Everyone loves to do some barbecue grilling for the summer season and, if you live where I do, you will do the backyard cooking all year round. So what is the science of grilling and barbecuing that powers the backyard cooking experience? We need to define a couple of terms first in order to explore this further. In essence grilling is cooking something directly over flame with a high heat (350 degree Fahrenheit and above) for relatively short periods of time. Barbecuing is cooking an item either directly over a heat source or by indirect cooking at lower temperatures (250 or below) for long periods of time. Both methods will produce a nice product at the end if you know how it’s done.
We are going to use meat as an example of an item being grilled or barbecued to illustrate the changes that occur at different internal temperatures. When you throw a steak on the grill it reaches 110 degree Fahrenheit the meat starts to toughen due to the muscle fiber shrinking. When the steak hits 115 internal temperatures the fat in the meat start to melt. The steak then reaches 130 degrees Fahrenheit the muscle fibers begin to loosen. When you reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit the connective tissue starts to melt.
When you barbecue the longer cooking times at lower temperatures allow the connective tissue to melt more slowly and for longer periods. You can dry your meat out by cooking too long and this is where skill and experience comes in to play for barbecue cooks. Meat cuts with more connective tissue are better for barbecuing while meat cuts for grilling contain less connective tissue. A beef brisket is a staple among Western cooks while a filet or strip steak is preferred cuts for grilling.
Some chemical reactions take place when meats brown, in particular the amino acids react with sugars and produce many new compounds that bring forth new and different flavors. This is called the Maillard reaction. This backs up at least one reason why using charcoal makes food items taste better. The LP gas used by gas grills contains water which produces a moist heat instead of the dry heat of charcoal. Without the drying process items will not brown properly and therefore will not produce the Maillard reaction.
Another chemical reaction that takes place when you grill food items especially meats is that if you cook your items more than medium, carcinogenic agents start to form. A burn crust on a steak may taste good but it is not good for you. You should never order meat items more than medium for this reason.
So there you have the science of grilling and barbecuing. Just know the how behind the method will allow you to do a much better job whether grilling in the backyard for the family or barbecuing for competition.