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Q: Why do grilled foods taste so good?

A: Besides the whole experience of grilling — which might color our perception of a meal — it turns out grilled food really does have something special going for it.

“The reason grilled foods taste differently than things that are, say, baked or broiled or pan-fried, is because of different flavor compounds that are generated through the grilling process,” said Jeff Sindelar of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Meat Science and Muscle Biology Laboratory.

High, direct, and dry heat (300-500°F), such as that from a grill, causes a type of chemical reaction on the surface of the food called the Maillard browning reaction.

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“The high heat breaks down proteins, or more specifically the amino acids in proteins, in the presence of sugar or carbohydrate, that creates these very unique flavor compounds called Maillard browning compounds,” Sindelar said. Each food gains a particular set of flavor compounds that determine the overall taste. That browning is also what produces the distinctive grill marks.

The depth of the “grilled” flavor depends on cooking time and temperature — longer or hotter grilling gives the reactions longer to occur and leads to more flavor compounds. Too much Maillard browning, though, can result in bitter, charred or burnt flavors.

The fuel source, such as charcoal or cedar, hickory, or apple woods, can also contribute specific flavors that are transferred to grilled food.

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