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. Although “sustainable grilling” sometimes refers to what fuels the grill – charcoal, gas, or even solar power – here we're interested in what’s cooking on it. Check Eat Well Guide for nearby sources of sustainable food.
It only takes a little extra care to grill amazingly tender and succulent grass-fed meat. But why buy grass-fed meat when most supermarket aisles are full of cheaper cuts of grain-fed meat?
First, grass-fed meat is generally healthier for you. It is lower in overall fat and saturated fat, and it provides a higher amount of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed meat. Meat from grain-fed animals typically contains only 15% to 50% of the omega-3 of grass-fed livestock. Meat from pastured cattle has up to four times as much Vitamin E as meat from feedlots, and is much higher in Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), a nutrient associated with lowering cancer risk. There is also less risk of E. Coli bacteria or mad cow disease in sustainably-raised meat. Grass-fed meat is also generally lower in calories: six ounces of steak from a grass-fed cow may have 100 fewer calories than steak from a grain-fed cow.
Second, grass-fed animals have led dramatically better lives than their feedlot cousins. Cows that remain on a pasture from birth to market graze naturally in fresh air and sunshine on grass, hay or silage. They are ruminants, naturally endowed with a large stomach and rumen in which bacteria ferments cellulose from grass into proteins and fats that they can easily digest. While grain-fed cows, on the other hand, may start their lives eating grass, they finish their lives in feedlots where they are fattened with grain that is difficult for them to digest. They are often treated with hormones , feed additives, and frequent doses of antibiotics , to speed their growth and reduce the health problems associated with an unnatural diet and the stress of confinement. Cows naturally eat grass, but what you are likely to find in US supermarkets is grain-fed beef, since those cows are more profitable for factory farmers.
Third, and most important, grass-fed meat tastes differently than grain-fed meat, depending in part on the pasture and the season. Many people say it tastes better, and prefer its natural, piquant flavor. Grass-fed meat is generally leaner than grain-fed meat, since cows develop muscle while grazing, and the variety of grasses they eat means the taste of the meat will vary from farm to farm by local ecology and breed. Grain-fed meat, on the other hand, may taste more consistent, since the homogeneity of flavors is prized on factory farms.
Keep the meat refrigerated until it is ready for cooking, but do not cook meat when frozen or partially frozen. Thaw it in the refrigerator or under cold running water, and do not defrost or cook it in a microwave oven.
When grilling grass-fed meat, be careful not to overcook it. The grill is hot enough if you can hold your hand five inches over the rack for 3 to 5 seconds but not longer. Grass-fed meat requires less time to grill than grain-fed meat. Since it is generally leaner, with less fat to keep it moist, it will cook faster at the same heat. Grass-fed meat is best cooked medium rare to medium, or it will become tough. On the other hand, 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.
Check the internal temperature with a meat thermometer in the thickest part. At 135°F the meat is still rare. At 145°F to 155°F it will be medium-rare to medium. Above that the meat may lose its moisture and tenderness. The USDA recommends cooking raw beef, pork, lamb and veal steaks, roasts and chops, to a minimum internal temperature of 145°F, or 160°F for ground meat.
Let the meat rest for a few minutes after cooking it to help redistribute the juices inside. Do not cut it immediately since the juices will spill out, leaving a drier texture. For the same reason, turn meat with a spatula or tongs rather than a fork. Don’t stick a fork in it to see if it’s done.
Grass-fed beef makes for a tasty burger, often ground from many different cuts of the cow. An ideal patty is 6 ounces of raw, grass-fed ground beef, formed into a 41⁄2 inch wide circle, 3⁄4 inches thick on the edges and 1⁄2 inch thick in the center. Form the burger, then gently press the center on one side to create a small depression so that the patties will cook evenly and not become puffy and round. If you like, add salt and freshly ground black pepper.
For a nice, crusty exterior and a juicy interior, grill burgers over medium-high heat. Six-ounce burgers do not require much cooking time. Two and a half minutes on one side, and then three minutes after flipping will yield a medium burger. Don’t press burgers with a spatula, or you'll squeeze out the juices.
For cheeseburgers, try mixing shredded cheese in the ground beef before you make the patties. 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 want to melt cheese on top, close the grill cover.)
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 healthier hot dogs and sausages made with pastured beef and pork, and vegetarian soy dogs, are also available for you to grill. Hot dogs are generally pre-cooked, but sausages often start out raw, so be sure to cook them over lower heat to ensure that they are cooked throughout.
Free-range chicken requires the same grilling techniques as factory-farmed chicken, but with tastier results.
Heritage breeds such as Berkshire pork are bred for qualities that have been bred out of many factory-farmed pigs. Berkshire pork is juicy, flavorful, tender, and well marbled. Its high fat content makes it suitable for long grilling and at high temperatures. Factory-farmed pigs are generally leaner, so they can be dry and have little taste, often requiring brining and artificial flavoring.
From asparagus to zucchini, grilling vegetables is also popular. Produce picked fresh before you grill it may need less seasoning or sauce. Just brush with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper if you like, and grill.
Corn on the cob cooks well on the grill. Pull the silks from the ear and brush oil on the husk. If you like, put oil mixed with herbs and spices underneath the husk, directly on the cob. Cook for about 10 minutes, turning occasionally.
Green and red bell peppers can be grilled easily and successfully. Cut and seed them first. For kebabs, soak wooden or bamboo skewers for at least half an hour so that they won’t catch on fire, or use metal skewers.
Portobello mushrooms can make a great vegetable 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), flip them and cook for a minute or two longer.
Fruits such as apricots, peaches and pineapples may also be grilled well over low heat. Natural sugars will caramelize where the grill touches the fruit, creating tasty, crunch bits. Some like to brush fruits with oil, but try not to overpower the natural flavor. Softer fruits and vegetables may need to be grilled on foil. Fruits are full of water, so they may become very hot. If you like, cool them down with ice-cream!