Seeking the Sizzle
When the weather gets warmer, Americans fire up their grills by the millions, and the breezes fill with the characteristic scent of sizzling meats and roasting vegetables. Cooking over an open flame is deeply embedded in our genetic memory, so it's no surprise that so many of us enjoy a good BBQ — especially when we invite over some friends and family.
The trouble is, grilling can be toxic, even downright polluting. Burning charcoal or wood produces clouds of sooty particles that can lodge in lungs, irritating asthma and other respiratory problems. Carcinogenic volatile organic compounds like benzene are released. The whole mess can contribute to smog.
To make matters worse, overcharring meat can produce toxic chemicals in the food itself. Still, this doesn't mean you have to swear off the sizzle. With the right gear and a few tips, you can still kick back, throw a great barbecue and grill up some world-class eats.
Choosing the Greenest Grill
Gas, propane and electric grills, while not perfect, burn cleaner and more efficiently than charcoal or wood. That means better air quality, both around your cook station and in the surrounding community.
Electric grills are the cleanest, since they release 99% less carbon monoxide and 91% less carbon dioxide than charcoal. Next best would be propane, followed by natural gas-fired, which burn cleaner.
It's a good idea to invest in a high-quality, efficient grill if you are going with fossil fuels. Models from Vermont Castings, such as this one pictured, are known for long life and high efficiency.
Consider a Hybrid Grill
Hybrid cars are the stars of the road, but most people don't know that a similar concept may help them enjoy a greener cookout.
With a hybrid grill, you can take advantage of the efficiency and convenience of electric or gas for your main source of heat, then just burn a small amount of charcoal or wood to impart an authentic aroma and flavor to the food.
With a Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet hybrid grill, for example, you have your choice of cooking with gas, wood or charcoal, in varying combinations. Switching up fuels is easy with the removable drawers. The gas burners can be used to easily light charcoal or wood, and can then be turned off, or they can be used as the primary heat source. Then all it takes is a handful of wood or charcoal to get that smoky, authentic BBQ flavor.
Use Natural Charcoal
If you do opt to barbecue with an old-fashioned solid fuel, minimize the potential health impacts by using all-natural, sustainably produced charcoal or wood briquettes.
What you don't want is charcoal made with conventional additives such as coal dust, sodium nitrate, limestone, starch, sawdust or petroleum products. When conventional charcoal is burned, it can release toxic by-products, which you don't want seeping into your steaks. Easy-to-light briquettes, which have been soaked in petro-based lighter fluid, are the worst offenders.
Instead check out Cowboy Charcoals, which boast a quicker and hotter — as well as cleaner — fire. Made without fillers or fossil fuels, the charcoal is composed of untreated maple and oak scraps from furniture and flooring factories. Another option is Noram de Mexico's Sierra Madre oak charcoal, which is certified by the Rainforest Alliance's SmartWood program as sustainably harvested (another way to know your cookout isn't contributing to destructive deforestation).
Light Up with a Chimney Starter
Since you are going to be avoiding quick-start charcoal that has been soaked in toxic lighter fluid, you might need one extra step before the grilling begins. Take advantage of fire science by using a metal charcoal lighter, also called a chimney starter.
The devices are simple to use (just pile the charcoal inside and start a little fire in the bottom compartment with some kindling). They can be picked up cheaply at many discount and outdoor stores, or go DIY and make your own from a recycled coffee can or similar material. You can find plans on the Internet.
If you do need lighter fluid, look for newer ethanol-based options, which are cleaner than petroleum-based products.