Updated: Feb 18
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, many take to the outdoors to cook their food on the grill. It is nice to be in the open air, it is a way to escape the heat of the indoor stove during the hot summer months, and there is something primal about cooking over an open fire. However, when you are at the grill, you may not be thinking about the impact what you are doing has on the environment.
When I first went vegetarian for environmental reasons over a decade ago, I thought it was the end of grilling for me: no more steaks, ribs, hot dogs, or burgers to cook on the grill. However, it turns out there are many vegetarian options to grill. Sure, there are faux-meat veggie burgers and veggie dogs on the market (and some are pretty good), but I prefer eating a food that isn’t trying to impersonate something else.
Conventional grilling often involves charcoal briquettes, lighter fluid, and plastic bags that are not safe for your family or the planet, and meat, the traditional grilling food, is a resource-intensive choice. With a few changes, you can get back to grilling with the peace of mind that you are making better choices.
The major steps you can take to make your grilling more sustainable include:
Grill plant-based food instead of meat.
Use a skillet or frying pan that can go on the grill instead of aluminum foil.
Marinate your food in a reusable container instead of a plastic bag.
If you grill with charcoal, use lump charcoal and skip the lighter fluid.
VEGETARIAN GRILLING I believe Hannah already wrote about the environmental benefits of eating vegetarian on this site already, and there are numerous scientific studies (including this one and one documented here) supporting the statement that a plant-based diet is kinder to the environment than a diet including meat. With that being said, some may find it difficult to grill a main dish that isn’t meat. Yes, veggie burgers and veggie dogs exist, and they can be grilled mostly in the same manner as conventional burgers and dogs. However, you shouldn’t feel confined to only choosing a plant-based substitute if you are a vegetarian and want to grill.
One option out there is one that, in all honesty, I used to hate: tofu. Our kids also HATED tofu no matter how we prepared it until I made them BBQ tofu. Now they excitedly ask if we are having tofu for dinner whenever they see me lighting the coals.
The key to opening up your vegetarian options on the grill is to use a skillet or frying pan that can go on the grill. The option we use in our house is a cast-iron frying pan, and it works very well. Some may use aluminum foil to trap in the heat and moisture on the grill, but this generates waste when you throw away the foil afterward. A frying pan can be used again and again without generating waste. Just be sure to keep your pan seasoned. If you want to contain the moisture, there are cast-iron lids to put on the pan that would do the trick. With the cast-iron frying pan, you can cook nearly anything on the grill that you would on the stovetop.
As with grilling meat, one of the keys to a successful plant-based main dish is properly marinating before putting it on the grill. From my experience, you should marinate tofu for at least three hours before grilling. My favorite marinade is a maple bourbon barbecue sauce I put together a few years ago. I found one cup of the BBQ sauce works well with one block of tofu (use extra firm for best results).
Before marinating, however, it is important to dry the tofu out. I slice the block along the length into fourths, and dry out each section. I then place each of the sections into a reusable container and coat every side with sauce. Then stick it in the fridge and flip and baste the tofu every 45 minutes or so for three hours. Before I thought about my carbon footprint, I used to use a sealable plastic bag to marinate, but this creates unnecessary waste.
A reusable storage container eliminates that waste.
CHARCOAL GRILLING If you are looking for the most sustainable grilling option, it is probably a solar cooker or solar oven. If you prefer to grill more conventionally, the choice usually comes down to gas or charcoal. There are people firmly planted on each side of the gas vs. charcoal grilling debate, but their preferences usually have more to do with the taste of the product and the grilling experience itself, and not so much on the carbon footprint of the process. From a pure carbon-counting perspective, gas grilling actually has a smaller carbon footprint than charcoal, according to a study done by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. However, the carbon footprint of a process is not the only metric to use when assessing its impact on the earth. Propane is a nonrenewable resource, whereas wood (the source of charcoal) is renewable. Furthermore, conventional gas grilling involves using metal propane cylinders whereas charcoal typically is sold in biodegradable and/or recyclable paper bags. While the cylinders can be re-filled, more resources were used in producing them than the paper bags, and they will probably end up as waste at some point. Paper bags, on the other hand, are compostable.
First, choose lump charcoal over briquettes. Lump charcoal is minimally processed, and it is free of the many harmful additives that are put into the briquettes.
Second, do not use charcoal lighter fluid or easy-light charcoal. Lighter fluid likely is made from petroleum, and in addition to adding unwanted flavor to your food, it releases additional carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere.
There are many ways to light charcoal without conventional charcoal lighter fluid, and one easy way that I use is the charcoal chimney. The charcoal chimney is a metal cylinder with a handle and a heat plate between the cylinder and the handle. I prefer the model depicted below made by Weber. I have tried other brands that have not worked as well. This particular charcoal chimney provides enough room for the charcoal, and it has a sufficient number of air vents to allow proper air circulation for a good burn.
To light the charcoal with a charcoal chimney, follow these simple steps:
Flip the charcoal chimney upside-down and stuff the bottom chamber with paper.
Turn the chimney right-side up and fill the main chamber with lump charcoal.
Choose a place to put the charcoal for lighting that won’t start a forest fire. The easiest place is on your grill, and depending on your grill, you may even be able to close the lid over the chimney. Just be sure there is enough air flow to keep the fire burning, so open up the vents on the grill if you close the lid.
Light the paper at the bottom of the charcoal chimney, and allow the fire to burn and catch the coals on fire. Depending on the charcoal you use, there will likely be a fair amount of smoke initially as the charcoal catches. This is one reason to close the lid of the grill, or put the chimney somewhere out of the way on a rock where you won’t smoke out your guests or neighbors.
Let the charcoal burn until flames begin to lick out of the top of the cylinder and you can see ash forming on the top layer. This typically takes 20-30 minutes if you have proper ventilation. You can check on the chimney to be sure the fire hasn’t gone out by looking at the vents on the side of the cylinder. You should eventually see a nice red glow.
Grab the charcoal chimney by the handle and flip it over, emptying the hot coals into the grill. You may need to wear a grilling mitt for this process (or close your eyes and pretend the oven mitt from the kitchen is a grilling mitt if you don’t have one).
Once the hot coals are in the grill, you can proceed as you normally would when grilling with charcoal. One of the great aspects of grilling vegetarian is that you can drizzle your remaining marinade over your plate once it is done, since it wasn’t in contact with raw meat.