What Makes Smoky, Charred Barbecue Style So Good?2 min read
Simply the mere considered barbecue’s smoky scents and intoxicating flavors is sufficient to get most mouths watering. Summer season is right here, and for many individuals in america which means it’s barbecue season.
I’m a chemist who research compounds present in nature, and I’m additionally a lover of meals – together with barbecue. Cooking on a grill could appear easy, however there’s a variety of complicated chemistry that units barbecue other than different cooking strategies and leads to such a scrumptious expertise.
Cooking with hearth
First, you will need to outline barbecue as a result of the time period can imply various things in several geographic areas and cultures. Barbecue, at its most simple, is the cooking of meals over an open flame. What distinguishes barbecue from different cooking strategies is how warmth reaches the meals.
On a barbecue, the new grill grates warmth the meals by way of direct contact by a course of often known as conduction. The meals additionally warms and cooks by absorbing radiation immediately from the flames under. The mix of heating strategies permits you to sear the components of the meals touching the grill whereas concurrently cooking the components that aren’t touching the griddle – like the edges and prime – by radiating warmth. The ensuing vary of temperatures produces a fancy combination of flavors and aromas. In distinction, when cooking on a stovetop, there’s a lot much less radiation and many of the cooking is finished the place the meals is in direct contact with the pan.
When barbecuing, you may both put the meals immediately above the flames – what is known as direct warmth – or farther away on oblique warmth. The direct cooking methodology topics the meals to very excessive temperatures, because the grilling floor will be anyplace from 500 to 700 levels Fahrenheit (260 to 371 °
Char and crisp
Another hallmark of barbecued food is the unique char it develops. When foods are exposed to heat for prolonged periods of time, non-carbon atoms in the food break down, leaving behind the crispy, black carbon. This is the process of burning or charring.
Almost no one likes a completely burnt piece of meat, but little splashes of crispy char flavor can add such depth to foods. Cooking over the direct heat of a barbecue allows you to add just the amount of char to match your taste.
Unfortunately for those who like a little extra crisp, some of the chemicals in charred meat – molecules called heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – are known carcinogens. Though the dangers are far lower than smoking cigarettes, for example, limiting the amount of charring on meats can help reduce the risk of developing cancer.
The final quintessential barbecue flavor is smokiness. Cooking over wood or charcoal involves a lot of smoke. Even on a gas grill, melting fats will drip onto the heat source and produce smoke. As smoke swirls around the barbecue, the food will absorb its flavors.
Smoke is made up of gases, water vapor and small solid particles from the fuel. Burning wood breaks down molecules called lignans, and these turn into smaller organic molecules – including syringol and guaiacol – that are mainly responsible for the quintessential smoky flavor.
When smoke comes in contact with food, the components of the smoke can get absorbed. Food is particularly good at taking on smoky flavors because it contains both fats and water. Each binds to different types of molecules. In chemistry terms, fats are non-polar – meaning they have a weak electric charge – and easily grab other non-polar molecules. Water is polar – meaning it has areas of positive charge and an area of negative charge similar to a magnet – and is good at binding to other polar molecules. Some foods are better at absorbing smoky flavors than others, depending on their composition. One way to use chemistry to make food more smoky is to periodically spray it with water during the barbecuing process.
Smoke can contain hundreds of possible carcinogens depending on what you are burning. Only a small amount of research has been done on whether grilled foods absorb enough smoke to pose a significant risk to health. But researchers know that inhaling smoke is strongly correlated with cancer.
While the idea of barbecuing your favorite dish may evoke the feeling of simple pleasures, the science behind it is quite complex. The next time you enjoy the smoky goodness of food from a grill, you will hopefully appreciate the diverse nature of the compounds and reactions that helped produce it.
Written by Kristine Nolin, Associate Professor of Chemistry, University of Richmond.
This article was first published in The Conversation.