Every time we chow down on a perfectly grilled cut of meat, or even a perfectly seasoned grilled vegetable, we can’t help but wonder — why does grilled food taste better? Is it because you’re cooking in the great outdoors? Because friends and family surround you as you grill? Or is it the fact that you get to sip on your favorite beer alongside your grilled creations?
Sure, all those aspects of grilling can put you in a great mood, but is it just that summertime joy that makes everything taste better on the grill, or is there something more? Let’s explore the science of grilling to see how food transforms into delicious, grilled goodness.
You may not think much about what grilling does to your food, and we don’t blame you. When you’re grilling up some burgers or preparing a perfectly seared steak, you’re more focused on the outcome than what happens as you cook. It’s a fascinating process, though, and knowing how a grill does what it does will help you understand the science of cooking meat and other foods on the grill.
Grilling uses dry heat with either indirect or direct delivery, depending on the burners you have on or where you concentrate the charcoal. You could use a pan on your grill to braise or try other methods of cooking, but without any additions, a grill can either sear or slowly barbecue on its own. The type of cooking you can do with a grill depends on the temperature of your grill and the type of fuel you’ll use, but we’ll describe those and their benefits in a bit.
With this cooking method, you get benefits for the senses thanks to some chemical reactions that make the science of grilling worthwhile to learn about and achieve.
While you could get into the chemical complexities behind the science of grilling, there’s a simple answer to why grilled food tastes great — browning, more often than not, enriches the flavor of food. But for those curious, we can dive into a bit of the science behind how that browning happens.
Out of all the chemical reactions that happen when you cook, the Maillard reaction is among the most delicious. In simple terms, the Maillard reaction is the process of browning, though there is science behind it. Here’s what happens in a Maillard reaction:
We have the Maillard reaction to thank for the color and flavor of toast, coffee, beer, chocolate and more, so it’s essential for creating new and delicious flavors. That’s not the only chemical reaction that contributes to how amazing grilled food tastes.
The Maillard reaction differs from caramelization, which only involves a reaction between sugars and heat. It’s still another process of browning, but caramelization requires higher heat and affects reducing sugars in food. Caramelization can occur alongside the Maillard reaction, meaning you’ll get caramelized notes in grilled meat or vegetables due to their sugar content. It’s the high, dry and direct heat in a grill that allows those delicious reactions to happen.
Still not convinced that science makes your food taste better? Imagine two plates of chicken and vegetables. One has a pale chicken breast and vegetables that look bland. Maybe the chef braised or cooked them at low temperatures using other methods. Now, picture the other plate. It’s had the grilled treatment, resulting in the Maillard reaction and caramelization. The chicken breast has beautiful browning, and the veggies have grill marks and a sweet aroma. Which would you rather dig into?
Grilling your food awakens almost every sense to a delicious meal. When you consider the science of cooking meat or veggies on the grill, you shouldn’t only think about how the food tastes. Your other senses contribute to taste or an overall better eating experience, and you’ll see why grilled food tastes better.
The comparison is evident when you consider raw meat versus grilled, so think about something you often consume raw — vegetables. While crisp, fresh vegetables do look delicious, there’s something about those beautiful grilled marks and a deep char that makes them look even tastier.
Meat browned on the grill will also look better than results from other cooking methods because of how it’s seared. Caramelization and the Maillard reaction come into play again, but you also have the drier conditions of grilling to thank for how well meat can become browned. Moisture ruins a good sear, which is why you’re supposed to pat meat dry before putting it on a hot cooking surface to sear and brown.
You’ve probably heard that a considerable percentage of taste comes from smell, and you’ve experienced the relationship yourself. Have you ever tried to eat with a stuffed-up nose and discovered you couldn’t taste as well as you usually could? It’s not an enjoyable experience, because our sense of smell helps us taste.
When the food on your plate smells enticing, your mouth begins to water, and you can’t wait to dig into your meal. Grilling surrounds you with those delicious scents from the moment you throw something down on the grate to when you sit down to enjoy it. You’ll experience these enticing aromas in different ways, like:
These smells evoke nostalgia and an association with the delicious food you’ve had in the past and are about to enjoy, and that alone can make any grilled meal seem to taste better.
From the satisfying crunch of the skin on grilled chicken to the pleasant, charred crispiness of asparagus tips, textures get a boost from the grill. Browning, direct heat and dryer conditions help you get a crust on almost anything you’re making. Those caramelized flavors become synonymous with a smoky smell, a pleasing appearance and a satisfying crunch.
You may not expect food that’s better for you to taste good, and you may not even know that grilling is better for you. Luckily, in the case of grilling, you can get food that’s better for you and your taste buds. That’s because when you grill, you do the following.
Of course, how good your grilled food is for you depends on what you’re eating and what you use to flavor it, but in general, grilling can be healthier, and it will almost always taste better.
While science is on your side, you can unlock the delicious potential of grilled food by knowing how to handle what you throw down on the grill. For the tastiest grilling results, be sure to do the following.
1. Clean your grill: Dirty grill grates will transfer grease buildup onto your food, and that is not what we mean when we talk about grilled flavor. Keep your grill clean to maintain that pure, grilled taste and a safe setup. A dirty grill is a dangerous one.
2. Avoid flare-ups: Cleaning your grill and ensuring your food is a safe height from the flame will protect the flavor of whatever you grill. When flames touch food, you risk having a sooty or burned flavor, and none of your barbecue guests want that.
3. Cook with the right spices: While we’re fans of letting delicious grilled flavors stand out on their own, you can always kick it up a notch. Learn what spices go best with every type of food, and try out delicious rubs and sauces.
4. Know when to take food off the heat: Once your food has browned to the perfect caramelization, you won’t want to keep it on the grill much longer. Grilling food past the point of golden brown and delicious can quickly burn it, and that’s not the flavor you want. If you can, cook at lower temperatures and flip foods often to avoid overcooking one or both sides.
5. Use indirect and direct heat: A lot of the time, seared meat needs a longer cooking time than a quick browning. Use indirect heat before or after searing to get everything cooked to the right temperature.
6. Let meat rest: If you want a juicy steak or you’re tired of dry chicken, give grilled meat a chance to rest before carving into it. The meat will reabsorb any moisture that would come out on the plate if you cut it too soon.
You can throw almost any kind of meat onto a grill and end up with good results, but a few extra steps will make your food all the more delicious. Grilled vegetables have different needs than grilled meat, so when it’s time to cook up some flavorful veggies, be sure to:
Cooking is a science, and perfecting your grilling skills will help you harness the powers of chemical reactions that transform food into mouthwatering meals.
Charcoal, propane and smoker pellets all have different qualities that can create an array of flavors with the same cuts of meat or types of vegetables. If you’re after flavor, charcoal and pellets are unbeatable, but you can work to get that smoky flavor with any of these fuels.
If you only have a propane option, you could always expand your grilling potential with a new smoker or charcoal grill.
Want to answer the question, “Why does grilled food taste better?” for yourself? If your mouth is watering at the thought of how grilled food tastes better than meals made with any other methods, you’ll want to get grilling right away. Why not experiment with products from us at Grilla Grills? With our charcoal and pellet smokers, you can unlock flavors that are deeper and more complex than anything propane could provide. We want you, your family and friends to enjoy the flavorful meals you grill up, so we strive to provide consistent quality at a great value.
Join the Grilla Grills family today and taste the difference a high-quality grill can bring to every meal. Browse our grills, get your hands on flavorful wood pellets or check out our other cool stuff. Check out the science behind grilling firsthand with us at Grilla Grills for amazing flavors, and get ready to impress at your next barbecue!