Hot Fun in the Summertime: Tips for Sustainable Grilling

It’s summertime and the grillin’ is easy. Here are some tips on how to make your cookout delectable and sustainable.

If you’re reading this post, you’re hip to the problems with factory farms, and you want your BBQ to fit your values. Meat from pastured animals not only assuages your conscience, but it tastes great, too. However, it does tend to behave a little differently on the grill than its industrially raised counterpart, and because it’s also a little pricier, it’s important to know what you’re doing out there.

Grass-Fed Meat

It only takes a little extra care to grill tender and succulent sustainable, grass-fed meat, and you’ll be rewarded with out-of-this-world flavor. Grass-fed meat tastes different from grain-fed meat; many prefer its natural, savory flavor. It’s generally leaner – and therefore lower in calories – than grain-fed meat since cattle develop muscle while grazing, and the variety of grasses they eat means the taste of the meat will vary slightly from farm to farm by local ecology and breed. Grain-fed meat may taste more consistent, since since homogeneity thrives in industrial settings. 

Here are some tips and tricks for grilling your sustainably-produced grass-fed meat:

  • Be careful not to overcook it. To be sure, grass-fed steak is best cooked to medium or rarer, or it will become tough. Your grill is hot enough if you can hold your hand five inches over the rack for 3 to 5 seconds but not longer.
  • Cook it hot and fast. Many people prefer to sear the meat at high heat, creating dark grill marks and a crust on both sides that seals in the juices, letting the meat remain rarer on the inside. Since it is generally leaner, grass-fed meat will cook faster than grain-fed at the same heat. For burgers, a couple of minutes per side will do the trick. 
  • Try this trick. For cheeseburgers, try mixing shredded cheese into the ground beef before you make the patties. The cheese will be more evenly distributed, and you won’t risk overcooking the burger as you try to melt a slice of cheese on top. (If you do want to melt cheese on top, close the grill cover for quicker melting.)
  • Let it rest. We know it’s hard, but holding off for a few minutes after cooking leaves time for the juices within to redistribute. Do not cut it immediately since the juices will run out, leaving a drier texture. For the same reason, turn meat with a spatula or tongs rather than a fork; never stick a fork in it to see if it’s done.

And don’t forget about grass-fed lamb with its amazing flavor profile; the same notes, tips and tricks apply to lamb as beef.  

Hot Dogs and Sausages

You may not want to know how hot dogs and sausages are made, to be frank. Mass-produced hot dogs may contain MSG, nitrates and odd byproducts. But better hot dogs and sausages made from pastured beef and pork, and vegetarian soy dogs, are also available for you to grill. 

TIP: Hot dogs are generally pre-cooked, but sausages often start out raw, so be sure to grill them over lower heat to ensure that they are cooked throughout.

Chicken and Pork

Free-range chicken requires the same grilling techniques as factory-farmed chicken, but yields tastier results.

TIP: Remember that white meat cooks more quickly than dark meat and you’ll have more control if you start with smaller pieces. And submerging your chicken in even a simple marinade like Italian dressing for a few hours before grilling adds a gourmet touch with little extra effort.

Heritage pigs like Berkshire are bred for qualities that have been bred out of many factory-farmed pigs. Berkshire pork is darker in color than the factory-farmed “other white meat,” juicy, flavorful, tender and well-marbled. Factory-farmed pigs are generally leaner, so the meat is likely to be dry and have little taste, often requiring brining and artificial flavoring.

TIP: Give pigs a chance! Leave the BBQ sauce in the kitchen. The only seasoning you need for Berkshire pork is salt and pepper (at least the first time you go heritage!). And don’t obsess about cooking it well done – you don’t need to cremate your dinner! Even the USDA has relaxed its dictum about this. Trichinosis hasn’t been a problem for many years, and even so, trichina are killed at about 140°F,  before the meat reaches medium-rare doneness (145°F).

Vegetables and Fruits

From asparagus to zucchini, grilled vegetables are also popular. Just brush with oil, season and grill.

TIP: Softer fruits and vegetables may need to be grilled on foil.

Grilled corn on the cob is splendid; just pull back the husks, remove the silk, brush oil or butter on the ear of corn, season as you choose and close the husks. Grill for 10 minutes or longer, turning occasionally. 

TIP: Go Latin: after cooking the corn, remove the husk, carefully grill directly for a golden brown char, then slather the corn with mayonnaise or crema and top with crumbled queso fresco or cotija cheese, red chili powder, salt and a squirt of fresh lime juice. Felicitaciones! You’ve just made elote!

Green and red bell peppers can be grilled easily. Cut and seed them first.

TIP: For kebabs, soak wooden or bamboo skewers for at least half an hour so that they won’t catch fire, or use metal skewers.

Portobello mushrooms make a great veggie burger. Clean the caps, brush them with oil and put them on a hot grill, gill side down. When the mushrooms have softened (5–8 minutes or so), flip them and cook for a minute or two longer.

Fruits such as apricots, peaches and pineapples may also be grilled successfully over low heat. Natural sugars will caramelize where the grill touches the fruit, creating tasty, crunchy bits. Some like to brush fruits with oil, but try not to overpower the natural flavor. 

TIP: Softer fruits and vegetables may need to be grilled on foil. Remember that fruits are full of water, so they may become very hot; if you like, cool them down with ice cream!

You'll find most of what you need for sustainable grilling at your local farmers’ market: grass-fed meat and locally grown, preferably organic, vegetables and fruits. Bring along our handout, “The Meat to Eat” and check Eat Well Guide for nearby sources of sustainable food. For more seasonal inspiration, read our Real Food Right Now series.