring a delicious slice of home-baked apple pie. The ancient combination of fire and food never disappoints, and there are few things more enjoyable than a juicy burger or steak shared with family and friends.

Want to dish out a healthier BBQ experience? No problem! A few tips and tricks will help you make the most out of healthy BBQ eating.

The Difference between BBQ Cooking and Grilling

Most of us use the terms “barbecuing” and “grilling” interchangeably—and that’s perfectly fine—but these terms actually refer to two different types of cooking.

Barbecue (shortened to BBQ) is the process of outdoor cooking done over indirect heat at lower temperatures (212 deg. F to 300 deg. F) for long periods of time. Think of a brisket tenderized slowly in a smoker or a whole pig roasted for hours in a pit. Strictly speaking, a BBQ is a time-consuming event that requires the chef to tend to the meat for hours while all the hungry guests salivate over the delicious aromas.

Grilling is done quickly over high heat, whether the meat is cooked directly or indirectly over the heat source. Hot dogs, burgers, steaks, chops, and chicken breasts are usually grilled, and when we refer to a backyard BBQ that lasts for an hour or two, we’re really referring to the grilling method of cooking.

It may seem like splitting hairs to differentiate BBQ from grilling; however, knowing the difference will not only make you a more informed cook, but shooting out that little factoid will make you super popular at parties. We promise!

So whether you’re diving into a day-long BBQ session or a fun evening meal on the patio, here are some ways to keep your cooking healthier.

Cook over Indirect Heat

As much as you might love the taste of a seared or charred crust on your steak, studies have shown that meat grilled over high heat (above 325 deg. F) produces a recognized carcinogen called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Same goes for meat cooked to well-done status. Cooking over indirect heat might take a little longer, but you’ll reduce the formation of HCAs, and that will help you enjoy your dinner all the more.

Cooking over indirect heat also prevents flare-ups, when grease drips onto hot coals and ignites. The smoke that envelopes the meat during flare-ups might be tasty, but it also produces another recognized carcinogen called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Takeaway Tips:

  • To avoid HCAs, cook meat over indirect heat at less than 325 deg. F.
  • To avoid PAHs, use a drip pan to prevent grease from causing flare-ups, or place meat on foil.
  • Remove meat from the grill when it hits rare, medium-rare, or medium-well status. Avoid cooking meat to well-done.
  • For directions and cooking times for indirect grilling, see the handy chart here.

Pre-Cook Your Meat before Grilling

A short pre-cook not only shortens the time it takes to grill your dinner, but it also helps prevent grease and fat from dripping into your coals and causing flare-ups, with the resulting PAHs. Simply throw your steaks, chops, ribs, or chicken breasts into the microwave for two minutes on medium power, and then drain off the juice. This step also helps to cut way down on HCAs, as well!

Takeaway Tip:

  • Pre-cook your meat in a microwave on medium setting for two minutes. Drain juices before grilling.

Experiment with Tasty Marinades and Sauces

Marinades and sauces packed with herbs and spices will infuse meat with powerful antioxidants while also reducing the amount of HCAs in the finished product. The secret is that marinades keep the surface of the meat wetter, which lowers the chances of charring and prevents PAH-filled smoke from sticking to the surface. Sauces, too, flavor the meat and keep the surface wetter; as long as flammable ingredients like sugar or honey don’t hit hot coals, you’ll also avoid smoky PAHs.

Plus, flavor! Who wants bland? Herbs and spices accentuate the characteristics of various types of meat. When paired thoughtfully, they complement each other in delightful and delicious ways.

Feel free to experiment with all kinds of herbs and spices. Herbs like rosemary, garlic, turmeric, and red pepper are especially effective antioxidants, as are ingredients like honey and tart cherry juice. Come up with your own recipe, adjust someone else’s recipe to your tastes, or pull out a family favorite for consistently appetizing fare.

To avoid added chemicals used in commercial marinades and sauces, make yours from scratch. Then you’ll know exactly what you’re putting into your mouth.

Takeaway Tips:

  • Marinades and sauces keep meat surfaces wet and prevent charring or searing while adding flavor and antioxidants.
  • You needn’t spend hours marinating the meat: one or two hours are sufficient, and longer marinating times are simply not necessary.
  • Make your marinades, sauces, or rubs from scratch so you know exactly what’s in them.

Recipes 

Grill a Lot of Vegetables

Certain vegetables and fruits lend themselves so well to grilling that you could make an entire meal of them and forget the meat altogether. But even as a delectable accompaniment to meat, grilled vegetables add a multitude of nutrients like vitamins and minerals to your meal. What’s more, grilled veggies don’t contain any of those pesky HCAs or PAHs, so eat up!

Takeaway Tips:

  • You can’t go wrong with grilled veggies and fruits. They’re good for you and they don’t contain any HCAs or PAHs.

Recipes

To get your gastronomically creative juices flowing, here is a list of vegetables and fruits that are particularly divine when grilled over indirect heat:

Or, if you want to combine meat and vegetables together, try kebabs: alternate bite-size chunks of meat with bite-size chunks of vegetables (use several different types for taste variety) on wood, bamboo, or metal skewers; drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper before setting on a hot grill.

Summary

Cooking your meat and veggies over fire in the great outdoors is a fantastic way to create delectable food. To make your BBQ a healthier meal, there are a few things you can do:

  • Grill meat over indirect heat at lower temps (less than 325 deg. F), and don’t allow grease or sauce to cause smoky flare-ups. Grilling meat over high heat causes the formation of carcinogenic hetercyclic amines (HCAs), and the smoke contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), also a known carcinogen.
  • Marinating your meat keeps the surfaces wetter and helps prevents charring, thus cutting down on HCA formation.
  • Vegetables and fruits are great grilling options and do not form HCAs. Adding several grilled vegetables or fruits to your meal will also increase your intake of essential vitamins and minerals.

Happy cooking!

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