Warm-weather barbeques should be care-free occassions. You should be in your board shorts, nursing a beer, toasting to a season full of more barbeques. You shouldn’t be rushing to the bathroom or, worse, the hospital with a bout of food poisoning because you didn’t cook your bison burger all the way through.
Grilling may seem like the simplest form of cooking: just slap on some meat, let it juice up for a bit, flip, and repeat. But there may be some shortcomings in your culinary skills and grill maintenance regimen that could be dangerous. We’ve outlined the three most common—potentially deadly—mistakes so you can grill with confidence this summer.
1. Bristles in Your Burgers
You probably use a wire-bristle brush to clean your grill grates. But you probably didn’t realize these bristles can get stuck to your grill, become lodged in your food, and end up in your mouth or—worse—stomach.
Getting a grill brush bristle stuck in your burger (say that five times fast) may seem like a one-in-a-million type ordeal, but researchers from the American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery have found an estimated 1,698 case reports and documented injuries from ingestion—sometimes requiring surgery—between 2002 and 2014. People suffered injuries to their mouth, throat, and tonsils most frequently. But, injuries to the esophagus, head, neck, and the abdomen were also reported.
The bottom line: Clean your grill often, and examine your brushes prior to each use. Trash them if you notice loose bristles. Try alternative cleaning methods, like this: Warm up the grill grates, and use a pair of tongs to scrub away food and charcoal with a ball up aluminum foil.
2. Charring and Blackening Meat
When you’re grilling, you probably look for char marks on your chicken and steak. The only problem is burning meat, poultry, or fish too much causes compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to form, according to the National Cancer Institute. Research has shown these compounds are mutagenic—meaning they cause changes to your DNA that may increase your risk of cancer.
According to the NIC: HCAs occur when amino acids, sugars, and creatine in meat react at high temperatures, and PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat grilled drip onto an open fire, and cause the flames to shoot chemicals back up and onto the meat; PAHs can also form during the smoking of meats.
The bottom line: You don’t need to avoid the grill. It’s peak grilling season, after all! Just avoid charring your meat, lubricate your grill with oil to prevent charred bits from sticking to your meat, grill at a lower temp, and clean your grill after each use. You can also use specific marinades to reduce HCAs, according to research from the University of Arkansas. Choose a marinade containing rosemary, thyme, oregano and/or parsley—herbs in the mint family that help reduce the harmful effects. You can even add the herbs and spices directly to whatever you’re cooking—like ground beef.
3. Undercooking Meat
Yes, you want your grill to be hot when you put your chicken on, but if the temperature is too hot you’ll torch the skin before the meat has a chance to cook. You seriously raise your risk for food poisoning and Salmonella. For all poultry, you need to let the meet come to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the USDA. This alone drops your risk of food poisoning by a good margin, but if you go the extra (necessary) step of letting the meat rest for five to 10 minutes, you’ll lower your risk even more. During that time, the temperature either remains the same or continues to rise, cooking off any harmful germs and bacteria.
The bottom line: Always use a meat thermometer when you’re grilling, and cut your meat through the center to check it’s cooked all the way through before consuming.