The backyard grilling that's so much a part of summertime's easy living also comes with its own set of health risks and warnings.
Take care, health experts say, or E. coli, salmonella and possibly even cancer could await. That means very carefully cleaning the grill and all preparation utensils and making sure all meat is properly cooked -- not too little but not overly charred, either.
Though this may sound like a hassle, Long Island food gurus say it's still possible to cook a delicious meal on the grill without sacrificing your health or devoting every second to worrying about something going wrong.
"Grilling is a great summer outdoor thing to do," said Dr. Gina Sam, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at Stony Brook University. "But it's important to do it safely."
Safe grilling has several crucial components, according to William Dougherty, executive chef at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson and an adjunct professor at the Suffolk Community College Culinary Arts Center:
1. COOK TO THE REQUIRED INTERNAL TEMPERATURE
That requires using a meat thermometer, which Dougherty said generally costs about $6. Ground beef should attain a minimal internal temperature of 158 degrees Fahrenheit, chicken needs to reach 165 degrees and chops must get to 145 degrees, he said.
"To read the temperature accurately, insert the bottom two to three inches so the entire part of the probe is in the meat," Dougherty said. "Wait at least 30 seconds to get an accurate reading. Check the accuracy of your thermometer occasionally by setting it into ice water and making sure the thermometer reads 32 degrees."
2. AVOID CROSS- CONTAMINATION
"Do not let any raw foods, or any surface that has contacted raw foods, come into contact with ready-to-eat foods," Dougherty said. "This includes cutting boards, utensils, knives, wiping cloths, pot holders and aprons." It's also important, he said, to "clean, rinse and sanitize any food surface area where raw food has been" and suggests using "a solution of 1 capful of bleach and 1 gallon of room-temperature water" to sanitize these surfaces.
Dougherty said that these strategies will help protect you from E. coli and salmonella germs, which can cause sickness or even death from eating foods they contaminate.
3. KEEP CHARRING LOW
As for other dangers from eating grilled meats, the culprits are chemicals called heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, which Sam said have been linked to cancer. They can be produced by cooking too long at high temperatures -- burning or charring the food -- with a grill, stovetop or broiler.
Citrus- or vinegar-based marinades reduce HCAs by about 96 percent, she said. You can also reduce the risk by keeping foods from direct contact with heat, turning foods often and precooking them on the stovetop through steaming.
Dougherty has additional advice. "When you are grilling, set the grill up so that some of the grill is on high and other parts are on lower heat," he said. "Most people make the mistake of thinking there is just one setting for the grill, and that setting is all the way up," he noted.
"Well-done meats should be cooked at a lower temperature for a longer period of time," he explained. "The amount of 'char' should not increase when cooking meats well-done."
Also be careful about allowing fat to drip into the flames, causing a flare-up that coats foods with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, because "continuous exposure to PAHs has been linked to some cancers," Sam said.
"If you use lower-fat meats such as lean chicken, fish or lean beef, there will be less formation of PAHs," she added.