By K. Nepsa

Grills are being wiped down, skewer sticks are being re-located and patio furniture is being wiped clean as summer is in full swing. After a long year of isolation, many of us are looking forward to once again attending barbeque shindigs with friends and family. I know I am! But why do so many of us feel the call of the BBQ in a way we so desperately crave? Could it be the camaraderie we crave? Could it be the availability to all the scrumptious summer produce we enjoy? Is there more to it than that? According to science…yes. There is a specific science behind barbeque.

First, the way the food tastes when we barbeque is a chemical reaction. According to, caramelization causes roasted vegetables to get sweeter and meat becomes more savory, thanks to the Maillard Reaction or Smoking. Proteins are broken down into amino acids, which then react with the carbohydrates present producing the scent and satisfying taste we crave. Taste buds are a type of nerve cell that is activated by the chemical makeup of food. These chemicals change the specific proteins in the cell walls, sending message signals to similar sensory cells, who then pass this information to your brain as the perception of taste like sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. The mechanics of taste are interesting in and of themselves. However, most of what we perceive as flavor is actually coming from the aroma of the food. When you fire up the grill and toss food onto the red-hot grids, the Maillard Reaction occurs. The browning of whatever you’re cooking smells divine, activating the saliva ducts in your mouth, which will facilitate the transference of the chemicals that activate your taste buds. Smoking and caramelization have a similar effect on your olfactory sense.

Scientists at Texas A & M University mention that the Maillard Reaction is responsible for browning. This is where the amino acids in foods react with reducing sugars to form the characteristic brown cooked color of foods.

Ever notice a smoke ring while BBQing? The smoke ring involves the chemistry of nitric oxide from burning wood combining with myoglobin in meat to form nitrosyl hemochromogen, the same pigment found in cured meats. This is why you do not see this phenomenon in meats cooked in the oven since there is no source of nitric oxide in this environment.

There are cuts of meat with a high percentage of connective tissue containing collagen. Collagen is converted to gelatin when heated and it requires a higher internal temperature (ranges from 185 to 195°F) to achieve this conversion. Although the muscle fiber component of tenderness gets tougher as internal temperatures go up, the connective tissue component of tenderness becomes more tender. Fall-apart barbecue such as pulled pork is achieved because the connective tissue has become soluble with cooking. Failure to reach this endpoint will result in tough barbecue.

Which leads us to…the frustrating PLATEAU in temperature while BBQing! Why does this happen? Dr. Greg Blonder, a physicist, entrepreneur, and former Chief Technical Advisor at AT&T’s legendary Bell Labs is also an avid cook. He set out to find the answer and solution for “the stall”. His answer is simply: “The stall is evaporative cooling.” Yep, it’s that simple. The meat is sweating, and the moisture evaporates and cools the meat just like sweat cools you after physical activity. Join me next month for a scientific explanation for “the stall”, according to Dr. Greg Blonder, and how to possibly overcome it while enjoying your seasonal BBQ.

K. Nepsa has a B.S. in Geology and a Master’s in GIS. She has lived in Arizona, HI, CA and Shanghai, China. Her hobbies include enjoying the outdoors via Jeep, Kayak, horse or foot. She has been a Vail resident since 2005.

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