Ready, Set, Grill Anything! Serve Up a Sustainable-Style Feast

 

by Contributing Writers at Sustainable Table

Good backyard chefs know the distinction between barbecue and grilling and revel in trying new tricks with their favorite tools while they cook up a fun feast for family and friends. Few, however, may know that the original barbecue, or barbacoa, was the term that Spanish explorers used to describe the meat smoking and drying methods introduced to them by native peoples in the Americas.

Smoke originally was used to drive away bugs while lending a tasty flavor to their meat-preparing process. This slow, low temperature method of outdoor cooking still employs an indirect heat source, like hot coals, and cooking times of between two and 12 hours. In some recipes, burning Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified mesquite or wood chips adds a smoky flavor to the food; in others, it tenderizes it. Grilling, by contrast, uses higher temperatures and direct heat from flames. Cooking times range between three and 30 minutes and grilled meats rarely have a smoky taste.

Charcoal Choices

Lump Charcoal ~ A favorite choice of “green” grillers, lump charcoal is made of either natural wood (from trees or sawmills) or processed wood (from building material scraps, furniture remnants, pallets, flooring scraps, etc.). FSC-certified charcoal and coconut shell charcoal are good bets. Lump charcoal will burn hot and fast if unlimited oxygen is available, so it is best suited for grills that allow the user to control the airflow.

Charcoal Briquettes ~ Briquettes are useful when cooking on an open grill or whenever airflow can’t be controlled. But avoid self-starting instant-light briquettes and lighter fluid, which contain several harmful additives. Note that most commercial briquettes consist of crushed charcoal mixed with some additives that improve combustibility and bind the charcoal together. The mixture is compressed into uniform, pillow-shaped chunks that generally burn slowly at a constant temperature, regardless of airflow.

Be aware that additives in briquettes can leave a bad taste in food and even be harmful if not fully burned off; always burn charcoal for the time recommended by the manufacturer before putting food on the grill.

A good lighting method begins with an electric charcoal starter or a metal charcoal chimney starter. Other igniting aids include natural wood lighters or lighter cubes.

Cleaner and greener grills avoid charcoal altogether. They may be fueled by propane, electricity or even solar energy.

What to Grill

Grassfed Meats ~ The number one rule for cooking pastured meat is not to overcook it. It needs about 30 percent less cooking time than fattier conventional beef and tastes best if cooked medium-rare to medium. If cooking hamburgers made with pasture-raised beef, add caramelized onions or other moisturizing ingredients to compensate for the leaner meat.

Chicken or Pork ~ Consider brining the meat beforehand to ensure that it is extra tender and won’t dry out on the grill. Submerge the meat in a mixture of one cup of table salt and one gallon of very cold or ice water for up to 24 hours before grilling. For a crispy skin, remove meat from the brine, pat dry and refrigerate for a couple of hours before cooking.

Ultimate Burgers ~ Shannon Hayes, author of The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook, cites Loren Olsen’s “Tips for Cooking the Ultimate Hamburger.” Before placing over medium-high heat on a clean, hot grill (which may be swiped with olive oil), Olsen recommends preparing patties by gently pressing the center to create a small depression in one side to assure even cooking. But don’t press or poke the burgers while cooking, in order to preserve the juicy interior. Season with natural salt and freshly ground pepper. Leave the grill uncovered and cook to a minimum internal temperature of 160° F.  For six-ounce patties, grill 2-1/2 minutes on the first side and 3 minutes after flipping for a medium burger. Toast split buns on the grill rack for the last 45 to 60 seconds of the cooking time.

Hot Dogs ~ Choose hot dogs that are produced by sustainable meat companies and do not contain any fillers, byproducts or additives, like MSG or nitrates. Or, skip the meat altogether and try a vegetarian soy dog.

Veggies ~ The key is to use locally grown, sustainably raised/organic fruits and vegetables. Natural flavors come through from produce picked within a day or so of eating, pre-empting the need for many seasonings or sauces. Just brush on some extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle on natural salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste to enjoy both favorites and exotic veggies straight from the grill. Vegetables don’t need the same high heat that meat does, so it’s best to cook them over medium heat toward the sides of the grill.

For more information visit SustainableTable.org.

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