How to keep your food, your guests, and yourself safe.
Summertime is fast approaching, and that means lazy Saturdays parked outside next to a roaring hot barbecue with an ice-cold beverage in your hands and watching the kids play in the yard. Fun times abound, great times are had by all, and memories are made that will last forever.
In the midst of all the preparations, what is sometimes overlooked – even by some of the most seasoned of grillers – is basic safety that can keep a fun afternoon from turning uncomfortable. Below are some of the most common safety questions people have surrounding grilling safety.
1. How Do I Tell That My Meat is Done?
Despite the advice of some self-proclaimed grilling experts, you cannot tell when your meat is cooked thoroughly by the color alone. Though the outside will definitely begin to turn a darker shade, the inside of the meat could still be uncooked, especially if the meat is thicker, like steaks or burgers. Uncooked meat is full of harmful bacteria that can cause any number of diseases, some of which may even require hospitalization.
To make sure the meat is cooked all the way, it’s best to invest in a food thermometer that can give you the inside reading within a couple of seconds. Every different type of meat has a different safe internal temperature, so use this chart to help you know when it’s done.
Always remember, never cook meat partially at one time and come back to cook it later. Not only will that spoil the meat, but you’ll also leave entire colonies of bacteria on the meat that would have been killed otherwise. You can begin cooking in the microwave, but make sure you transport it to the grill as soon as possible. Furthermore, keep hot food hot – preferably over 140 degrees Fahrenheit – by placing it in an oven or on a side rack next to the grill.
2. Once I Bring My Meat Home, How Should Store It?
Once you return from the store, place your meat directly inside a refrigerator to preserve the freshness and keep bacteria from growing. If stored in a refrigerator under 40 degrees Fahrenheit, ground meat and poultry will keep for 1-2 days, while veal, pork, and lamb should keep almost a week.
If you plan on storing the meat for longer periods of time, consider removing it from the original packaging and placing it in a heavy plastic wrap or aluminum foil first, before placing it in the freezer. While the meat will lose quality over time, if the food is kept below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, it should keep indefinitely.
Whatever you do, do not leave uncooked meat on the counter at room temperature for more than two hours. Bacteria loves a warm environment and by that point, the bacteria have set in and the meat is spoiled.
3. Should I Refrigerate Leftovers?
By all means! As long as you’ve placed them in the refrigerator within 1-2 hours after cooking, they should be fine for up to four days. If you freeze them, they will last up to four months. If you’ve left them at room temperature for longer than a couple hours, especially overnight, throw it out.
4. Can I Use the Same Utensils to Handle Cooked and Uncooked Meat?
Absolutely not. Uncooked meat has foodborne bacteria that thrive in the juices that will sit on the plate once the meat is removed, making anything that comes into contact with it – like hands, tools, paper towels – immediately unsanitary. Wash the plate thoroughly before using it for anything else
Or, to be on the safe side, use a brand-new plate. An extra trip through the dishwasher is nothing compared to a couple of days of food poisoning.
5. Where is the Best Place to Buy Meat From?
Wherever you purchase your meat from (grocery store, butcher, etc.), do a thorough inspection of the packaging before purchase. Look for wraps that have been torn or are stretched, leaving holes in the packaging, and make sure the meat is cold when you pick it up. The same principles of meat spoilage at home apply here, so if the meat feels warm to the touch, put it back. When you get to the checkout, ask for your meat to be bagged separately to avoid bacteria-filled juices to drip on your other groceries.
The best thing to do is return home immediately once you’ve purchased the meat, but if you’re going to be out of the house for a while, bring a cooler with ice inside to store the meat in. While it’s not permanent, the cooler should allow you a few hours of leniency to get your other errands run before the meat goes bad.
How To Grill Safely
Once you’re in the backyard and the meat is ready to go, there are a few things you need to keep in mind before you light the grill up. Depending on whether you use wood pellets, propane or charcoal, remember these general guidelines for grilling safety.
- Never use the grill anywhere near the house (especially not indoors), underneath a tree, next to an overhang, or anything else that can catch fire. Smoke tends to ball up, so make sure the area you are grilling is well-ventilated and unobstructed.
- Remove all the buildup from past barbecues before you light the fire. Not only will it make the meat taste better, but you’ll also prevent accidental fires when chunks fall into the flames. Failure to clean grills is one of the leading causes of structural fires.
- Keep all children and pets away from the immediate grill area – especially young children that like to play with knobs – and never leave a lit grill unattended. In 2014 alone, over 16,000 people went to a hospital for grilling-related injuries.
If You’re Using Charcoal…
Many hardcore grillers swear by charcoal. But even though it’s relatively simpler compared to propane, there are still dangers that can present themselves, such as using the wrong type of starter fluid or throwing out coals before they’ve cooled off. A little patience can go a long way when using charcoal.
Depending on the type of grill you have, you can start the grill in any number of ways, such as starter fluid or even using newspaper. If you do use starter fluid, make sure you have the right type for your grill and do not squeeze any more fluid onto the fire once the flame is going. It’s pointless to do so (fluid will most likely be gone in seconds anyway) and it could start a bigger fire.
If you’re using an electric charcoal lighter, make sure that you use an extra-long extension cord to keep the grill as far away from the house as possible; hang the cord somewhere where kids and pets can’t get to it. Finally, let the coals cool down before you dump them, and always use a metal container instead of a box or something flammable. Keep them in a well-ventilated area also, as they are most likely to smolder for a few hours after the grilling is done.
If You’re Using Wood Pellets…
The great thing about pellet grills/smokers is that they are very safe. They ignite the fire for you, do not require the use of any accelerants to get the fire started, the fuel used is inert and cannot ignite on its own and the area where the fire burns is typically shielded from the cooking area.
What are the things you need to worry about then? When it comes to pellet grills the adage of “an ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure” really works. Let’s start at the top.
- Fuel – ensure that the pellets you are burning are marked “food safe” or “safe for food.” There are pellets out there designed for heating your house. They are cheaper than the food safe pellets, but please do not use them in your pellet grill/smoker as they can cause health problems.
- Fire – Pellet grills have been called the “easy bake ovens” of the barbecue world. They really are set it and forget it for the most part. But what happens if you have a flame out? Well, this is one place where you do need to be careful. Most likely if your grill flamed out, the pellets continued to feed for a period of time before the grill errored out. If you were to restart the grill without properly clearing out the pellets you can create one heck of a very hot fire and you can even create a loud boom that can lift the door to the pellet grill when combustion takes place. Now, flameouts are rare, but you do need to know what do when they happen. So be sure to clear out the excess pellets, then properly restart your grill.
- Cleanliness – Pellet grills, generally speaking, have very low chances of grease fires, but they can occur. Let’s talk about why they occur. Let’s say you cooked up a few pounds of bacon last night and then today you want to sear some steaks at 500 degrees. Well, if a good amount of that bacon grease is still on the drip pan or if it overflowed the drip pan you have the makings of a grease fire. So if you plan to cook above about 275 degrees we always recommend checking your drip pan to avoid any problems. Cleanliness of the firepot also matters and can attribute to potential flameouts mentioned above. We recommend vacuuming out the fire port and the rest of the grill after about every 30hrs of use. Pellet grills don’t require much, but a clean fire pot and clean grease tray are on that list.
- Proper Shut Down – Some pellet grills can experience something called “burn back.” What this means is that after the grill is shut down the pellets in the auger tube can start to smolder or burn due to how hot the tube got during high heat runs. If you are searing steaks or burgers and running above 400 degrees, once you are done step the grill temp down to 225 for about 15min before you shut it down. Also, always follow your grill’s instructions for proper shutdown. Never, just unplug your pellet grill without allowing it go through a proper shutdown.
If You’re Using Propane…
Although propane is more dangerous than charcoal grills, statistically, a few minor checks before you grill can minimize the danger substantially. Make sure that your hose from the propane tank is connected securely to the burners. Check the regulator and cylinder especially close to make sure those are secure as well. Also, check the hose for a potential leak. Propane has a distinct smell, but it can sometimes be overlooked or ignored completely due to the smaller volume of gas that is escaping (always open up the lid before lighting the grill as gas could have collected underneath the hood). Checking the hose doesn’t take very long, but could save you from paying for propane that’s simply escaping, or something much worse.
To check the hose, simply apply a little bit of soap and water solution to the entire hose, and then turn the propane tank on. If there is a leak, the propane will cause bubbles to appear around the affected area. There are several DIY options to fix the leak if one occurs, but your best bet is to have it serviced by a professional.
Once you light the grill, it’s still wise to check for gas. If you smell propane, turn off the grill immediately and kill the burners. If the gas smell goes away when you turn the burners off, have the grill inspected by a technician; if the smell doesn’t go away, back away from the grill and do not move it in any way. Call the fire department immediately.
No one likes to talk about grilling safety, but with a few simple pointers and a little bit of thought, you can make sure that your outdoor events are as safe as they are fun.