It's cookout season — but grilling comes with a risk of food poisoning. Here's how to cook meat properly, and why you should avoid charring.

Cooking times of different meats can vary, so experts recommend ditching the clock and grabbing a meat thermometer instead.
Cooking times of different meats can vary, so experts recommend ditching the clock and grabbing a meat thermometer instead. (Getty Images)

With summer on the horizon, it’s the perfect time to get outdoors and fire up the grill. Whether you’re cooking up juicy burgers, fish filets or veggie kabobs, a barbecue is a versatile tool for creating mouthwatering dishes. However, if not done safely, grilling does come with some health risks, including potential food poisoning from bacteria and viruses, such as E. coli, salmonella and norovirus, and exposure to carcinogenic, aka cancer-causing, compounds.

Taylor Janulewicz, dietitian and owner of My Cancer Dietitian, says it’s important to follow food safety protocols and minimize exposure to bacteria to keep loved ones healthy, especially for those who are immunocompromised. “Handling food safely is a simple way to reduce the risk of infection,” she tells Yahoo Life.

To help you enjoy your outdoor dining without compromising your well-being, Yahoo Life asked nutritionists to share the best practices for safe and healthy grilling. Here’s what you need to know.

“When you’re dealing with raw meat, always make sure it’s prepared and handled completely separately from ready-to-eat foods,” Jamie Nadeau, registered dietitian of the Balanced Nutritionist, tells Yahoo Life. Don’t let raw meats touch foods that aren’t going to be cooked, such as fresh fruits and veggies, or dishes that are already prepared, like potato or pasta salad. “Bacteria from the raw meat can easily be transferred from your hands to other foods if you’re not careful,” says Nadeau.

To help avoid cross-contamination — which is the unintentional transferring of bacteria from one item to another — use separate cutting boards, plates and utensils for raw meats and cooked or prepared items. “We have a stack of inexpensive trays, so we use one for seasoning and transporting raw meat to the grill and another clean one to transport the meat back from the grill,” dietitian Danielle Heuseveldt tells Yahoo Life. On the grill, try to keep other foods from touching the raw meats, too. If raw juices happen to spill onto other items, cook those items thoroughly as well.

Before cooking, it's crucial to keep raw meat, poultry and seafood cold at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to help prevent the growth of bacteria. When storing raw meat in the refrigerator or cooler, make sure it’s kept in well-sealed containers and placed beneath other food items to avoid cross-contamination from direct contact or leaking juices.

Janulewicz also recommends washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds immediately after handling raw meat and before you touch anything else to prevent cross-contamination. If you don’t have access to water, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content or alcohol-based towelettes.

“Cooking time can vary, so skip the clock and grab a thermometer,” advises Janulewicz. To ensure safety, thoroughly cook your meats until they reach a safe minimum internal temperature that can kill any bacteria or viruses causing foodborne illnesses. Relying on time, firmness or color alone does not guarantee your food is fully cooked.

“Using a meat thermometer in the thickest part of your meat is the best way to accurately test the temperature,” says Nadeau. Heuseveldt suggests investing in a multiprobe thermometer that connects to an app in order to monitor the internal temperature of different pieces of meat at the same time. “This really helps avoid overcooking when you have different-sized chicken breasts, for example, that will all take different times" to get to the right temperature, she adds.

Here are the minimum internal temperatures for different meats:

  • Beef, pork, lamb and veal (steaks, roasts, chops): 145℉ (63℃) with a 3-minute rest for medium-rare, 160℉ (71℃) for medium

  • Ground beef, pork, lamb and veal (burgers, hot dogs, sausages): 160℉ (71℃)

  • Poultry (whole, breasts, thighs, ground): 165℉ (74℃)

  • Fish (whole, filet): 145℉ (63℃) or until flesh is no longer translucent

  • Shrimp, lobster, crab and scallops: Cook until flesh is pearly or white and opaque

Additionally, if raw meat juices get on any other food items, it’s important to also cook those to a minimum internal temperature of 165℉.

“Burning food or the ‘charcoal’ that you sometimes gets on a meat can produce carcinogenic chemicals,” warns Nadeau. More specifically, these chemicals are heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which form in meats at high temperatures, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are present in flames and can stick to meat surfaces. The American Cancer Institute links these to potential cancer risk because of their ability to damage DNA, an individual’s genetic code.

“Cooking foods on the grill at a low and slow temperature will allow for even cooking and reduce your risk of adding carcinogenic compounds when burning or charring meats,” Christiane Matey, dietitian at MINT Nutrition, tells Yahoo Life. She recommends using marinades, high-heat cooking oils (such as avocado oil, olive oil and safflower oil), and turning the meats every minute to help reduce the risk of carcinogens. Janulewicz adds that you can even quickly pan-sear your meat first in a hot pan to lock in flavor and reduce your overall grilling time, therefore having less exposure to high heat.

“It’s important to note, though, that cancer risk comes down to total lifestyle habits over time, so an occasional burnt barbecue is unlikely to be as significant as your habits day-to-day,” points out Nadeau.

The maximum amount of time perishable foods such as meats can safely be left at room temperature is two hours. For those extra-hot days with temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, limit that time to one hour.

Nadeau tells Yahoo Life that the risk of eating food with bacteria goes up the longer it is left out. “Bacteria grows the fastest between the temperatures of 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, also known as the ‘danger zone’,” she explains.

To prevent foodborne illness, keep foods at safe temperatures — cold foods at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below and hot foods at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or above. Refrigerate or freeze leftovers within two hours of cooking, and trash or compost any food left out for longer than that. “Using chillers, ice baths, slow cookers, or other heating elements allows you to safely serve food for a longer period,” suggests Matey.

Just as with washing your pots and pans after cooking, it’s important to clean your grill after each use. Cleaning is the only way to fully eliminate bacteria that may be left on the grill. “Those charred pieces of food will end up on your next cooking event and will leave a gritty, gross and unhealthy surprise on your dishes,” says Matey. Not to mention they can impact flavor, release carcinogens and become a fire hazard.

For an easier time removing any leftover food particles and oils, Matey recommends cleaning the grill with a wet cloth while it’s still warm.

Maxine Yeung is a dietitian and board-certified health and wellness coach.