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Grilling and good health: Six hot tips for healthy barbecue

Our friends from Quebec City, a town not known for its long, leisurely summers, don’t ever put away their gas grill. Come rain, sun, snow, or ice (there’s a LOT of ice in Quebec City!) they’re grilling.

chl susan logo2Like many folks, they crave the taste of foods cooked over an open fire. To them it’s a taste of summer. And barbecue doesn’t have to mean fatty meats and thick, sugary sauce. Grilling is all about flavor, and can be a healthy way to cook foods.

Here in Cuenca, barbecue is king. From the open grill stands with huge cerdos and tiny cuy spinning on rotisseries, to fancy parrilladas with white linen napkins, grilling is a favorite among locals and expats alike.

ECU04.5271.xf1brw Spit-roasted cuy (guinea pig) is a popular food all over Ecuador, but are an especial treat in Ambato, Ecuador, where plump roasted cuy are served in great numbers in shops around the city. Cuy are also raised by families in their homes and are eaten for special occasions, like Easter. (Supporting image from the project Hungry Planet: What the World Eats.) /// Street food is easy take-away food. For vendors, the street is a cheap place to cook and street cooking began as a way to provide cheap food for the poor, as Charles Mann explains in his essay in the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (p. 128-129). Yet, as societies become more mobile and affluent, this quick and convenient food goes upscale.

And while these grilled favorite meats may be on your menu on occasion (has anyone cooked cuy on your home grill?), it’s fun to include some tasty and more weight-friendly (not to mention healthier) options.

 The Hot 6

  1. Charcoal or Gas? It really depends on you. Both will get the job done, but some people are passionate about grilling over coals, more akin to grilling over a “real” fire. Charcoal means smoke, and for many, it’s the smoke that makes grilling worthwhile. Others prefer the
    "Get off your gas."
    “Get off your gas.”

    convenience of a gas grill, and the ease of adjusting the temperature by just a twist of the knob. Charcoal is more work, but it’s cheaper, and gets a lot hotter. WebMD reminds us that while no studies show that gas is “healthier” than charcoal, they note that charcoal emits more carbon monoxide. They also note that all charcoal isn’t equal, and some briquettes contain ingredients that can be unhealthful, such as coal dust, borax, and additives like paraffin and lighter fluid. Lighter fluid is always a no-no: it releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and leaves an unpleasant residue on food.

  2. Lean Cuts, Trim First: If you like a leaner grill, because you’re fond of meat but don’t want the excess fat and calories, skinless poultry cutlets are great on the grill. If you like a leaner red meat, any section ending in “loin” — tenderloin, top loin, or sirloin — means a leaner cut. To make it leaner still, trim the fat before grilling, and remember, lean meat cooks more quickly than fatty meat, so adjust your cooking time. EatingWell has a bunch of healthy grilled pork recipes, and CookingLight has a great recipe for grilled sirloin skewers with peaches and peppers.
  3. Marinate First: A marinade is usually a tasty blend of herbs, an acid (lemon or lime juice, wine, vinegar), spices and a little olive oil.MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA  Marinating meats (lean beef, pork, chicken or turkey breast) in a blend of acids for as little as 30 minutes before grilling will boost flavor, make your meat more juicy and tender, and reduce (possibly cancer-causing) heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are formed during the charring process. recommends flipping meat frequently to reduce HCA formation; avoid direct exposure to fire (and prolonged cooking times); and avoid eating charred meat, or making gravy from drippings of meat cooked over fire. They also suggest using a microwave to pre-cook meat to reduce HCA formation: this reduces time the meat is in contact with high heat to finish cooking. Read more here.
  4. Grilled Fish: A hot grill will terrorize a delicate fish filet — but a sturdy favorite like salmon, tuna, or swordfish can stand the heat. More delicate filets like trout can be cooked on the grill in aluminum foil, or I like to use a grilling basket. Why stop at fish filets or steaks? ShrimpPescado-con-patacones and langostinos are ideal for grilling too. Try Jaime Oliver’s recipe for barbecued shellfish: he wisely says to use a baking rack on the grill so the shellfish don’t fall through the grates.  WikiHow has a step-by-step pictorial that demonstrates everything: from choosing fish through grilling. Try grilling a whole fish — learn how to select a whole fish, then how to stuff it with a delectable mix of seasonings and/or herbs and/or aromatic vegetables.
  5. Go Greens…and reds, yellows and oranges. All plant foods are naturally healthful, and grilling brings out some very special flavors. Skewer pineapple, mango and peaches — their natural sweetness is enhanced by fire. Unlike meats, plants are almost all naturally low fat or fat-free, so you don’t have to worry about chemical changes from interaction with flames — the caramelization gives grilled fruits andgrilledveggies vegetables an unforgettable nutty flavor and golden color. Try grilled corn in the husk. First, soak the un-husked ears in water for about 30 minutes. Then pop on a hot grill for about 10 minutes, rolling over a few times to avoid burning; let cool until you can handle, pull down the husks and serve with olive oil and sea salt. Thickly slice yellow and green zucchinis and eggplant, then microwave uncovered in a glass dish for 2 minutes, turning once. Drain and marinate in a mixture of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and fresh lime, orange, or lemon juice for about 15 minutes, then grill a few minutes on each side. Try Portobello mushrooms on the grill — better than steak, in my opinion — nutty, “beefy”, and deliciously healthy.
  6. You Barbecue What? Pizza! Since the best pizza is made in a really hot oven, grilling pizza is even better, ‘cause it gets much hotter than you can get inside. Just like cooking inside, get all your ingredients organized before grilling outdoors. Check out this great recipe from Get your grill very hot, then gather all your ingredients: thinly sliced veggies,54fdca65126d7-pesto-mozzarella-pizzas-s3 cooked diced chicken, slivered greens (kale is a sturdy pizza-friendly green) and cheese (mozzarella is fine, or a stronger Asiago. I like freshly grated Parmesan). Stretch or roll out the crust, brush with olive oil, then grill oil-side down on the grill, cooking for a couple minutes, flipping it, brushing again, then topping with your favorites. Keep an eye on it — it’s going to cook quickly. And, don’t forget the tools of the trade — a pair of long metal tongs, and a very strong oven mitt.

Check out The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics safe grilling techniques tip sheet for National Grilling Month. Make sure you start with a clean grill, thaw your meats safely, and cook to the correct temperature, all pictured here.

This article is reposted from 2016.

22 thoughts on “Grilling and good health: Six hot tips for healthy barbecue

  1. Hmmmmm. Another article about grilling. I have been grilling and BBQing for a long time. I have two smokers and two grills. Here is my take.

    In many cases people do not actually know the difference between grilling and BBQ. BBQ is not hot dogs and burgers but sometimes chicken (whole or spatchcocked) . BBQ is low and slow over fire with wood for flavor. (btw I know a source for both excellent pailillo carbone and wood (hickory, apple) in Cuenca, happy to share). So when you think about the pig in the pic above, that is BBQ. When I do a brisket or pork shoulder for instance, think 14 hours or more over the smoker, at 225 degrees ideally.

    I have pretty much decided never to own a gas grill again. They simply do not get hot enough, or if they do I have not found one. Susan makes a good point on charcoal, the best is really carbone, which is true charcoal, not the lumps that many companies make. Carbone is not treated or processed and it burns much hotter. But if I choose to do a steak, these days I don’t even bother with the grill. I can make just as good a steak on a hot cast iron pan. The irony is why go to the trouble to do a steak, or fish for that matter, that takes 5 minutes per side, when it takes 30 minutes to get a charcoal grill hot enough, if you are lucky, to properly do the steak or fish (or often even chicken). And frankly, unlike BBQ, 5 minutes per side on a steak is not enough time to get smoke flavor of any meaning.

    So when would I grill anymore, only at a people gathering, like a picnic, etc, where folks tend to congregate around the grill in an outdoor setting. I will do a smoked brisket occasionally if I have enough people to feed. In Cuenca, I have never found a proper brisket (called a packer brisket), and even a proper cut pork shoulder (butt) is very hard to find. I have a smoker in Cuenca but until I find my meat source it sits idle.

    The quality of meat in Cuenca is a whole other issue too, at least for us layman. I am convinced the meat at places like Fierra Libra is basically old tough cows, not raised for beef, never well marbled, it simply is not good for true BBQ or even grilling.

    One other thing about all this, consider the elevation and lack of oxygen. I had to have an extra vent put in my smoker to get enough oxygen to get the thing up to temp. Its a weber smokey mountain, good smoker but not designed for the Andes LOL.

    Of course this is just my opinion on all of this. Yes a long post but I hope useful.

    1. bar·be·cue
      1. a meal or gathering at which meat, fish, or other food is cooked out of doors on a rack over an open fire or on a portable grill.
      synonyms: cookout, wiener/wienie/weenie roast; BBQ “a backyard barbecue”
      1. cook (meat, fish, or other food) on a barbecue.
      “fish barbecued with herbs”
      synonyms: grill, spit-roast, broil, charbroil
      “they barbecued some steaks”

      1. ok ken, I know I am getting picky, (a purist) but sure, a Bar-be-Que can be a gathering (I would rather call it a picnic), but True BBQ is low and slow on a smoker, grilling is well, grilling, I am picky because so many people think burgers and dogs is BBQ, , but it not, but you might get them at a barbeque (gathering) …. you know we know each other, respectfully, we can debate this next time I am in Cuenca LOL,, over a beer, Bill I will BBQ you something and convince you haha

    2. can you share with us the wood source you have for smoking?
      i have been struggling to find wood to smoke with in guayaquil.

  2. Sorry Susan, but as health professional, the word MICROWAVE should not even be in your vocabulary.
    They are so detrimental to health and food quality, they should be banned, in my opinion.

    1. Hi Rhonda,
      As a health professional, I use my microwave daily. It is perfectly safe, makes cooking a breeze, there’s no evidence of harm, and like all other ovens there are certain safety behaviors I’m careful to follow. I wrote a column about the myths and facts associated with microwave ovens. I’ll update it soon. Thanks for reading.

    2. that is crazy to pick on microwave, it is simply a way to heat things, although in my case at least, I do not cook with a microwave, but maybe thaw something, heat some tea, or oatmeal, or a leftover which I hate,, BUT, they are not harmful

    3. Not a scintilla of scientific evidence supporting your silly notion. You’ll do well in Vilcabamba.

      1. Love grilled food…would eat it every day if I …had a grill! LOL Great, informative as always, Susan…thanks

  3. Spatchcocked? Good one, Bill. I had to look it up. Now I’ll remember it. Wait until Donald pipes up and tells you how you “should have” said it.

    I’m a believer. You are NOT a layman when it comes to this stuff. Really fun to know, but I’ll withhold final judgment until I get that invite to your next Barbecue or grilling, or whatever.

  4. I have ‘heard’ there is someone around Cuenca who is raising beef to meet USA tastes…maybe research it a bit? The expat beef-eating community and the returning Ecuadorians would provide a great market!

  5. The smoke doesn’t come from the coals. It comes from the drippings. Once your charcoal has been properly heated and glowing, there’s nothing in there but carbon. The metal grates over the burners on modern gas grills will give you the same effect. Fat drips off, it’s instantly vaporized and you get the same smoke as fat hitting hot coals. I was a die hard charcoal devotee my entire life, but once I read the science on it, I realized there’s no advantage over gas for grilling. Gas is easier to start and it’s so much easier to maintain the correct temperature throughout the entire cook.

    Now smoking (real barbecue) is a different animal. That’s all about the wood. There’s no way around the hard work. I’ve spent many a long night preparing brisket in time for lunch. It’s really just an excuse to hang out with the guys drinking beer but the payoff is worth it.

  6. I did a brisket here a few years back. Had to go to the butcher and order it special. They never leave both muscles together unless you order it in advance with very detailed instructions. The good part was it was cheaper than the other cuts in his case. He said they usually just slice it thin and sell it as cheap bistek. I basically saved him all the work.

    Who’s your source for wood for the smoker? I’ve been thinking about building one once I’m settled.

  7. Barbecue is done in a smoker. Stand your ground. Don’t let them bastardize the word with their weenie roasts.

  8. Just my 2 cents on the lack of oxygen statement. To my knowledge the amount of oxygen in the Andes is the same as at sea level and at the top of Mount Everest. The difference is the lack of air pressure at higher elevations which means you need to work harder to bring oxygen into your lungs or your smoker.

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