A grill mat can turn your outdoor cooking station into a full-service kitchen, where you can prepare everything from bacon and scrambled eggs to stir-fry. Even if you’re just planning on grilling up a few burgers, cleanup will go much more smoothly when you put a mat down first. But are grill mats safe to use? Read on to learn the answer.
What Are Grill Mats?
Grill mats are sheets of solid material (usually nonstick) that can be placed over the cooking grates on any type of grill. They’re designed to provide a uniform cooking surface, thereby increasing the versatility of the grill. For more information about their construction, see Materials, below.
Why They’re Useful
When you use a grill mat, you don’t have to worry about food escaping through the grates. This comes in especially handy if you want to grill bacon or other meats that produce a great deal of grease. The mat will act as a barrier for all that excess fat, thereby minimizing flare-ups.
Speaking of fat, grill mats are typically made of nonstick material. This means that you’ll be able to use less oil when cooking, so your meals will be naturally healthier.
Having a flat grilling surface will also provide you with more options when it comes to preparing meals. On a regular grill, your repertoire is limited to large, solid ingredients that won’t slip through the cracks. With a grill mat, you can whip up a batch of pancakes for breakfast, toast a grilled cheese sandwich at lunch, and enjoy chicken fajitas with homemade tortillas for dinner. Thanks to the uniform surface, your food will cook evenly and thoroughly.
As we mentioned, grill mats also make cleanup that much simpler. Even if you clean your cooking grates as soon as they’re cool enough to handle, it can be difficult to remove every bit of residue.
Grill mats offer an extra layer of protection, which may even extend the life of your grill. If you’re visiting a public park or renting a vacation home, using a grill mat allows you to create a barrier between the food and the cooking surface, which may not be completely sanitary.
Because they’re lightweight and easy to pack, grill mats can be taken anywhere. Though they’re usually sold in a rectangular shape, it’s easy enough to cut the material into the shape you want. Therefore, if you have a kettle-style grill, you can customize the mat to fit the round surface.
Best of all, grill mats aren’t all that expensive. Even the highly rated ones can be procured at a price that won’t break the bank for most households.
Aside from the safety concerns, are there any reasons why you shouldn’t invest in a grill mat?
Purists would say that the answer is yes. After all, if it’s a flat surface that you’re after, why are you cooking outside in the first place? It’s true that the grill mat will reduce the smoke flavor, which is what most grillers are after. On the other hand, this objection is easily shot down when you consider the fact that some high-end grills are equipped with built-in griddles.
There’s also the matter of convenience to consider. If you opt to use a grill mat when camping or tailgating, it represents another item that you’ll have to pack. In addition, while grill mats do help with the cleanup, it doesn’t completely eliminate this chore.
Lastly, we would note that grill mats might be cheap, but they do cost something. Even if you keep it in fine working order, you’ll still have to invest in replacements every few years.
Are Grill Mats Toxic?
The short answer is no, but it’s actually more complicated than that.
While the grill mats themselves aren’t toxic, they may release dangerous fumes if they’re heated to extreme temperatures. Since grilling is, by nature, a high-heat cooking application, it’s natural to be concerned. However, once you understand the parameters, you should be able to use grill mats safely.
Most grill mats are constructed of fiberglass cloth and polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE for short. This is the same compound that’s used to give nonstick cooking pans and Teflon their smooth, slippery surfaces.
PTFE has been approved by the FDA, and is generally considered non-toxic. However, when it’s used in cookware, questions tend to arise regarding its safety. That’s because the manufacturing process depends on a chemical known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which poses numerous health risks when large quantities are present.
PFOA acts as the catalyst in the composition of PTFE. That means that it speeds the rate of the chemical reaction. While manufacturers claim that the majority of the PFOA is burned away during this process, trace amounts still remain. That’s why many consumers wonder whether grill mats are safe to use.
PFOA was deemed a toxic substance by the EPA as recently as 2003. Subsequently, many major cookware companies began to seek out alternate methods. When you see the label “PFOA-Free,” it means that the manufacturers managed to construct the nonstick surface without using the chemical.
Because PFOA can remain in the body for a long time, prolonged exposure increases the risks of several worrisome health issues, including cancer. However, using a grill mat shouldn’t be a cause for worry. As we mentioned previously, most of the chemical has burned away by the time the product reaches the shelves, so exposure is minimal at best.
Another concern involves polymer fume fever, a rare disease that can from inhaling the fumes from overheated nonstick surfaces. In fact, it’s sometimes called “Teflon fever” on account of this correlation. Symptoms are similar to those of the flu, including fever, chills, and body aches.
To develop polymer fume fever, a person would have to be exposed to the fumes for at least four hours. Additionally, the nonstick surface would have to be heated to at least 730 degrees Fahrenheit for all that time. That’s unlikely to happen if you’re just grilling up a simple meal.
Individuals who do experience these symptoms will typically improve within 12 to 48 hours, especially if they receive oxygen treatment during that time.
The Copper Alternative
Not all grill mats have a nonstick finish. Some companies stock copper models, which are noticeably more efficient when it comes to heat retention and distribution. Because they’re dishwasher safe and heat-resistant to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, they provide a carefree alternative to their nonstick counterparts.
Copper grill mats are also sturdier than fiberglass units, so they should last longer with the proper care. As a bonus, the rugged material offers better protection for your cooking grates.
Given these health risks, are grill mats safe to use? Absolutely. All you need to do is follow a few basic safety guidelines, which are easy enough to remember.
As you may have inferred, the most dangerous thing you can do when using a nonstick grill mat is to overheat it. In fact, this phenomenon isn’t unique to nonstick surfaces. Even cast iron and ceramic cookware can emit worrisome fumes at high temperatures.
When you purchase a grill mat, look carefully at the packaging. The manufacturers should have posted a specification stating how high of a temperature it can withstand. The number is usually listed as 500 degrees Fahrenheit. However, we would recommend staying in the range of 300 to 400 degrees whenever possible, just to be on the safe side. Here’s why.
PTFE is both stable and chemical-resistant, but its makeup undergoes a certain change at high temperatures. As the material approaches that 500 degree threshold, it begins to deteriorate, collapsing completely at the 662 degree marker. Once the material has decomposed, it’s completely toxic, not to mention worthless.
To avoid hitting the danger zone, we would recommend placing the grill mat over indirect heat rather than an open flame. If the mat begins to melt, those dangerous chemicals will mix right into your food, destroying all your hard work.
Since many grilling applications take place at 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit anyway, it should be easy to follow these guidelines. If you’re looking to sear steak or pork chops at high temperatures, you won’t want to use a grilling mat in the first place.
Another way to keep your grill mat safe and functional is to minimize the amount of friction used on the surface. Vigorous activity will weaken the material. Depending on what kind of tools you use, it could also create scratches in the surface, which is both unappetizing and unattractive.
To begin with, never use metal utensils on nonstick cookware. If you don’t already own a supply of wooden or plastic utensils, it’s a good idea to pick up a few when you’re shopping for the grill mat itself. Rubber is also an option, but note that it should only be used when grilling at low temperatures.
Nonstick surfaces shouldn’t be preheated for extended periods, as this can lead to overheating. Put the grill mat on the surface as soon as possible before adding the ingredients. It only needs to be hot enough to start cooking the food safely.
For stir-fries and smaller ingredients, we would recommend using tongs to stir and flip the food, rather than spatulas or spoons. The grill mat’s flat surface can make it difficult to keep the ingredients from spilling over the edge. If you do opt to use a spoon, try to find one with rounded edges.
Although it’s important to keep the ingredients moving, you should attempt to disturb the cooking surface as little as possible. This will reduce friction and help maintain the integrity of the material.
If you’d like a visual demonstration of cooking on a grill mat, take a look at this informational video.
Care and Maintenance
For best results, clean the grill mat as soon as possible after each use. Fortunately, the material cleans up so easily, this doesn’t represent much of a chore.
Steer clear of abrasive materials, such as steel wool or scouring pads. We would also not recommend the use of harsh detergents, as these may be able to penetrate the nonstick surface.
Most of the time, the mat will come clean when it’s wiped thoroughly with a nylon scrubbing pad after a dunk in hot, soapy water. If any lingering grease or other residue remains, soak the grill mat in a soapy sink for about an hour, then rinse and wipe clean as you normally would.
If using the dishwasher, first check the label to make sure your mat is dishwasher-safe. Always load the mat on the top rack and use the hot water cycle. This should eliminate any residue.
Whichever cleaning method you prefer, make sure to wipe the mat dry with a clean microfiber cloth or paper towel before putting it away.
Pieces of nonstick cookware should never be stacked atop one another. This will cause scratches to form in the surface, which means they’ll have to be replaced that much sooner. Store your grilling mat at a safe distance from any metal cookware. If space constraints force you to stack it, at least make sure it’s always sitting at the top of the pile.
With the proper care, your grill mat can last up to 3 years. Some brands offer a double layer of PTFE, which may increase its lifespan by a year or two. If you plan on using your grill mat on a regular basis, it might be worth the money to invest in one of these more durable models.
So, are grill mats toxic, or are they safe to use? The bottom line is that they’re safe, as long as you follow the guidelines we’ve listed here. In truth, they’re no more dangerous than any nonstick cookware. Once you’re familiar with the properties of the material, it’s easy to see why you should be careful.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!