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Published June 18, 2010, 12:00 AM

Marinades can keep grilled meats safer

The other day I was making grilled cheese sandwiches for a weekend lunch. I placed the sandwiches in a pan over medium heat, and I turned to rinse and cut up some strawberries.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

The other day I was making grilled cheese sandwiches for a weekend lunch. I placed the sandwiches in a pan over medium heat, and I turned to rinse and cut up some strawberries.

Then I was interrupted by a familiar question from my son: “Mom, can you come to the office for a minute?”

Soon I was seated at the computer in the office. When I smelled our lunch, I ran into the kitchen. My husband was scraping our charred sandwiches with a knife.

“This is how to salvage burned food,” my husband noted, glancing in my direction.

I wasn’t exactly thrilled with my culinary masterpiece, either. No one complained about lunch. They are a wise bunch.

However, burned bread is not nearly as hazardous as burned meat, especially charred meat on the grill.

If you could add extra flavor to grilled meat, would you be tempted to try the recipe? If the recipe added nutritional value without a lot of extra calories, would you consider it even more? Would you try the recipe if it could substantially decrease the amount of potentially cancer-promoting compounds that could form during grilling?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, especially the last one, consider using a marinade when you grill. Using a marinade has been shown to decrease the amount of heterocyclic amines (HCAs).

HCAs can be formed during the cooking process by the action of high temperatures or a direct flame on beef, chicken, fish and other foods high in protein. Some laboratory studies have shown that these compounds promote cancer in lab animals. Other studies have suggested that charred meat could increase the risk of colon, breast and stomach cancers.

Marinades containing acidic ingredients such as salsa, vinegar or lemon juice seem to be particularly effective at reducing the formation of HCAs. For example, when researchers marinated chicken breasts in a mixture containing lemon juice, vinegar and flavorings, they noted a reduction in HCA formation by more than 90 percent.

Here’s how to add flavor and enhance safety when enjoying your summer grilling:

  • Allow about ¼ cup of marinade per pound of meat. Marinate the meat in a refrigerator, not on the counter.
  • For good quality, don’t overdo the marinating process. For tender cuts, such as tenderloin, rib eye or sirloin, allow up to two hours for marinating. For less tender cuts, such as flank, skirt, chuck shoulder or top round, allow at least six hours (up to 24 hours) for marinating.
  • Turn the meat in the marinade occasionally for even flavoring.
  • If you want to use some of the marinade for sauce after the meat is cooked, reserve some before you put the meat in it.
  • Avoid flare-ups when grilling by using lean meats and trimming excess fat from the meat. Be sure to keep a spray bottle of water nearby just in case a flare-up occurs.

Whether you like marinated or plain meat, cook at a lower heat setting or raise the grate on your grill. Be sure to use a food thermometer to gauge doneness so you do not overcook or undercook. Consider precooking the meat or poultry in your microwave oven for a minute or two just before grilling. Keep in mind, though, that microwaving might result in less juicy meat.

If you happen to char the edges of the meat, trim the burned parts prior to serving. Add some grilled fruits and vegetables to your menu, too. They add color, flavor, fiber and vitamins. Since fruits and vegetables are low in protein, HCAs do not form during the grilling process.

Finally, don’t leave the grill unattended.

Here’s a tasty marinade that adds a southwest flair to your favorite grilled foods. For information about North Dakota State University’s Barbecue Boot Camp workshops, visit www.ndsu.edu/bbqbootcamp.


Southwestern Marinade

¼ cup prepared salsa

2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro

2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1 clove garlic, minced

¼ tsp. ground cumin

1 pound steak or chicken

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Use to marinate steak or chicken in the refrigerator. Grill steaks to an internal temperature of 145 degrees and chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees, as measured by a meat thermometer.

Makes four servings (enough to flavor 1 pound of meat). Each serving has 35 calories, 3.5 grams (g) of fat and 1 g of carbohydrate.


Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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