It’s grilling season. Even if you don’t have safe meat or don’t eat meat, all *kinds* of other foods are delicious when cooked over charcoal.
Wait, I have to worry about corn when I grill out? Even if I’m not cooking any food with corn in it?
But of course.
- Propane: The gas itself is corn-free, but the distinctive rotten egg odor added to it is from ethyl mercaptan which is typically sourced from corn. I personally don’t have a lot of concerns about reacting to the fumes in a well ventilated area, or about food cooked over it in a pan, but wouldn’t want to be in an enclosed room with it, and wouldn’t want to eat food that was on a grill directly over it with a closed grill top.
- Charcoal Briquettes: Briquettes are bound into shape using a starch, often corn but sometimes wheat, potato, or rice as well. Less sensitive people may be fine with being near or even cooking over corny charcoal as long as the food doesn’t touch it directly, but I personally can’t even be around it let alone eat food that was cooked over it.
- Charcoal lighter fluid: Often contains ethanol from corn. And also smells terrible even if you aren’t allergic.
- Grill and utensils: If cast-iron, can be pre-seasoned with a problematic oil. Corn oil is rarely used in pre-seasoned cast iron, however soy oil is very common, and even for those who are not soy allergic, many pressed vegetable oils contain citric acid as degummers and other contaminants that will be problematic for a corn allergy.
- Grill and utensils: Can be cross contaminated. This is a big concern only for the truly sensitive. I discovered through experimentation that if I carefully clean a grill that has previously had corny charcoal burned in it, I can handle meat cooked over lump charcoal with the lid open. If, however, I close the lid and let the smoke infuse through the meat, I react to the meat. Somehow residue from the old allergens cooked in the grill remain even after I scrub and cook into the meat. Same with my oven. If I use a brand new grill with the same charcoal and close the lid, I’m fine. Porous foods get corned even with the lid open. Again, you probably have to be crazy sensitive to worry about this, but I know first hand that it is possible.
What do I use instead?
Since some briquettes are bound using non-corn starches, you *could* research a brand that uses one of the alternative starches. However, they could change their source or formula at any time. I prefer to avoid binders entirely and use lump charcoal that is only made from wood, no fillers. Check my product list to see which brands I am using safely. Note that some brands of lump charcoal are extremely poor quality and people have found things like carpenter’s nails in them because they are made from scrap wood. Check online reviews before you purchase a brand and make sure that it’s a high quality product.
Lump charcoal is far more temperamental to light and keep lit than briquettes. That’s why people use briquettes. To get it lit without lighter fluid, I use an electric charcoal starter. You pile the coals over it and plug the starter in, and the coals light in a relatively short time. Because the charcoal isn’t infused with the natural tinder of corn starch, a quality grill that retains heat well and allows for good airflow is important. I got a cheapo grill that had great reviews on Amazon and have found that my lump charcoal doesn’t seem to want to stay lit in it, so will probably need to upgrade. Our more expensive but corny grill has no such problems with the same charcoal, so I do know that it is the grill causing the issue not the fuel.
Are All Lump Charcoals Safe?
Probably not. The issues I would be concerned about are:
- Quality control
Typically lump charcoal “should” be just fired wood, but depending on the source of the wood lots of other stuff could end up in there. Check out this FAQ about lump charcoal.
“Since making lump charcoal is often done under somewhat crude conditions, it is normal to find a few rocks or pebbles in lump charcoal. However, a few other oddball items have been found like a mouse, human hair, a tootsie roll wrapper, varnished wood, and black shiny objects commonly referred to as moon rocks. Personally, in over two years and hundreds of pounds of lump charcoal, I’ve found 3 rocks and a tootsie roll wrapper. It shouldn’t be a great concern.”
Even if one isn’t concerned about allergens, that’s just kind of gross.
Then after that, it could be possible that the facilities are shared with something allergenic or whether the bags might be dusted with corn starch or made out of plant fiber or lined with corn plastic (PLA).
One could call and ask about all of these things, but I just guinea pigged the Royal Oak and it’s been okay, so I stick with it.
Barbecues are often chaotic. People are usually milling about, moving dishes around and touching things constantly. If you are preparing both safe, and non-safe food, keep a close eye on what food is touching what utensils and surfaces and don’t let your corn free food come into contact with those things. Probably set yourself up a completely separate prep and staging surface for your food, and consider using a separate grill top if not an entirely separate grill for the corn-free food.
I actually have to use a brand new corn-free grill, as I am so sensitive to cross contamination and traces that corny foods cooked in an enclosed space like an oven or closed-top grill will stick to the walls in such a way that they contaminate other foods cooked in it. When I cleaned our grill top and tried to cook food on our old grill that had had the cornstarch-charcoal cooked in it, I was able to eat something that had been cooked for just a few minutes with the lid open, but reacted to a mushroom cooked for a long time with the lid closed.
Wash your hands frequently and keep an eye on your guests and family members, especially if they are drinking alcohol. One friend of mine that doesn’t really know much about my allergies constantly tries to “help” and ends up touching things he really shouldn’t with cross contaminated hands. Another friend was standing near my “safe” grill and absentmindedly put some corny trash into my burning coals. It was just the end of a hand-rolled cigarette (corn in the adhesive) and not enough to affect my food, but it could have been something much bigger. Another dear friend is usually VERY careful about cross contamination, and after a couple of beers walked up to my safe grill and stared at the rack of short ribs roasting on it, then reached out and POKED IT WITH HIS FINGER. I think lasers probably shot out of my eyes, because as soon as he did it, he took three steps back and went, “Oh DUDE, I am SO SORRY.” The rib was fine BTW, as he’d just washed his hands before doing that and had only touched his relatively clean beer bottle with his other hand.