Mon mari has been cooking on the barbecue grill for, well let’s just say a lot of years….
He does an excellent job, rarely cooking anything longer than necessary, and even more rarely burning something.
He’s never been bothered about getting the perfect grill lines on a steak or chicken breast. He is, however, always very careful to get the right amount of ‘color’ to use his word.
After watching countless cooking shows we now know that is the result of the Maillard Reaction.
Whatever it’s called it’s what makes grilled foods taste good and that, after all, is the point.
Read on for some science behind the taste….
Why Any BBQ Lover Should Understand the Maillard Reaction
Many people simply throw the food on the grill and let it cook until it looks and tastes the way they want it, but what is the science behind it? What is it that gives BBQ that unique flavor and browning? There are many chemical reactions that take place, but the Maillard reaction is one of them, which makes it worth understanding if you want to get the perfect results when grilling your favorite foods.
What Exactly Is the Maillard Reaction?
Pronounced May-ard, the Maillard reaction is the process that gives us the signature grilling flavor. It occurs when a combination of sugars, proteins, and heat reacts to generate hundreds of flavor compounds, which mix even further to create various flavors and smells to give different foods their distinctive flavors.
The Maillard reaction affects meat and many other foods depending on their carbohydrate and protein contents, which is what helps bring out those delicious flavors in grilled vegetables. So, if you’re not typically a fan of vegetables, try grilling them, which will cause them to caramelize because of the number of complex carbohydrates they contain.
While it’s possible for the Maillard reaction to occur when cooking your food at lower temperatures for longer periods, but for faster results, you should grill at over 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Sure, meat will brown in the oven after cooking at around 250 degrees for several hours, but on the grill, at higher temperatures, you can get the same effect, or even better, within as little as 15 minutes. The higher the temperature, the more pronounced the caramelization is to give you that perfect flavor.
Not only does the Maillard reaction affect BBQ, but it also occurs when you make toast using a toaster, roasting coffee beans, and cooking other types of food using other grilling methods (see more bbq ideas).
Grilling Without Charring
Keep in mind that when grilling at higher temperatures, certain proteins in meat, including chicken and fish, can convert into carcinogenic compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). These compounds are more likely to form when food is charred, which will also reduce the quality of the food in terms of flavor and appearance. However, you can easily avoid charring while getting the benefits of the Maillard reaction by taking steps such as:
- Thawing the meat prior to grilling for more even cooking
- Removing the skin from the meat
- Trimming the fat prior to cooking
- Marinating the meat around 30 minutes prior to grilling
Also, you can cook food near the edge of the flame for indirect cooking, or spray water using a spray bottle to prevent any flare-ups.
Using a meat thermometer, you can also check the meat’s temperature and flip the meat over frequently to monitor the internal temperature and avoid charring. In some cases, charring might happen even if you want to avoid it, but this won’t ruin the food. If the meat isn’t overly charred, you can scrape off the charred meat before serving.
Another tip is to pre-cook the meat in the oven for a short period before grilling, which will help reduce grill time and subsequently decrease the amount of carcinogens in the meat.
Using Black Pepper Make Grilling Safer
If you want to see the benefits of the Maillard reaction at work while helping reduce the amount of potential HCAs in your meat, black pepper has proven to be one of the best ways to make grilling safer.
One concern with using black pepper is that it might overpower the other flavors, but you can prevent this by blending the black pepper with various other spices such as garlic or cayenne pepper. Certain spices rich in antioxidants can work with pepper to eliminate nearly all HCAs while retaining the meat’s flavors.
You Have the Maillard Reaction to Thank for That Perfect BBQ Experience
So, remember when you’re grilling a steak or another delicious meal and those smells and flavors kick in, it’s the Maillard reaction that’s largely responsible for giving you those ideal results. You’re even enjoying the results of the Maillard reaction with other favorite foods and beverages, whether through that morning cup of coffee or those dumplings at your favorite Chinese restaurant.