Barbecue science: what’s happening on your grill

12 May 2015

Despite the odd rain shower, it’s the time of year when most Brits head outside and warm up the barbecue. Knowing a little bit about barbecue science will impress your friends and family – and help you deliver even better food.

How to get the best from your meat

Meat from the barbecue should be moist and tender on the inside, golden or brown on the outside, well cooked for safety and not dry or tough. Sounds easy? According to Food Standards Agency data, food poisoning cases double in the summer mainly due to insufficiently cooked barbecue food, and although most cases are not severe with symptoms disappearing within a day or two and upto a week, safety should be the top priority.

How do I know if my meat is cooked properly?

To prepare for cooking, if you are using a charcoal barbecue, the coals should be glowing red with grey dusty tops. Meat and fish (unless clearly stated otherwise on pre-packaged products) should be well defrosted in advance of cooking and stored in the fridge until cooked. Be careful also when storing the meat and in handling that you don’t contaminate cooked meat with raw, or any of the other components such as rolls or salad with the raw meat. Keep raw and cooked plates and utensils separate. Once cooked, the meat should be piping hot in the centre, with no pink colour and any cooking juices should run clear.

Does a marinade really work?

A marinade can be applied to your meat or fish in advance of the barbecue – preferably between an hour and overnight beforehand. The more contact the marinade has the better, as it works directly on the surface – smaller pieces shaken in a bag work best. There are different types of marinade which will have a different effect on the tenderness of your meat – those which contain enzymes that can break down the protein fibres such as the papain from papaya, salty marinades that help make the muscle more loosely structured, and acidic ones that break down connective tissue on the surface. Marinades can also provide a great flavour enhancement – from zingy lime to salty soy sauce.

Hot and fast or low and slow?

Searing the meat first helps to develop the tasty outer surface through the Maillard reaction, which is the reaction of the amino acids that make up the meat protein and reducing sugars (named after French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard in 1912). Searing the meat does not, however, keep in the juices. This is one of the most enduring kitchen urban myths and is often attributed to a mis-association with the findings of German chemist named Justus von Leibig who attempted to establish whether cooking meat slowly in cold water or quickly in boiling water would impact liquid passing in or out of the meat.

Once the meat is seared, then turn the temperature down. The lower the cook temperature, the less the meat fibres will shrink and the less moisture will be lost. Slow cooking also enables the connective tissue to be broken down into moisture binding gelatin. Fat contained within the meat helps break up the protein and reduce the dryness on eating.

After cooking, have a little rest

Cooking meat does shrink the muscle fibres no matter how carefully you do it and releases some moisture. So if you let the meat sit for around 15 mins before slicing, the fibres can soak some of it back up again. If you cut it straight after cooking, then the moisture is just released leaving dryer meat.

Why does a piece of meat need to rest before cutting it?

When you cook meat the muscle fibres and the proteins begin to shrink and squeeze out moisture. If you immediately slice a piece of meat, the moisture that has been squeezed out of the muscle fibres will run out. But if you let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes depending on the size and thickness of the meat, the fibres start to soak back up some of that moisture.