Barbecue and eye care

Dr. Tom Barowsky

The BBQ season is fast upon us and the air will be filled with the aromatic scents of good old fashioned BBQ. Fire + man + meat = delicious eating or burnt offerings depending on your level of expertise. Let’s talk about some safe practices that you can implement to protect your eyes during the barbecuing season.

Food preparation is a good place to start. Cutting onions, chilies and peppers can have a rather watery effect on the eyes.

Onions release sulfur gas when they are cut, sliced or diced. This is a rather significant irritant to the eyes causing the eyes to tear severely. There are several techniques to reduce this irritation. Before you cut the onion try putting it in the freezer compartment for about 10 minutes, remove and immediately peel then when you cut the onion there will be less gas released and less tearing. Always use a very sharp knife to cut the onions. A dull knife has more of a crushing effect and therefore will release more gas. My mother taught me to hold a piece of bread between my teeth when cutting an onion to decrease the tearing. Don’t ask me how it works but it does. Wearing glasses or safety glasses will also help as the eyes are protected from the released sulfur gas and never rub your eyes while cutting the onion. The juice from the onion will be all over your hands and boy does it bite. Wear latex gloves and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water prior to touching around your eyes.

Chiles and other peppers contain capsaicin, an oily substance that gives the pepper its bite. This is the same compound used in many pain and ache relievers. The oil has its major effect of causing stinging and watering of the eyes when it comes in direct contact with the tissues of the eye. Many of the same things we talked about with onion preparation also apply to chilies and peppers. What’s most important is to wear latex gloves while doing the prep work. The oils from the peppers are not always adequately removed even with thorough hand washing.

Let us now consider the spices and herbs. As with everything else, handling during preparation should be done with latex gloves and thorough hand washing afterwards to prevent the spice from coming in contact with the eye and causing irritation.

Next comes the cooking source. I really am not a big fan of propane cooking because it is no different than using the kitchen oven. Using charcoal and hardwoods imparts a truly distinct flavor to the foods you prepare. When we talk about fire we have to talk about lighter fluid. If you’re looking for a great way to singe your eyebrows and risk heat damage to your eyes such as burns and early cataracts, use a lot of the stuff and stand close to the fuel when you light it up. I never use the stuff and prefer a charcoal chimney to get my briquettes up and going. No flashback risk to my face, eyes and unprotected body parts, they heat up faster and there is no aftertaste from residual lighter fluid in the cooker.

If you need to increase the heat of your fire and the dampers are open, blowing air on the coals is a great way to increase the flame. If you stand real close and blow down on the coals you can even encourage some hot ash to fly up and hit you in the eye. The better choice is to blow air horizontally across the coals with a bellows or even the exhaust hose of your shop-vac. Just be careful you don’t blow too much or the ash will end up on your food.

Simple precautions will make for a safer and better-sighted barbecue season. So show this column to Dad today and make sure he stays safe around the grill.

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