Meats cooked at high temperatures (frying, grilling) and for a long duration contain heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which are both mutagens and animal carcinogens. Additionally, barbecuing/grilling of meats produces polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Consumption of well-done meat has been associated with an increased risk of colon cancer but has not been evaluated as a risk factor for stomach or esophageal cancers. We conducted a population-based case-control study in 66 counties of eastern Nebraska. Telephone interviews were conducted with white men and women diagnosed with adenocarcinoma of the stomach (n = 176) and esophagus (n = 143) between July 1988 and June 1993 and 502 controls. The dietary assessment included several questions about usual cooking methods for meats and doneness preference for beef. High intake of red meat was associated with increased risks for both stomach and esophageal cancers. Overall, broiling or frying of beef, chicken or pork was not associated with the risk of these tumors. Barbecuing/grilling, reported as the usual cooking method for a small number of study participants, was associated with an elevated risk of stomach and esophageal cancers. After excluding those who reported usually barbecuing/grilling, a source of both PAHs and HCAs, we evaluated doneness level as a surrogate for HCA exposure. Compared to a preference for rare/medium rare beef, odds ratios were 2.4 for medium, 2.4 for medium well and 3.2 for well done, a significant positive trend. Doneness level was not associated with a significant trend in risk of esophageal cancer.