Hamburgers, hot dogs—heck, even pork butt. You name the meat and, like magic, a grill set to the perfect temperature will transform it into a mouth-watering hunk of deliciousness. But what’s actually happening to that meat when it hits high heat to make it so tasty? Let’s take it from the moment you slap it on the grill.
Once the meat reaches somewhere around 285 degrees Fahrenheit, the Maillard reaction—deemed “the holy grail of all culinary chemical reactions” by the American Chemical Society—kicks in. Put simply, this is really a collection of reactions between the amino acids (the protein building blocks of, well, everything) and the sugars found in foods that produce the quintessential browned color and seared, savory taste of barbecue. The Maillard reaction isn’t just limited to meat, though: It’s also responsible for the nutty flavor of fresh roasted coffee, the pungent yet meaty flavor of roasted garlic and the, well, toasty flavor of toast. If you’ve grilled it and liked it, you can thank the Maillard reaction.
Similar to the this reaction is the process of caramelization, which is the browning (or oxidation) of sugar molecules to produce a nutty or sweet flavor. This is a big reason why vegetables also taste better when grilled, as the sugars found in vegetables are transformed into flavor bombs when caramelized. The amount of heat required to produce that delicious, sweet crust depends on the veggie, but fortunately Napoleon Grills put together a handy chart to help you achieve caramelization on anything you’d care to cook.
A word of warning on both caramelization and the Maillard reaction: Take the food off the grill as soon as possible after they happen. Not only does searing your food to oblivion burn away the tasty flavors those chemical reactions worked so hard to produce, it also forms potentially cancerous compounds. If you’re worried your food is overdone, rather than burning everything, just cook it at lower temperatures and invest in a reliable meat thermometer.
While we’re giving out tips on how to grill better, let’s quickly touch on the color of meat—this admittedly doesn’t have much to do with the actual flavor of the meat, but it’s important nonetheless. Before the meat hits the grill, it should be ruby red. This hue is the result of a protein called myoglobin, which turns red when exposed to oxygen—so the more myoglobin there is in the meat, the darker it will be. This is why meat turns a grayish color when vacuum-packed: The myoglobin doesn’t get oxygenated. When you open the package and re-expose the meat to fresh air, it should regain its ruby tint.
Finally—and with apologies to Hank Hill—for the best flavors, it’s best to barbecue on a charcoal grill, rather than a gas grill. That’s because burning charcoal and wood chips produces aromatic compounds that infuse themselves into the food as it cooks. As an added bonus, when meat (or veggie) juice drips onto the charcoal, it creates even more aromatic compounds that transform your grill into a compact flavor chamber.
Now that you’re equipped with all this chemical know-how, enjoy being the coolest (and most knowledgeable) grill master out there come Memorial Day. Happy grilling!