Food & Drink

Some tips for safe, delicious summer grilling

Cooking outdoors is quickly getting in full swing. That means observing food-safety guidelines to prevent harmful bacteria from multiplying and causing food-borne illness.

The Partnership for Food Safety Education's recent findings reveal that although a majority of adults feel confident that they understand and follow food-handling procedures, a sizable number do not consistently follow certain safe practices.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 million Americans, or one in four, contract food-borne illnesses every year.

Here are safety reminders from the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

- Marinate food in the refrigerator, not on the counter. Poultry and cubed meat or stew meat can be marinated for as long as two days. Beef, veal, pork and lamb roasts, chops, and steaks may be marinated as long as five days. If some of the marinade is to be used as a sauce on the cooked food, reserve some marinade before putting raw meat and poultry in it. If the marinade used on raw meat or poultry is to be reused, make sure to let it come to a boil first to destroy harmful bacteria.

- When carrying food to another location, keep it cold to minimize bacterial growth. Use an insulated cooler with enough ice or ice packs to keep the food at 40 degrees or colder. Pack food right from the refrigerator into the cooler immediately before leaving home.

- Keep meat and poultry refrigerated until ready to use. If using a cooler for meat, keep it out of the direct sun by placing it in the shade or shelter. Avoid opening the lid too often, which lets cold air out and warm air in. Pack beverages in one cooler and perishables in a separate cooler.

- Be sure there are plenty of clean utensils and platters. Don't use the same platter and utensils for raw and cooked meat and poultry. Harmful bacteria in raw meat and poultry and their juices can contaminate safely cooked food.

- Precooking food partially in the microwave, oven or stove is a good way to reducing grilling time. Just make sure the food goes immediately on the preheated grill to complete cooking.

- Cook food to a safe minimum internal temperature to destroy harmful bacteria. Meat and poultry cooked on a grill often browns very fast on the outside. Use a food thermometer to be sure the food has reached a safe minimum internal temperature. Beef, veal, and lamb steaks, roasts and chops can be cooked to 145 degrees. Hamburgers made of ground beef should reach 160 degrees. All cuts of pork should reach 160 degrees. All poultry should reach a minimum of 165 degrees.

- Never partially grill meat or poultry and finish cooking later.

- When reheating hot dogs and other fully cooked meats, grill to 165 degrees, until steaming hot.

- After cooking meat and poultry on the grill, keep it hot until served, at 140 degrees or warmer. Keep cooked meats hot by setting them to the side of the grill rack, not directly over the coals, where they could overcook.

- In hot weather (above 90 degrees), food should never sit out for more than 1 hour.

- Refrigerate leftovers promptly in shallow containers. Discard any food left out more than 2 hours (1 hour if temperatures are above 90 degrees).

- Smoking is cooking food indirectly in the presence of a fire. It can be done in a covered grill if a pan of water is placed beneath the meat; meats can be smoked in a "smoker," which is an outdoor cooker especially designed for smoking foods. Smoking is done much more slowly than grilling, so less-tender meats benefit from this method, and a natural smoke flavoring permeates the meat. The temperature in the smoker should be maintained at 250 to 300 degrees for safety.

- Use a food thermometer to be sure the food has reached a safe internal temperature.

- Some studies suggest there might be a cancer risk related to eating food cooked by high-heat cooking techniques, such as grilling, frying and broiling. Based on current research findings, eating moderate amounts of grilled fish, meat and poultry, cooked to a safe temperature without charring, does not pose a problem.

To prevent charring, remove visible fat that can cause a flare-up. Precook meat in the microwave immediately before placing it on the grill to release some of the juices that can drop on coals. Cook food in the center of the grill and move coals to the side to prevent fat and juices from dripping on them. Cut charred portions off the meat.

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Safe grilling tips from the Propane Education & Research Council.

- When lighting a grill, keep the top open.

- When connecting the cylinder to a propane gas grill burner for the first time, use a leak-detection solution (a 50/50 mixture of water and liquid soap) to check connections for tightness.

- Do not use matches or lighters to check for leaks.

- Do not allow children to tamper with the cylinder or grill.

- Do not smoke while handling a propane cylinder.

- When a grill is not in use, cover disconnected hose-end fittings with plastic bags or protective caps to keep clean.

- Always follow grill manufacturer's instructions and keep written materials accessible.

- Never pour an accelerant such as lighter fluid or gasoline on the grill.

- When finished grilling, turn off the burner controls and close the cylinder valve.

Proper cylinder handling

- When the cylinder is refilled, have the supplier check for dents, damage, rust or leaks.

- After filling or exchanging a cylinder, take it home immediately. Keep the vehicle ventilated and the cylinder valve closed and capped.

- Always use or store cylinders outdoors in an upright (vertical) position.

- Do not use, store or transport cylinders near high temperatures (this includes storing spare cylinders near the grill).

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EXPERT ADVICE ON THE ESSENTIALS

What equipment do you really need to grill a juicy steak or tender chicken leg?

According to Cook's Illustrated, you don't need a staggering assortment of gadgets and gear. The staff at America's Test Kitchen recommends these tools:

- Chimney starters eliminate the need for lighter fluid and are faster than electric starters. Choose a large chimney (one that holds about six quarts of charcoal briquettes and measures 12 inches high by about 7 inches across) because it holds just the right amount for grilling most foods over medium heat in a large kettle grill.

- Grill brushes with stiffer bristles fared better than their softer counterparts, but none of them worked all that well. The bristles on most bent after a few strokes and trapped large quantities of gunk, thereby decreasing their efficiency. The test kitchen found Grill Wizard to be the best, with its two large woven mesh stainless steel "scrubbie" pads.

- Long-handled tongs are ideal for turning foods as they cook. Oxo's 16-inch stainless steel kitchen tongs with soft, non-slip handles outperformed tongs designed for grilling use.

- A metal spatula with a long, offset handle makes a useful supplement to tongs, especially when grilling delicate foods prone to falling apart. A spatula with a large (6 inches long by 3 inches wide), thin, stiff blade by Vollrath was the one the staff preferred.

- Grill grids, also called vegetable grids, are useful for cooking small pieces of food that might fall into the fire if placed directly on the cooking grate. Buy a grid that covers about half the cooking grate.

- Sometimes you will need to add charcoal to a fire to maintain its temperature. A grate with a hinged flap that opens for easy access to the charcoal below allows food to stay in place as you add coals.

- Keep a plant mister or squirt bottle filled with water near your grill. It's the best way to control flare-ups that can char food.

- A grill thermometer will tell you the temperature inside a covered grill. Most gas grills come with this gauge. If you have a charcoal grill, you will need to buy a grill thermometer at a hardware store. The thermometer has a dial face with numbers and a long stem. To use this device on a charcoal grill, simply insert it through the vents on the lid.

- Instant-read thermometers are essential for determining when foods are properly cooked. Choose a large, easy-to-read digital display, and a slender probe that won't leave a gaping hole in your food. For longer-cooking foods, such as a whole chicken, turkey or roast, you can use a timer/thermometer. This thermometer includes a probe that is left in the food as it cooks and an LCD console that reads the temperature outside of the grill. Just set the desired internal temperature and activate the alarm, which will ring when that temperature is reached.

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