As you rev up for your July 4th, Memorial Day, Labor Day, or other holiday cookout, or just regular ol' dinner, here are some greener, cleaner grilling tips. First, a comparison of different types of grills.
Natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, but propane also releases fewer emissions than burning charcoal or wood. On the other hand, it bears remembering that fossil fuels, unlike wood, are nonrenewable resources.
Convection grills go it one better by using half the fuel of a regular gas model. Pricey, but the fossil fuel savings add up in the long run. Check out the sleek hooded stainless models by Firestone.
Among conventional gas grills, we like the reasonably priced Vermont Castings stainless steel (the most recycled metal) console with tough cast-iron grill and super energy-saving LED night light. Their VCS 350 7P got best overall test scores in Consumer Reports' 2008 medium-size gas grill ratings, along with Weber's Genesis E 320; CR's best-buy honors went to the Blue Ember FG 50069 U809, sold at Home Depots.
Electric grills are least polluting of all on the cooking end, emitting 99 percent less carbon monoxide and 91 percent less CO2 than charcoal burning, and 21 percent less CO2 than propane. On the energy-consuming end, of course, electric grills use power from your electric utility that most likely comes from burning coal. Check out these inexpensive models recommended by a Minnesota co-op.
Charcoal or wood: Loyal (or strapped) to that old hibachi? While we love char-flavor (but in moderation, to reduce the toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in burned meat), conventional briquettes contain some toxic chemicals. We recommend healthier alternatives: new Nature's Grilling charcoal, made from tree trimmings (no trees are cut down for it) uses a bit of food-based rather than petrochemical binder. Greener Cowboy Charcoal is a low-smoke, lump hardwood variety made from untreated, recycled maple and oak factory remnants. Ask for recycled hardwood lump charcoal at your local Whole Foods supermarket, too. For more green charcoal ideas, click here.
Hybrid grills combine gas and wood or charcoal, so you can have that taste and cleaner air, too.
To ignite your fire, trade air-polluting lighter fluid for a chimney starter. We've actually learned to do this, so obviously you can too. You lightly pack the lightweight metal cylinder with crumpled newspaper, and lay your hardwood charcoal lumps on top. Light with a match held to the slots at the bottom. Keep away from eyes, hair, clothing.
Why bother with greener grilling? Well, it's a lot better for your health and the planet. The 60 million barbecues fired up each Independence Day use about the same amount of energy (in the form of charcoal, lighter fluid, gas, and electricity) as 20,000 households consume in a year, while releasing about 225,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Plus, in hot weather, the nitrous oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released by lighter fluid and conventional briquettes create ground-level ozone (i.e. smog). Add that to the fine particulate matter (soot) produced by burning organic matter, and the smoke from fireworks, and in the wrong wind even non-asthmatics may get choked up. For more information, see Sierra Magazine and The Green Guide.
Safety note: Before buying any grill, make sure it's not on the CPSC's recall list; Consumer Reports tested one scary gas model that actually melted down.
This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2008. The story was moved to MNN.com.