Grilling without the guilt, going beyond the burgers

Healthy grilling tips from Wesley McWhorter, Chef and Dietitian at UT Health's School of Public Health.

Clean your grill and get ready
Last week’s charred burger remains need to be brushed away.    “They don’t impart flavor. In fact they increase the release of advanced glycation end products associated with greater risk of inflammation and heart disease,” McWhorter said. “Avoid spray cleaners and invest in a quality grill brush to clean up after each cooking session. Your burgers will taste better and your grill will thank you.”

It’s also important to be prepared.  “Don’t set yourself up for failure before you start cooking. Make sure you have everything you need at hand prior to firing up your grill,” McWhorter said.

Build flavor
There are far more ways to create flavor than just adding salt, pepper, and sauce.    “The list of options is endless – garlic, herbs, citrus, spices, peppers,” McWhorter said. “Start with a brine, a marinade, or a dry rub. Then season with herbs, spices, or other seasoning options before getting it on the grill.”

Wood chips are another great way to add smoky flavor to your food.    “Just like spices, you can combine different types of wood chips to improve flavor. Soak the wood chips for about two hours and then you can put them in a foil packet on a gas or charcoal grill,” McWhorter said. “It’s worth experimenting with the woods, but avoid overusing more pungent ones like hickory or mesquite, which will result in a more bitter taste. Woods like alder, cherry, apple, and pecan help create a nice, sweet flavor.”

Vital veggies
Vegetables are the spice of life – and your grill.    “Grilling vegetables will change your life. They’re such an easy addition to make your plate more delicious, colorful, and balanced,” McWhorter said. “There’s no need for skewers. Simply make a foil packet or place them directly on the grill. Think sweet potatoes, asparagus, bell peppers, squash, corn, green beans – the options are endless. You don’t need much on top either, just a little oil and your favorite seasoning.”

Flames are not your friend
Remember to keep your cool and stay in control of your grill.    “Watch out for flare-ups. When oils and fats drip on your flames, you risk overcooking and burning the outside of your product before the whole thing is cooked. Have a spray bottle of water handy to keep flames at bay,” McWhorter said.

Make the grade with grill marks 
If you’re struggling to achieve perfect grill marks, diagnose the problem first.   “There are a few reasons why your food never has grill marks. If your product is wet, the moisture from water or your marinade will create steam that prevents proper coloring. Dry the product off and apply a light coat of oil – canola works great – before grilling,” McWhorter said. “Your grill may not be hot enough, so be sure to let your grill grates get to the correct temperature for what you’re cooking before you start. Lastly, moving the product too often could be an issue, which brings us to addressing technique.”

Don’t cut to check
Checking for doneness could be a recipe for disaster.     “Please keep your knives away. When meat is cooking, the liquids inside are moving around rapidly,” McWhorter said. “If you cut to check for doneness, say goodbye to a moist and juicy product. Invest in a digital thermometer instead and cook your product to the recommended temperature.”

Don’t be scared of sea creatures
The world is your oyster when it comes to grilling seafood.   “Grilled fish tastes wonderful. It’s also great for your health and super easy to cook,” McWhorter said. “Seafood is tender, so don’t make the mistake of moving the fillets too much, and apply a high-quality oil to them, such as canola, before grilling. As the fish cooks, it will unstick and then you can flip it. Fish is just for starters – you can try shrimp, scallops, and so much more.”

Victoria Tagg of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston contributed to this report.