It’s hot out there: Time to empty the kitchen of cutlery and condiments and wander into the backyard to do what our ancient ancestors did: Barbecue something!
Of course, people have been gleefully grilling, giving no thought to the environment, for centuries. Linguists tell us that the word barbecue likely stemmed from a coinage of the Taino Indians of Haiti, and was appropriated — oddly enough — by proper Bostonians as early as 1733, with raucous Texans seizing upon it by the mid-1800s.
Long thought of as one of life’s simple summer pleasures, barbecuing is, of course, no longer guilt-free. Like everything else we humans do, even grilling has its impacts. Earthly Possessions tells you how to enjoy that smoked-hickory flavor while also feeling good about the choices you’ve made for the environment.
Is grilling better or worse for the environment than using the indoor stove or oven?
That depends on how you grill. You have four basic options: gas grills (natural gas or propane), electric grills, charcoal grills (using manufactured briquettes or “lump charcoal” made from chunks of charred wood), or grilling on a wood fire.
Whether cooking indoors or out, natural gas is the cleanest, most energy-efficient way to barbecue, and more environmentally friendly than using electricity. Unless, that is, you happen to power your electric grill via the sun or wind. Then you win the “green grill” award.
Backyard grilling with gas is also more energy-efficient than an indoor oven, since ovens take time to preheat. Of course, natural gas comes with its costs. For one, rapid growth in its use has led to calls for offshore drilling.
Both charcoal and wood are less eco-friendly than your indoor gas or electric range.
Okay, say we’re grilling. Which is better for the environment — gas or charcoal?
Though barbecue purists would probably fight to the death to keep their charcoal grills sizzling, the truth is that natural gas and propane are hands-down the most eco-friendly. Both charcoal and wood burn dirty, producing tiny soot particles that pollute the air and can worsen chronic heart and lung problems. In fact, a 2003 study found that Texans, who like to say that they “live and breathe barbecue,” may be doing exactly that. In Houston — with some of the worst air quality in the country — meat smoke wafting up from restaurants and grills makes up a somewhat significant part of the pollution mix.
Which grilling method makes your food taste better?
Gas by itself won’t enhance the flavor of food, while self-lighting charcoal briquettes soaked in lighter fluid can impart a downright nasty taste. Wood is the fuel that adds the most flavor to grilled meats, and sustainably-grown hickory or mesquite is preferred. But that same smoky flavor that backyard connoisseurs adore results in huge amounts of ash and soot polluting the air.
Is there such a thing as eco-friendly charcoal?
Not that we know of. Both briquettes and lump charcoal seriously pollute the air. Lump charcoal, made from charred wood, may add flavor, but it also contributes to deforestation, and its inefficient kilning process adds loads of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Charcoal briquettes do have the benefit of being made partly from sawdust (a good use of waste wood), but popular brands may also contain coal dust, starch, sodium nitrate, limestone, and borax. Nothing like a burger grilled over … borax!?
Which charcoal is least damaging to the environment?
The Rainforest Alliance Smartwood program has certified Char-Broil products, including their mesquite and hickory wood chips. These are the only environmentally certified grill products that we are aware of.
If we’re using a charcoal grill, should we just let the charcoals burn themselves out, or should we actively put them out?
After cooking, it’s best to douse the cooled coals with water to prevent a fire risk and make sure they are completely extinguished.
What should we do with old charcoal/ash?
Wood ash can be used in your garden as a fertilizer, but it’s very alkaline and should be applied with care; it can be good for neutralizing overly acid soils. (Check out info on using wood ash in the yard.) Charcoal ash can contain trace elements harmful to plants and should be disposed of in the garbage.
What is lighter fluid, anyway?
Lighter fluid is a foul-smelling petroleum distillate. If you’re using charcoal, you can use a chimney starter to avoid the unfortunate taste that self-lighting briquettes impart, as well as the volatile organic compounds emitted by burning lighter fluid. This simple device consists of a small cylinder that uses lit newspaper to start coals. (See info on chimney starters.)
Is it true that grilling a hot dog turns it carcinogenic?
Here’s a not-so-tasty mouthful: 2-Amino-3,4-dimethylimidazo[4,5-f]quinoline (or MeIQ). It is a possible human carcinogen that may be contained in cooked meat, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. But of much more immediate concern is the threat from bacteria, such as E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter, found in undercooked ground beef and poultry. Listeria in deli meats, such as hot dogs, is a particular concern for pregnant women, since it can cause miscarriage.
The bottom line: Always follow USDA guidelines to reduce risks from pathogens. Wash hands and surfaces often. Separate raw meat, poultry, and fish from other foods and from each other. Always cook to proper temperatures and check with a thermometer. (Grill ground beef and all cuts of pork to 160 degrees Fahrenheit; beef and lamb roasts, steaks, and chops to 145; poultry thigh and breasts to 170). Checking for pink meat in the middle does not protect you; even if the meat is brown throughout, it can still contain pathogens. You may also want to parboil chicken before grilling as a precaution. (Nothing like a USDA warning to curb your appetite, huh?)
Of course, you can avoid exposure to most of these pathogens by grilling up skewers of veggies instead (though vegetables can be contaminated by manure — yuck! — so be sure to wash them thoroughly).
Any barbecue sauce recommendations?
Why not make your own? Here is a recipe for a spicy barbecue sauce that tastes great on vegetables, chicken, fish, and meat.
Jalapeno BBQ Sauce
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 small yellow onions, diced
1 rib celery, diced
1 small green pepper, diced
1-2 fresh jalapenos, cut into 8 pieces each
4 cloves garlic, quartered
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1/2 tsp Tabasco
1 tsp soy sauce
2 Tbsp fresh lime juice
3/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup frozen apple juice concentrate
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
Heat oil in a pot, add the vegetables, peppers, and garlic, cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, combine the remaining ingredients in a bowl. After 10 minutes, add the mixture to the pot and cook over low heat for 20 minutes. Allow to cool; blend until smooth. Yield: 2 cups.
Set aside some sauce, and use the rest to marinate vegetables and fish for 15 to 25 minutes, chicken or meat for one hour. Remove veggies or meat, discard the marinade sauce, season with salt, and grill. While grilling, generously brush with the remaining sauce.