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United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Consumer Education and Information
Slightly Revised September 1998
Contact Information Slightly Revised May 2000

Grilling and Smoking Food Safely

Warm weather is the ideal time to cook out. More people cook outdoors in summer than any other time of the year. But warm temperatures are also ideal for bacteria and other pathogens to multiply and cause foodborne illness. Use these simple guidelines for grilling and smoking food safely.

Is There a Difference Between Grilling and Smoking? Yes. Grilling is cooking food over direct heat. Its intensity is similar to broiling, so tender meats and poultry are best for grilling. A grill is a utensil made of parallel bars on which food is cooked over charcoal, wood, or special rocks heated by gas or electricity.

Smoking is cooking food indirectly in the presence of a fire. It can be done in a covered grill if a pan of water is placed beneath the meat on the grill; and meats can smoked in a "smoker," which is an outdoor cooker especially designed for smoking foods. Smoking is done much more slowly than grilling, so less tender meats benefit from this method, and a natural smoke flavoring permeates the meat.

What is Barbecue? The cooking method of spit roasting a whole animal over an open fire or pit is called barbecuing. "Barbecue" is the preferred spelling according to dictionary and publication style guides. The word origin is the American Spanish word "barbacoa." Bar-B-Q, barbeque, and B-B-Q are coined words. The word has also come to describe a flavoring or type of meat dish which has been barbecued or had a barbecue sauce added.
What is Pit Roasting? Pit roasting is cooking meat in a large, level hole dug in the earth. Here is some general information. (For more specific information on pit roasting, contact local or state extension offices, or a land-grant university.) A hardwood fire is built in the pit, requiring wood equal to about 2 1/2 times the volume of the pit. The hardwood is allowed to burn until the wood reduces and the pit is half filled with burning coals. This can require 4 to 6 hours burning time. The coals are covered with a 2-inch layer of pea gravel and topped with sand until no coals are visible. The wrapped meat is placed on the sand. Sometimes water-soaked burlap bags are used to wrap meat, especially a whole pig or lamb. Then dirt is shoveled over the meat 3 to 4 inches deep to hold in the heat and steam.

Cooking may require 10 to 12 hours or more, and is difficult to estimate. A meat thermometer must be used to determine the meat's doneness. There are many variables such as outdoor temperature, the size and thickness of the meat, and how fast the coals are cooking.

Getting Ready to Grill When shopping for meat and poultry to grill, put them in the shopping cart last, right before checkout. To guard against cross-contamination -- which can happen when raw meat or poultry juices drip on other foods -- put packages of raw meat and poultry into plastic bags.

Load meat and poultry into the air-conditioned car -- not the trunk -- and take the groceries straight home. In the summer, if home is more than a 30-minute drive away, bring a cooler with ice from home and place perishable food in it for the trip.

At home, place meat and poultry in the refrigerator immediately. Freeze poultry and ground meat that won't be used in 1 or 2 days; freeze other meat within 4 to 5 days.

Defrosting Meat and Poultry
  • Completely thaw meat or poultry before grilling so it cooks more evenly.
  • Use the refrigerator for slow, safe thawing. Foods defrosted in the refrigerator can be refrozen before or after cooking.
  • Microwave defrost only if the food will be placed immediately on the grill or in the oven.
  • Meat in airtight packaging may be defrosted in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw.
  • Foods defrosted in the microwave or by the cold water method should be cooked before refreezing because they may potentially have been held at temperatures above 40 F allowing harmful bacteria to grow.
Marinate vs. Marinade These English words come from the Italian word "marinato."
  • Marinade (MAIR-uh-naid) is a savory acidic sauce in which a food is soaked to enrich its flavor or to tenderize it.
  • Marinate (MAIR-uh-nait) is a verb which means to steep food in a "marinade."
Safe Marinating Some recipes state to marinate meat and poultry for several hours or days, either to tenderize or add flavor. Acid in the marinade breaks down connective tissue in meats. This is especially beneficial in lean meats, such as "Select" grade, which don't have a lot of fat marbling to enhance tenderness.

Always marinate food in the refrigerator, not on the counter. If some of the marinade is to be used for basting during cooking or as a sauce on the cooked food, reserve a portion of the marinade. Don't put raw meat and poultry in it. Don't reuse the marinade from raw meat or poultry on cooked food unless it's boiled first to destroy any bacteria.

Pre-cooking Meat and Poultry Some people like to cook food partially in the microwave oven or stove to reduce grilling time. And some like to partially grill meats to give it that smoky flavor, and then refrigerate or freeze the food to complete the cooking at a later date. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn't have been destroyed. If you choose to pre-cook meat or poultry, do so immediately before grilling. And once food is on the grill, cook until it reaches a safe temperature as determined with a meat thermometer.
What Type of Cutting Board Should be Used for Carving Grilled Meats? Cross-contamination during preparation, grilling, and serving is a prime cause of foodborne illness. Grilled foods should never be carved on a cutting board which was just used for cutting up raw meat and poultry. The board would likely bear raw meat juices which could contain bacteria; it must be thoroughly cleaned before using again.

Consumers should use plastic or glass surfaces for cutting raw meat and poultry. However, wooden cutting boards used exclusively for raw meat and poultry are acceptable. Use a different board for cutting other foods such as produce and bread. This will prevent bacteria from a raw meat or poultry product from contaminating another food that will not be further cooked.

Both wooden and plastic cutting boards can be cleaned in a dishwasher; washed in hot, soapy water; or sanitized with a solution of one teaspoon of chlorine bleach. Flood the surface with the bleach solution and allow it to stand for several minutes. Then rinse and air dry or pat dry with fresh paper towels. Cutting boards wear out over time. Once cutting boards become excessively worn or develop hard-to-clean grooves, they should be discarded.

Grilling Away from Home When carrying food to a picnic site, keep it cold to minimize bacterial growth. If take-out foods such as fried chicken or barbecued beef will be reheated on the grill, and they won't be eaten within 2 hours of pickup, buy them ahead of time and chill thoroughly.
  • Use an insulated cooler with sufficient ice or ice packs to keep the food at 40 F. Then pack food right from the refrigerator into the cooler immediately before leaving home.
  • In the car, keep the cooler in the air-conditioned passenger compartment; at the picnic, in the shade or shelter.
  • Avoid opening the cooler's lid, which lets cold air out and warm air in. Pack beverages in one cooler and perishables in another cooler.
  • When handling raw meat, remove from the cooler only the amount that will fit on the grill.
Handling Meat Safely Pack clean, soapy sponges, cloths, and wet towelettes for cleaning surfaces and hands. Be sure there are plenty of clean utensils and platters to keep raw foods and their juices separate from cooked foods.

Don't use the same platter and utensils for raw and cooked meat and poultry. Any bacteria present in raw meat or juices can contaminate the safely cooked meat. This is a prime cause of foodborne illness.

Proper Cooking Equipment For grilling and smoking, buy good quality charcoal, briquettes, or aromatic wood chips. Set the grill or smoker in a well-lit, well-ventilated area away from trees, shrubbery, and buildings. Only use approved fire starters -- never gasoline or paint thinner, for example. Cook foods in grills made of materials approved for contact with meat and poultry. Don't grill or smoke foods in makeshift containers such as galvanized steel cans or other materials not intended for cooking. Chemical residue contamination can result.
Personal Safety Information Keep children and pets away from the fire. Have a squirt bottle of water nearby to control flare-ups. Don't wear baggy clothes. Use flame-resistant mitts, hot pads, and cooking utensils with long handles.
Building a Fire Follow the manufacturer's directions for igniting charcoal or preheating a gas or electric outdoor cooker. Let charcoal get red hot with gray ash -- about 10 to 20 minutes depending upon the quantity. Spread out the charcoal under the grilling surface or bank it around the drip pan for smoking. Replenish charcoal if necessary for grilling. Add about 15 briquettes every hour to maintain 225 to 300 F in a smoker. For hickory-smoked flavor, add 1/2 cup water-soaked wood chips or flakes during the last 30 minutes of smoking.
Grilling and Smoking Times Cooking time depends on many factors: type of meat; its size and shape; distance of food from the heat; the temperature of the coals; and the weather.

Cook food to a safe internal temperature and doneness: ground poultry, 165 F; poultry breast, 170 F; whole poultry, 180 F; beef, veal, and lamb roasts, steaks and chops, 145 to 170 F; pork, 160 to 170 F. When using a sauce, apply during the last 15 to 30 minutes of grilling to prevent excess browning or burning.

See the "Approximate Grilling Times..." chart below.

How to Tell if Meat is Grilled Thoroughly Meat and poultry cooked on a grill often browns very fast on the outside. Use a meat thermometer to be sure the food has reached a safe internal temperature.

Whole poultry should reach 180 F; breasts, 170 F. Hamburgers should reach 160 F. Beef, veal, and lamb steaks, roasts, and chops can be cooked to 145 F. All cuts of pork should reach 160 F.

NEVER partially grill meat or poultry and finish cooking later. Cook food completely to destroy harmful bacteria.

When reheating take-out foods or fully cooked meats like hot dogs, grill to 165 F, or until steaming hot.

Safe Smoking Techniques Grilling slowly over indirect heat in a closed charcoal cooker is called "smoking." It is used to add flavor to large cuts of meat and keep them tender. It can require up to 8 hours, depending on the meat's size and the outdoor air temperature.

Use high quality charcoal to build a hot fire. Pile about 50 briquettes in the center, and when they are covered with grey ash, push them into two piles. Center a pan of water between the two piles.

Center the food on the grill over the water pan, close the lid, and keep the grill vents open. Add about 10 briquettes every hour to maintain the temperature in the smoker at 225 to 300 F for safety. Wood chips such as mesquite are used for additional flavor. Using dry chips at the start creates a fast smoke; wet them later for sustained heat.

Use a meat thermometer to be sure the food has reached a safe internal temperature.

Keeping Grilled Meat Hot After cooking meat and poultry on the grill -- at home or on a picnic -- keep it hot until served. Outdoors, keep the cooked meats hot by setting them to the side of the grill rack, not directly over the coals where they would eventually overcook.

At home, the cooked meat can be kept hot in a 200 F oven, in a chafing dish or slow cooker, or on a warming tray. Hold hot, cooked food at 140 F or warmer.

Serving the Food Safely When taking food off the grill, don't put the cooked items on the same platter which held the raw meat. Any bacteria present in the raw meat juices could contaminate the safely cooked meat or other grilled foods. In hot weather (90 F and above), food should never sit out for more than 1 hour.
Handling Leftovers Safely At home, store leftovers in the refrigerator or freezer within 2 hours of taking food off the grill. Leftovers that have been off the grill for less than 1 hour can be safely transported home in a cooler -- if there's plenty of ice in it. Discard any food left out more than 2 hours (1 hour in hot weather -- 90 F or above).
Does Grilling Pose a Cancer Risk? Some studies have suggested there may be a cancer risk related to eating food cooked by such high heat cooking techniques as grilling, frying, and broiling. Based on present research findings, eating moderate amounts of grilled meats like fish, meat, and poultry cooked without charring to a safe, yet medium temperature does not pose a problem. To avoid charring, microwave meat partly done immediately before placing it on the grill and remove visible fat than can drip on the coals and cause a flame-up.

For additional food safety information about meat, poultry, or eggs, call the toll-free USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline at 1 (800) 535-4555; Washington, DC area, (202) 720-3333; TTY: 1 (800) 256-7072. It is staffed by home economists, registered dietitians, and food technologists weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern time, year round. An extensive selection of food safety recordings can be heard 24 hours a day using a touch-tone phone.

The media may call Bessie Berry, Manager, USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline, at (202) 720-5604.

Information is also available from the FSIS Web site: http://www.fsis.usda.gov

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Approximate Grilling Times for Meat and Poultry

Always use a meat thermometer to be sure meats and poultry are cooked to a safe internal temperature and doneness. For approximate cooking times for use in meal planning, see the following chart compiled from various resources. Times are based on meat at refrigerator temperatures. Remember that outdoor grills can vary in heat. When using a barbecue sauce, apply during the last 15 to 30 minutes of grilling to prevent excess browning or burning.

NOTE: When using indirect heat (smoking), the grill must be covered with its lid.

ITEM

SIZE

GRILLING TIME

INTERNAL TEMP IN F

BEEF

     

Steaks

3/4" thick

3 to 4 min./side
4 to 5 min./side

Medium rare 145
Medium 160

Kabobs

1-inch cubes

3 to 4 min./side

145 to 160

Hamburger patties

1/2" thick

3 min. per side

Medium 160

Roast, rolled rump (indirect heat)
sirloin tip (indirect heat)

4 to 6 lbs.
3 1/2 to 4 lbs.

18 to 22 min./lb.
20 to 25 min./lb.

145 to 160

Ribs, Back

cut in 1-rib portions

10 min./side

Medium 160

Tenderloin

Half, 2 to 3 lbs.
Whole, 4 to 6 lbs.

10 to 12 min./side
12 to 15 min./side

Medium rare 145
Medium 160

HAM

     

Fully cooked (indirect heat)

any size

8 to 10 min./lb.

140

Cook-before-eating (indirect heat)

Whole, 10 to 14 lbs.
Half, 5 to 7 lbs.
Portion, 3 to 4 lbs.

10 to 15 min./lb.
12 to 18 min./lb.
30 to 35 min./lb.

160

LAMB

     

Chops, shoulder, loin, or rib

1" thick

5 min./side

145 to 160

Steaks, sirloin, or leg

1" thick

5 min./side

145 to 160

Kabobs

1" cubes

4 min./side

145 to 160

Patties, ground

4 oz., 1/2" thick

3 min./side

Medium 160

Leg, butterflied

4 to 7 lbs.

40 to 50 min. total

145 to 160

OSTRICH or EMU

     

Fan filets, steaks, or kabobs

3/4" thick

3 min./side

Medium rare 145

Patties, ground

1/2" thick

3 min./side

Medium 160

PORK, Fresh

     

Chops, bone-in or boneless

3/4" thick
1 1/2" thick

3 to 4 min./side
7 to 8 min./side

Medium 160

Tenderloin

1/2 to 1 1/2 lbs.

15 to 25 min. total

Medium 160

Ribs (indirect heat)

2 to 4 lbs.

1 1/2 to 2 hrs.

160

Patties, ground

1/2" thick

4 to 5 min./side

Medium 160

VEAL

     

Chops, steaks

1" thick

5 to 7 min./side

145 to 160

Roast, boneless (indirect heat)

2 to 3 lbs.

18 to 20 min./lb.

145 to 160

VENISON

     

Roast, saddle, or leg

6 to 7 lbs.

25 to 30 min./lb.

145 to 160

Steaks

3/4" thick

4 to 5 min./side
6 to 7 min./side

Medium rare 145
Medium 160

CHICKEN

     

Whole (indirect heat), not stuffed
broiler fryer
roasting hen
Capon
Cornish hens


3 to 4 lbs.
5 to 7 lbs.
4 to 8 lbs.
18 to 24 oz.


60 to 75 min.
18 to 25 min./lb.
15 to 20 min./lb.
45 to 55 min.


180 as measured in the thigh

Breast halves, bone-in
boneless

6 to 8 oz. each
4 oz. each

10 to 15 min./side
6 to 8 min./side

170

Other parts: Legs or thighs
Drumsticks
Wings, wingettes

4 to 8 oz.
4 oz.
2 to 3 oz.

10 to 15 min./side
8 to 12 min./side
8 to 12 min./side

180

DUCK or GOOSE

     

Duckling, whole (indirect heat)
Quartered (indirect heat)

4 1/2 lbs. (not stuffed)

2 1/2 hrs.
1 hr., 25 min.

180 to 185

Goose, whole (indirect heat)

8 to 12 lbs.

18 to 20 min./lb.

180 to 185

TURKEY

     

Whole turkey (indirect heat)

8 to 12 lbs.
12 to 16 lbs.
16 to 24 lbs.

2 to 3 hrs.
3 to 4 hrs.
Not recommended

180 as measured in the thigh

Breast, bone-in
boneless

4 to 7 lbs.
2 3/4 to 3 1/2 lbs.

1 to 1 3/4 hrs.
Not recommended

170

Thighs, drumsticks (indirect heat)
Direct heat (pre-cook 1 hr.)

8 to 16 oz.

1 1/2 to 2 hrs.
8 to 10 min./side

180

Boneless turkey roll (indirect heat)

2 to 5 lbs.
5 to 10 lbs.

1 1/2 to 2 hrs.
2 to 3 1/2 hrs.

170 to 175

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For Further Information Contact:
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Meat and Poultry Hotline:

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