The smoky aromas and heady smells of barbecue are enough to make most people’s lips swim at the mere mention of it. Now that summer has arrived, it is time to start planning your next BBQ.
In addition to being a scientist who researches natural substances, I am an avid foodie who enjoys all kinds of cuisine, including barbeque.
It can seem to be easy to prepare food on a grill, but there is a great deal of chemistry involved in the process that differentiates barbecue from other forms of cooking and leads to such a satisfying eating experience.
Fire-based preparation of food
To begin, it is necessary to provide a definition of barbeque since this phrase may have many connotations depending on the culture or place in which it is used. The most fundamental definition of barbecuing is the process of preparing food over an open flame. The distribution of heat to the food during barbeque is what sets it distinct from other forms of cooking.
Conduction is the term that describes the method by which the food on a barbeque is heated by direct contact with the hot grill grates. In addition, the food is warmed and cooked as a result of radiation that is absorbed directly from the flames below.
The combination of heating techniques enables you to sear the portions of the food that are in direct contact with the griddle while concurrently cooking the portions of the food that are not in direct contact with the griddle, such as the sides and the top, via the process of heat radiation.
The wide variety of temperatures that are produced as a consequence generates an intricate concoction of tastes and fragrances. When using a stovetop, there is far less radiation than when using an oven, and the majority of the cooking takes place when the food is in direct contact with the pan.
When you’re grilling, you have the option of placing the food right over the flames, which is referred to as “direct heat,” or moving it farther out, where it will cook using “indirect heat.” When using the direct cooking technique, the food is exposed to temperatures that range anywhere from 500 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the temperature of the grilling surface (260 to 371 Celsius). When using the indirect cooking technique, the heat source is positioned to the side of the meal or far below, and the food is brought to temperatures between 200 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cooking is the practice of employing high temperatures to trigger chemical reactions that modify the molecular structure of food. These processes take place throughout the cooking process.
When you cook meat at higher temperatures, such as over direct fire on a grill, the water at the surface of the flesh evaporates first since the temperature is high enough to cause it to boil. The Maillard Reaction is a chemical process that occurs when the proteins and carbohydrates on the surface of the meat are subjected to heat after the surface has been sufficiently dried.
Because of this process, a complex variety of molecules is produced. These molecules give food a more savory or “meaty” taste, and they provide depth to the aromas and sensations. The reaction and the tastes that it generates are impacted by a number of different elements, such as temperature and acidity, in addition to the ingredients that are included inside any sauces, rubs, or marinades.
Vegetables go through a process that is analogous to this one. When you cook anything over a barbecue, the water might easily evaporate or drop off since there is no pan to catch it. This prevents the veggies from getting soggy and encourages the processes that lead to caramelization.
These reactions transform carbs and sugars into smaller molecules such as maltol, which has a flavour similar to that of toasted bread, and furan, which has a flavor similar to that of nuts, pork, and caramel.
Charred and crunchy
The distinct char that forms on food when it is grilled is another characteristic of foods prepared in this manner. When meals are heated for extended periods of time, the atoms in the food that are not carbon break down, leaving behind the crunchy, black carbon. Burning, often known as charring, is the process being described here.
A piece of meat that has been fully blackened in taste is something that almost no one enjoys eating, yet adding even little amounts of char to dishes may give them a greater sense of complexity. When you cook anything over the direct heat of a barbeque, you can add just the right amount of char to make it taste just right for you.
Unfortunately for people who like their meat with a bit of a charred flavor, several of the chemicals found in charred meat are known to cause cancer. These chemicals include compounds that are referred to as heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Even though the risk of having cancer is far lower than, for example, smoking cigarettes, reducing the amount of charring that is done to meats may nevertheless help minimize the chance of developing cancer.
The smokiness of the BBQ is the last and most crucial taste component. When you cook with wood or charcoal, there will be a lot of smoke produced. Even on a gas grill, fats that are melting will drop onto the heat source, which will cause smoke to be produced. As the smoke circulates around the grill, the food will pick up the tastes of the smoke.
The combustion of fuel releases minute solid particles, which combine with gases and water vapour to form smoke. When wood is burned, large molecules known as lignans are broken down into smaller organic molecules, such as syringol and guaiacol. These smaller organic molecules are mostly responsible for the distinctively smoky taste that results from burning wood.
It is possible for the components of smoke to be absorbed by food if the smoke comes into contact with the meal. Due to the presence of both fats and water in food, it is especially well-suited to absorb the tastes of smoking. Each one can only bind to certain classes of chemicals. In chemical parlance, fats are referred to be non-polar, which indicates that they carry a weak electric charge and have the ability to readily attach themselves to other non-polar molecules. Because it is polar or has regions of positive charge and areas of negative charge like a magnet, water is very excellent at connecting to other polar molecules. This means that water has areas of positive charge and areas of negative charge.
Depending on the make-up of the meal, certain types of foods are more equipped than others to take on the taste of smoked foods. Spraying the meal with water at intervals while it is being barbecued is one method that may be used to employ chemistry to make the food taste smoky.
Depending on what is being burned, smoke may include hundreds of different substances that might cause cancer. The amount of study that has been done to determine whether or not foods that have been grilled absorb sufficient amounts of smoke to be considered a serious health concern is quite limited. Researchers are aware, however, that a substantial correlation exists between smoking and the development of cancer.
Even if the thought of grilling your favourite meal could make you think of easy joys, the science behind the practice is really fairly complicated.
It is my goal that the next time you relish the smokey flavour of food prepared on a barbecue, you will also have a greater appreciation for the varied variety of the chemicals and reactions that contributed to its creation.