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Cooking food over direct heat is called grilling. The art of grilling is as old as the domestication of fire tracing its roots to some 500,000 years ago. However, the backyard ritual of grilling as we know it, is much more recent. Till the 1940s, grilling mostly happened at campsites and picnics. After World War II, as the middle class began to move to the suburbs, backyard grilling caught on, becoming all the rage by the 1950s.


Why should I be aware of this?

  • Grilling is a healthy option.
  • Overcooking of some foods in grilling is linked to cancer.
  • There are some precautions that need to be taken when you grill your food.
  • Grilling is not very environmental friendly method of cooking.

All about grilling

The direct heat source can be either lit wood or charcoal or a gas stove. Typically, the food item is placed directly over the flame or coals, exposing the food item to very hot temperatures. Grilling, especially outdoor, is also referred to as barbecue.

When food is cooked over direct heat at high temperatures, it undergoes a chemical process called the Maillard reaction, which browns the food. While this happens, the food also gets infused with the flavors of the wood or charcoal fire. This unique flavour is what sets grilling apart from other methods of cooking. Of course, there is more than one method of grilling food.

Types of Grilling

  • Direct grilling -- Here food is cooked directly over the heat quickly, at high temperatures. It produces a crunchy or slightly charred exterior and moist interior. This is ideal for small, quick pieces of meat such as steak, kebabs, chicken breasts and fish fillets.
  • Indirect grilling -- Food is kept on a grill over a foil drip pan, with coals burning on either side. The grill is covered and the lid remains closed. This method reflects the heat on the underside of the lid and cooks the food slowly and more evenly. This is ideal for large cuts of meat that need to cook slowly over less-intense heat to remain moist.
  • Spit-roasting and rotisserie -- The rotisserie rotates the food, mostly meat over hot coals, and so the juices remain inside the meat, which keeps the interiors juicy and the skin crispy. This technique is ideal for large cuts of meat such as whole legs of lamb and chicken that take longer to cook and need to cook evenly.
  • Grill-smoking -- This is done by adding a couple of wet pieces of wood to the grill and covering the food item inside. As the smoke dissipates, it adds a special smoky flavour to the food.

Grilling and health

Because grilling requires little or no fat — at best an item that is being grilled requires some braising — grilling is considered a healthy option. However, there are varying opinions for grilling meat and many experts opine that grilling over high temperatures creates chemicals linked to cancer. So it’s best to restrict the consumption of grilled meats to an occasional and not regular basis. However, one can cut the risk of harmful effects of grilling meat by following a few simple rules:

  • Choose white meat over red when you want to eat grilled food. Grill the meat without the skin and go for lean cuts of meat, such as sirloin, flank or tenderloin.
  • Cut away any excess fat from the meat.
  • Marinade the meat; this process makes the meat tender, it enhances flavour and keeps it moist. It also hastens the cooking.
  • Avoid overcooking or burning the meat and discard any blackened or burnt parts of the grilled food, particularly meat.
  • Pre-cook food in an oven or microwave, and just grill for just a few minutes to infuse the flavors.
  • Increase portions of grilled vegetables or fruits in your meal in place of meat.

Unlike meat, grilled vegetables and fruit are harmless and grilling them is a healthy cooking technique. Vegetables that are delicious and healthy when grilled are eggplants, squashes and gourds, bell peppers, onions, carrots, broccoli, small tomatoes and mushrooms. Fruit that can be grilled with vegetables or as delicious desserts include pineapples, peaches, apricots, papaya and even mangoes. It is sensible, of course, to increase the portion of grilled vegetables and fruit in place of meat.

Grilling and the environment

Typically, grilling is imparts a unique flavour to food, particularly when it is grilled on wood or charcoal. However, both the methods are not eco-friendly. Using wood contributes to deforestation and it releases ash and smoke in the air, which can cause respiratory problems. If wood must be used, it is best to stick with slow-burning hardwoods over fast-burning softwoods. Charcoal too isn’t a good option as it releases greenhouse gases, which makes it more harmful than wood.

Clearly, using a gas grill is one of the most energy-efficient ways to enjoy food cooked this way. Natural Gas releases the least pollutants and is the leanest-burning fossil fuel. Next come electric grills, which are less polluting but guzzle lots of energy.

What can I do?

  • Keep your grill clean. A clean grill not only cooks better it is safer in every way.
  • Trim excess fats from foods. These fats are the troublemaker so keep it to a minimum.
  • Use marinades based on olive oils and/or citrus juices. This is the number one way to stay safe.
  • Avoid flare-ups. Flare-ups burn foods and this increase HCA formation.
  • Don't overcook foods. The charred bits on foods are the largest sources of PAHs and HCAs so if you have charred sections of meat cut them off.
  • Use herbs like basil, mint, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage to add flavor and reduce HCA formation in foods.


  • Grilled meat that appears brown outside may still be raw inside and contain pathogens -- so use a meat thermometer to ensure meat has been cooked to the proper temperature.
  • If you can source them, briquettes are the most eco-friendly fuels to burn while grilling.

References and Useful Websites

  • Grilled Food and cancer
  • Tips for Grilling Food
  • The Art of Smoking
  • How to Grill Food
  • A Brief History of Grilling
  • Healthy Grilling

Additional Information

  • For more about griling and cancer, see Grilled Meats and Cancer