Summer is a great time to gather family and friends and fire up the grill. The intense, direct heat of grilling gives food a wonderful crusty texture and flavor that we love.
“We can thank the Maillard reaction for the great grilling flavor. This happens when heat, proteins and sugars in food react in a process to create hundreds of different flavor compounds. These compounds then interact to form even more nuanced flavors and aromas, giving each food distinctive flavors,” said Duitsman.
The Maillard reaction can occur on any piece of food, not just meats, depending on its protein and carbohydrate content. This is why grilled vegetables are so sweet and delicious.
“If your family doesn’t like vegetables, try them grilled,” said Duitsman. “Carrots and other root vegetables, for instance, have lots of complex carbohydrates, so will undergo extensive caramelization when grilled.”
The Maillard reaction can develop when food is cooked at lower temperatures over a longer period but kicks in above 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It may take meat hours to brown at 250 degrees in the oven as deeply as 15 minutes on a grill, and the mixture of flavor compounds will differ. As temperatures increase, caramelization becomes more pronounced, intensifying flavor,” said Duitsman.
Unfortunately, at high temperatures, proteins in meat, chicken and fish can naturally form carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
“This is especially likely if the meat is charred — which reduces the overall quality and taste of the food,” said Duitsman. “Luckily, charring can be easily avoided.”
Tips to avoid charring include thawing meat before grilling so that it cooks evenly, trimming the fat from the meat before cooking and removing the skin.
Marinating meat for at least 30 minutes before grilling has been shown to reduce the formation of HCAs. Cook foods near the outside of the flame, rather than directly over it, and keep a spray bottle of water handy for flare-ups.
It is a good idea to flip your meat frequently and use a thermometer to monitor internal temperatures of food, to avoid overcooking and charring.
If meat is charred, scrape off those areas before eating. Try pre-cooking meat partially and finish with grilling so there will be less grill time, reducing the amount of possible carcinogens.
Black pepper and HCAs
Good news from recent research indicates that the use of black pepper can greatly reduce the formation of HCAs.
In order to get the best affect without having too strong of a pepper taste, the lead researcher, J. Scott Smith, professor of animal sciences and industry with Kansas State University, suggests blending black pepper with other spices, like oregano and garlic.
His research focuses on adding antioxidant-rich spices to block formation of HCAs.
“Blending pepper with antioxidant-rich spices works so well in ground beef patties and on steaks that the spice formulation eliminates nearly 100 percent of HCAs,” Smith said. “In these cases, the spices are added at a level that is quite practical, so the result is flavorful and healthy.”
Tools of the trade
For persons that love to grill and plan to do it often this season, be sure you are well equipped.
• Use long tongs to turn solid food. Forks will pierce food and cause the juices to be lost.
• Use spatulas for turning foods such as burgers and fish so that food holds together. A large spatula with a stiff thin blade works well.
• Keep a squirt bottle with water handy to put out flare-ups and reduce char on food.
• Use vegetable cooking spray on grill racks for easy clean-up.
• Heat the grill for 10-15 minutes before adding food.
• Keep about three-fourths of an inch between foods to ensure even cooking.
• To avoid overcooking, remove each food item when it’s done and keep it warm while remaining food continues to cook. Always have an extra clean plate or platter handy. Don’t put cooked meat on the same plate that held raw meat.
• Dry spice rubs can be used to boost flavor, but sticky sauces should be added just before serving since they will char easily.