Good News for Summer: Grill, Baby, Grill!

Greener, tastier cookouts, minus the hot dogs

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Larry Sultan / Gallery Stock

As with so many other health matters, we keep getting whipsawed by news about grilling. Every summer, we hear that this is the healthiest possible way to cook meat. The fat all drips away. Even skinless chicken breasts can be made appetizing through the magic of smoke and spicy marinade. Vegetables will, when exposed to fire, become as tasty a treat as lamb chops. Great! Then we are told, with equally bold-faced authority, that red meat is killing us, that potent carcinogens are grafted onto our meat when we grill it and that the American diet is a machine driving us and our planet into an early grave. (And not just any grave; we are getting so fat, we will have to be buried in caskets the size of Robert Earl Hughes'.)

As you might guess, neither position is entirely true. Grilling isn't spa cuisine and never has been. But new research shows that the health risks are, for the most part, tied to processed meats like hot dogs, sausage and bacon because of the chemicals often added to flavor these products. The research, which comes from the Harvard School of Public Health, is rock-solid, based on 20 studies investigating risk in more than a million people.

We've learned enough about meat and cooking in recent years that the old ritual of bringing a plastic pack of skinless franks to the sink, washing off the preservative/Matrix-pod slime and throwing them on a grill seems pointless and primitive. Even the humble hamburger can be so much tastier than it ever was before, thanks to a growing awareness that beef ground at the supermarket will always trump frozen patties--and that good-quality burgers need not be turned into Brillo pads to be eaten safely.

These are good times to grill. A general movement toward fresher food has helped make our cookouts not only healthier but better. Here are just a few of the ways:

Meat matters.
While not everybody can hasten to their local ranch and pick up grass-fed Limousin steaks or heritage Red Wattle pork chops, that's O.K. Right there in your supermarket aisle are cheaper, more flavorful cuts of meat, like skirt steak, hanger steak, pork blade chops and lamb ribs. None of these are as good as a prime rib eye, but they're all better than the ho-hum chicken of yesterday. It's also getting easier to find meat that is hormone- and antibiotic-free and that may even have been fed actual food rather than a chemical-spiked nutrient slurry. As with burgers, better meat can be cooked less, so that it's juicy and delicious on the inside.

Just say no.
To burning meat, that is. Carbonized black proteins are known carcinogens. They also taste bitter and leave ash in your mouth. Feh! Cook all your meat at medium-high heat to get it nut brown from edge to edge. And do more marinating. Research shows that marinating with rosemary and, to a lesser extent, lemon and garlic not only makes meat taste good but also hinders the formation of those toxins.

Embrace coal.
Sure, gas grills are convenient, but propane and natural gas are not renewable sources of energy. They also impart no flavor, other than the vague scent of suicide. Natural lump charcoal or, better yet, dried hardwood burns hot and clean and makes food taste as if it was actually cooked outdoors. The same isn't true of briquettes loaded with chemicals and lighter fluid, which produce more than 100 times as much carbon monoxide as propane does. They also give a nasty, napalm-like flavor to anything cooked over them. The green solution is the good solution here.

Forget the bling.
Before the Great Recession, status-conscious burghers were pimping out their grills in truly ludicrous ways. Nobody needs a $5,000 grill with 25,000-BTU burners and a rear-mounted infrared rotisserie. The best grilling is done on a simple Weber-style kettle grill. But if the lure of Williams-Sonoma is just too great, invest in some heavy steel tongs, a reinforced spatula, a silicone brush for basting and a wire brush for cleanup. That's about all anyone needs.

Long live the new flesh!
As much as I love meat, the days of the all-farm-animal fiesta seem to be drawing to a close. Seafood is coming on strong, and not just steaklike standbys like salmon and swordfish but also deliciously oily mackerel, garlicky squid, and even hard-shelled items like lobster, clams and crabs. You can grill these straight up, on cedar planks or even, for more delicate fish, inside aluminum foil (although that sort of defeats the purpose). And, yes, you can grill vegetables, from rugged roots, which can cook slowly on the edge of the Weber, to delicate stalks that can be flash-charred. Just steer clear of weird, highly processed hot dogs and all will be well.