The Healthiest Ways to Cook Meat

Woman basting meat on barbecue with fresh herbs

Getty Images / 10'000 Hours

Meat and other animal proteins can definitely be part of a healthy diet. Red meat is an excellent source of complete protein and is rich in nutrients like vitamins B6 and B12, iron, selenium, and zinc. 

But how you cook meat and other animal proteins such as poultry and fish matters, as some common practices may make this otherwise healthy food less so. Here are some dos and don’ts for cooking so you can enjoy meat in healthy, delicious ways.

Watch The Heat

When animal proteins are cooked at high temperatures, such as direct grilling and pan-frying, chemical compounds heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PCAs) are formed. These compounds may increase cancer risk (though the research so far has been on animals). Grilling over indirect heat and pan-frying at lower temperatures are two ways to avoid these compounds.

Grill Leaner Cuts

 PCAs are also formed when meat is exposed to smoke, which can happen when fat drips into a grill and flames flare-up. With leaner cuts, there’s less fat to drip off, so a lower risk of flame and smoke. You also can move the grill grate higher to help keep food away from the heat source.

Avoid Well Done Meat

Most food lovers will tell you never to eat meat well done because the texture and taste are compromised--and it turns out that also may be good advice for your health. Research suggests that well-done meat poses more potential cancer risk (all the more reason to reach for that medium-rare steak or burger).

Employ Other Cooking Methods

Utilizing cooking methods such as braising and air frying can keep temperatures low. With braising, such as pulled pork and shredded beef, meat is cooked in liquid at around 300ºF. You can braise in a slow cooker or in a Dutch oven on the stove or in the oven. With an air fryer, you can get items like chicken wings nice and crisp without high temperatures or excess oil.

Try A Reverse Sear

Meat is often seared in a hot skillet and then sometimes finished in the oven, especially roasts and other large cuts. But with a reverse sear, you cook the meat in the oven first on a low heat setting, until it reaches about 10 to 15ºF lower than the final temperature you’re aiming for. Then you give it a very quick sear on the stove. The result is that you still get the crust on the outside and a tender inside, but the meat is in a high-heat pan for a fraction of the time.

Use Spices

Research suggests that meat seasoned with or marinated in antioxidant-rich spices, such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, and pepper, can reduce the level of HCAs. Those spices add lots of flavors and can keep potentially harmful compounds at bay, so they’re a win-win.

Choose Grass-Fed

When buying beef, consider opting for 100% grass-fed and grass-finished options. Research indicates it's higher in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as vitamins E and A, and antioxidants such as the disease fighter glutathione. Be careful to seek out beef that's both grass-fed and -finished for the most nutrient density.

Also, shop from stores and buy from brands you trust; there is no government certification for grass-fed beef (as there is for organic, for example), though you can seek out the logo of the American Grassfed Association for some oversight.

If grass-fed meat in stores is too expensive, consider buying online from purveyors such as ButcherBoxPorter Road, or US Wellness Meats.

A Word From Verywell

While meat can be an excellent source of iron-rich protein for some, we acknowledge that meat is not a part of everyone's ethical, lifestyle, or diet choices. You may be vegan or vegetarian, or choose to forgo meat for health reasons. There are many whole food, plant-based alternatives available.

If you do opt in to eating meat, we suggest being mindful of portion sizes and quality. Certain ways of producing meat can be harmful to animals and the environment, so choosing higher-quality, grass-fed beef may have benefits beyond your individual nutrition.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. NIH National Cancer Institute. Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk. Reviewed July 11, 2017.

  2. Sugimura T, Wakabayashi K, Nakagama H, Nagao M. Heterocyclic amines: Mutagens/carcinogens produced during cooking of meat and fishCancer Sci. 2004;95(4):290-299. doi:10.1111/j.1349-7006.2004.tb03205.x

  3. Zheng W, Lee S-A. Well-done meat intake, heterocyclic amine exposure, and cancer riskNutrition and Cancer. 2009;61(4):437-446. doi:10.1080/01635580802710741

  4. Sepahpour S, Selamat J, Khatib A, Manap MYA, Abdull Razis AF, Hajeb P. Inhibitory effect of mixture herbs/spices on formation of heterocyclic amines and mutagenic activity of grilled beefFood Addit Contam Part A Chem Anal Control Expo Risk Assess. 2018;35(10):1911-1927. doi:10.1080/19440049.2018.1488085

  5. Daley CA, Abbott A, Doyle PS, Nader GA, Larson S. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beefNutr J. 2010;9(1):10. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-10

By Beth Lipton
Beth is a Brooklyn-based recipe developer, food/wellness writer, and cookbook author. Her recipes and writing have appeared in Clean Eating, Well+Good, Health, Paleo Magazine,, Epicurious, Furthermore, Kitchn, Travel + Leisure, and others.