RODALE NEWS EMMAUS, PA—With a few weeks of summer left, there's still time to throw your favorite foods on the grill until they have stripes and smell divine. But as you plan your cookout, barbecue, or family picnic, consider that what you grill and how you grill it have an impact on the environment, your family’s health, and your pocketbook.
With the possible exception of using a solar grill (there are a few suspect reports of their existence floating around the Web, but I have yet to see one for sale) to cook food you grew yourself, the most ecofriendly heat source for grilling is a gas grill (powered by propane, or preferably, natural gas). If open flames are prohibited where you want to grill, or you get electricity from renewable sources like solar or wind, an electric model is a reasonable alternative. Sorry, charcoal fans. Because of the amount of energy lost and pollution released when wood is converted into charcoal, plus the length of time the coals will be alight compared to how long you actually cook on them (its hard to turn them on and off, after all), charcoal has by far the worse eco-scorecard.
If we can’t talk you out of grilling with charcoal, do your health a favor and choose a natural product rather than compressed briquettes, if you can. Be sure to skip the chemical-soaked self-starting types, and take a pass on the lighter fluid, too. Granted your neighbors may miss the distinctive aroma of flaring petroleum product on the evening breeze, but it’s probably not real healthful to breathe those fumes—let alone consume the stuff, or traces of it, in your food. Getting coals to light without dousing them in petroleum first is easy and fast if you use a bit of crumpled newspaper and a chimney starter (buy a commercial one or make one from an empty #10 can with both ends removed). Set the chimney in the center of your grill, fill it about halfway with dry, crumpled newspaper, and pile charcoal chunks or briquettes on top. Light the paper and allow the charcoal to stay snug in the chimney until well-lighted. Then lift the chimney off the coals and spread them out. You’re good to go.
With grilling season here and all sorts of Memorial Day sales in the works, it’s a good time to invest in a few tools to expand your summer grilling options. One of my most-used tools is a grill basket, also known as a grill wok or vegetable basket. It’s basically a stainless steel pan with sloping sides and enough holes to allow the dry heat in without letting even small chunks of food fall out. Get stainless steel for longest life (nonstainless will rust), and pass on the nonstick models; high heat plus nonstick chemicals are a worrisome combination. Also get yourself some reusable kabob skewers (or send your favorite Cub Scout out to whittle some out of applewood, maple, or hickory). If you like smoked foods, consider getting a chip pan (an old pie pan works fine) and some all-natural wood chips. There is nothing particularly special about commercial smoking chips, so if you have access to grapevines or branches from apple, hickory, mesquite, or other hardwood trees, you can make free chips or twigs with a pruner or hatchet (another task you can entrust to a local Cub Scout).