October 3, 2023


Food, couldn't ask for more.

What Makes Smoky, Charred Barbecue Taste So Good?

Flame Grilled Steaks

Thanks to some exciting chemistry, cooking food about an open up flame provides special flavors.

Just the mere thought of barbecue’s smoky scents and intoxicating flavors is plenty of to get most mouths watering. Summer is right here, and for a lot of people in the United States that indicates it is barbecue period.

I am a chemist who scientific tests compounds observed in nature, and I am also a lover of foods – including barbecue. Cooking on a grill might seem easy, but there is a great deal of intricate chemistry that sets barbecue aside from other cooking techniques and final results in these a delectable knowledge.

Hot Coals

Cooking about an open flame – whether or not from gasoline, wood or charcoal – allows you to use both radiant and conductive heat to cook dinner food. Credit score: Romary/Wikimedia Commons

Cooking with fire

Initially, it is vital to define barbecue mainly because the term can mean diverse items in different geographic locations and cultures. Barbecue, at its most simple, is the cooking of foods around an open up flame. What distinguishes barbecue from other cooking approaches is how heat reaches the food stuff.

On a barbecue, the very hot grill grates warmth the meals by way of immediate speak to through a course of action identified as conduction. The foodstuff also warms and cooks by absorbing radiation right from the flames beneath. The mix of heating approaches makes it possible for you to sear the sections of the food stuff touching the grill though concurrently cooking the pieces that aren’t touching the griddle – like the sides and prime – by means of radiating warmth. The ensuing assortment of temperatures provides a complex combination of flavors and aromas. In distinction, when cooking on a stovetop, there is significantly a lot less radiation and most of the cooking is performed where the foodstuff is in immediate get in touch with with the pan.

Flame Grilling Meat

Two big solutions in barbecuing is cooking immediately above the flames with immediate heat, or farther away working with indirect heat.

When barbecuing, you can possibly put the food directly earlier mentioned the flames – what is named direct heat – or farther away on indirect heat. The direct cooking method subjects the food items to very significant temperatures, as the grilling surface can be anywhere from 500 to 700 levels Fahrenheit (260 to 371 °high temperatures to drive chemical reactions that change food at a molecular level. When you cook meat at higher temperatures – like over direct heat on a barbecue – the first thing to happen is that water near the meat’s surface boils off. Once the surface is dry, the heat causes the proteins and sugars on the outside of the meat to undergo a reaction called the Maillard Reaction. This reaction produces a complex mixture of molecules that make food taste more savory or “meaty” and adds depth to scents and flavors. The reaction and the flavors it produces are influenced by many variables, including temperature and acidity as well as the ingredients within any sauces, rubs, or marinades.

A similar process occurs with vegetables. Barbecuing allows the water to evaporate or drip down without getting trapped by a pan. This keeps the vegetables from becoming soggy and promotes caramelization reactions. These reactions turn carbohydrates and sugars into smaller compounds like maltol – which has a toasty flavor – and furan – which tastes nutty, meaty, and caramel-like.

BBQ Corn Mushroom

It’s much easier to control the level of charring on food when cooking on a barbecue. Credit: Lablascovegmenu/Wikimedia Commons

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.

Smoky Barbecue

Smoke gives barbecued foods much of their unique flavor.

Smoky flavors

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.The Conversation