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Summer Series 5: Barbecue and plancha, the stars of summer

Life is all about choices, and if your heart is between barbecue and plancha, you'll find some great advice and answers to your questions in this article.
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Summer Series 5: Barbecue and plancha, the stars of summer

Summer is in full swing with beautiful days and long evenings, which invite us to live and eat outside. It's the best season for barbecues and planchas. But what is the difference between the two? Is one more healthy than the other? And whether you're a flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan, you'll find options and variations at the end of this article to help you enjoy those convivial moments we all love!

What is the difference between barbecue and plancha?

While the traditional barbecue continues to be popular, the plancha has also gained popularity in recent years. Traditionally, the barbecue is charcoal-fired. But there are also gas and electric ones. We will mainly look at the traditional charcoal barbecue, which allows food to be grilled by the embers' heat, giving meat in particular that unique smoked flavour. Enthusiasts see it as an art form to guarantee authentic flavours to grilled food.

The plancha originated in Spain and was once a large stone plate on which various foods were cooked. Today, the plancha takes the form of a cooking plate, heated to a high temperature and providing uniform and controlled heat. It can be powered by gas or electricity and has different coatings: steel, chrome, cast iron, etc., all of which affect the cooking quality. It is easy to cook food without adding fat and preserves a maximum of flavour. It's mainly used for fish, vegetables, and other foods.

What is the impact on our health?

What most people like about these cooking methods is that the surface of the food is caramelised, forming a sort of crust with a softer and tastier texture inside. It is essential to know that these types of cooking generate biochemical reactions that are far from harmless. Here is a brief overview:

Firstly, cooking at high temperatures destroys certain nutrients such as the omega-3s in small oily fish like sardines and mackerel, antioxidants, vitamins C and B in certain vegetables and even causes a change in the molecules, letting the omega-3s oxidise and turning them toxic, for example, because of the appearance of so-called "trans" molecules.

Secondly, and this is probably the most important, these two cooking methods cause what are known as Maillard reactions. These biochemical reactions occur between the proteins and sugars in certain foods and lead to the famous browning of foods, responsible for that unique and highly prized taste. These are glycation products, i.e. proteins that have been caramelised by sugar. These compounds are called Maillard molecules.

Thirdly, during traditional barbecuing, especially with horizontal barbecues, the fats in the meat ignite on contact with the embers or carbonise, forming compounds that are harmful to health: PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons). 

Fourthly, burning proteins at high temperatures and for a certain time, especially grilled meat, produces other toxic compounds: HAs (Heterocyclic Amines), which are also carcinogenic.  

What can you do to enjoy yourself while limiting toxicity?  

The first advice is to avoid all of these toxic compounds generated by these types of cooking and not to eat the charred or blackened parts of the food. There is no need to add oil or any other fat to food that is being barbecued or grilled. If the barbecue is very hot, it is wise to marinate the meat in mixtures containing antioxidants. Think spices and aromatic herbs such as thyme and rosemary, garlic, onions, lemon, etc., or in wine. Their presence will reduce the formation of HA on the surface of the meat.  

As a side dish, we prefer raw mixed salads containing tomato, basil, olives, sprouted seeds, avocado, lettuce, grapefruit, avocado, sunflower seeds and squash; or raw cauliflower tabbouleh and so on. All coloured vegetables and fruit, spices, aromatic and medicinal herbs, green tea, etc., combat the phenomenon of glycation because they are rich in antioxidants, so go for it!  

In addition, it is better to use cooking methods that prevent contact between the flames and the food, such as electric barbecues and vertical cooking on a spit, so as not to produce all these compounds that are highly toxic to our health.

Finally, meals around the barbecue or the plancha are often great moments of conviviality, which you shouldn't dismiss, quite the contrary. But then, the best thing is probably to use them only occasionally, and to find other alternatives, for example by eating stewed meat or steamed fish.

What about options for vegetarians and vegans?

When we think of barbecue or plancha, we often think of marinated and grilled meat, grilled fish. Flexitarians can have a great time while keeping in mind to limit these harmful glycation phenomena by opting for the right accompaniments, but vegetarians and vegans are not left out. Grilled vegetables are delicious, especially aubergines, courgettes, peppers, mushrooms, and tomatoes. For a good source of protein, tofu can be grilled very well on the barbecue, as can seitan or tempeh. They can be prepared whole or on skewers. Well-prepared, well-seasoned marinades will give them more flavour. Cereal or legume patties are also an excellent option (with or without eggs, depending), as are falafels. For vegetarians only, grilled cheeses are also very popular: halloumi (with a little honey and oregano), feta, mozzarella, tomme, and camembert.

Don't forget dessert: some fruits can be lightly grilled, giving them an incomparable flavour (but losing vitamins and minerals): peach, apricot, apple, pineapple, etc.

To sum it all up

Plancha and barbecue are synonymous with good times to be shared with family or friends in the open air, in the sun during the long, beautiful summer evenings. The keyword is conviviality, but we can also associate it with health by favouring foods and types of cooking that are favourable to health.  

Beautiful moments and convivial meals to share!

Original Language: French

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