One of the pleasures of summer is the barbecue. But despite the apparent simplicity of cooking food over an open flame, it is quite easy to turn al fresco eating into a charred mess.
Food poisoning is a risk when meat is left out of the fridge for too long before cooking or is not fully cooked through. Even the tongs you use to handle the raw meat can pass bacteria to other foods, so best to have one set reserved exclusively for raw foods.
Of course, much of the flavour comes from the charring, but burned food is a potential source of carcinogens, notably polycyclicaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA). Both have been linked to an increase in cancers in animals. PAH is found in charred food and also in the smoke that we breathe in while barbecuing. HAA is found in all cooked meat, but more so when the meat is cooked quickly in direct contact with flames.
You can reduce the risk of bacterial infection and exposure to carcinogens with some simple steps. Marinade the meat, chicken or fish in olive oil and lemon juice, then par-cook it in the oven, using the barbecue more to finish off. At the same time, get the barbecue going and let it burn out, no flames, and leave it until the charcoal is glowing red, which takes at least 40 minutes.
If you are using a gas barbecue, allow the grill to get hot before placing the food on it and use a low heat. Take the meat and pat off the excess olive oil with paper towels before barbecuing, making sure that the meat is not directly above the charcoal, but if possible on a raised grill so there is no direct contact with the flames. If the food is charred, do not eat the burned parts, and ensure the it is cooked through — the worst of both worlds is charred on the outside and pink in the middle.