Science of BBQing

 Wikipedia Commons 2 28 Barbeque Block Party Kansas City

As part of the American Chemical Society's big meeting last week, they hosted a chemistry-themed barbecue reception. Science News reports on the geek cook-out, including some news-you-can-use from two food chemists. From Science News (photo from Wikimedia Commons):
"Unfortunately, if you ask the [food] safety people they'll tell you to cremate everything," said Shirley Corriher, a food chemist and cookbook author from Atlanta. Meats should be cooked long enough to kill bacteria, she noted, but they don't need to be cooked beyond medium to be truly safe. For one thing, carcinogenic chemicals called heterocyclic amines form when creatine -- a substance found in muscle tissue -- reacts at high temperatures with amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. The amount of HCAs formed in grilled meats typically triples if meats are cooked well done rather than medium well, she noted.

Other research-proven tricks for reducing HCAs, as noted in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, include using marinades, garlic and onion, said Risch. A marinade of red wine, for instance, can reduce the formation of HCAs by 88 percent, she noted. Although scientists aren't sure exactly how these techniques work, moisture from marinades may ensure that the meat directly in contact with the grill remains at a relatively low temperature, she said.
"Better BBQ Through Chemistry"


  1. How fun. Last summer, at their Philly meeting, ACS gave an award to NYTimes food writer Harold McGee. McGee brought along a chef who liked to experiment with infusing drinks with bubbles (nitrous, CO2, etc.) It was a blast and I learned that nitrous and grapefruit make for a superior gin and juice.

  2. While the photo shows true “slow ‘n low” BBQ, I think the article itself talks about faster high heat GRILLING. Quite a different between the two techniques, and probably much different reactions in the meat. There’s also differences in using marinades vs sauces vs rubs, which the article sort of glosses over. More precision in the article would’ve been appreciated…more precision was the last thing I thought I’d want from chemists, but I guess you need to be wary of scientists that venture outside their realm of expertise.

  3. Low and slow, that’s the key, you avoid the high heat. #3 is correctly identifying the difference between grilling and ‘queing. when you grill you usually shoot for a temp, like medium rare or done through for something like chicken. In BBQ world they go 5-6 hours at 220F with indirect heat. meat falls of the bone goodness.

  4. @Anonymous #3

    The presenters’ only quoted references to “barbecue” that I found in the article were in the context of brining and sauce, both of which are components of the “barbecue” cooking method that you identify. It seems that there is no reason to accuse the chemists of imprecision when you’ve correctly identified the article (which was not written by the researchers) as the source of confusion.

    I’m sorry to pick nits like this, but as a scientist I dislike seeing good research (bbq, medicine, physics, or what have you) criticized based upon an ambiguous portrayal in the popular press.

  5. If it’s red meat, and it’s not well done, i’m not eating it. Not because I think it’s unsafe, I just find it tastier that way.

  6. “If it’s red meat, and it’s not well done, i’m not eating it. Not because I think it’s unsafe, I just find it tastier that way.”

    Then your taste buds are dead.

    Cooking a good piece of red meat until it is gray all the way through is a crime. You might as well be eating a poor piece of red meat if you are going to cook it well done, because you aren’t going to be able to tell the difference between a good and a bad piece of red meat once it has been overcooked like that.

  7. Jeebus. Xeni’s post above with the man being hacked to death and next is the barbecue. I’m going to bed.

  8. I’ve got great genes. My forebears cooked meat as long as possible (unlike other societies where cooking was sort of wave it over the fire) particularly pig meat.

    They smoked like chimneys and lived in what were basically huts with no chimneys until about 120 years ago.

    I knew personally 2 of my great great grandparents and six of my great grandparents.

    According to the crap I was taught in school and college we should have all automatically died.

    Nutrition, hell, I was a dirt eater until I was 12.

    Both of my parents smoked heavily. They both died of cancer, first known cases of cancer on either side of the family. My father was proud that they could afford to smoke “tailormades” and not grow, cure and store their own tobacco.

    Last time I drove through the Carolina’s there were workers in the fields spraying the tobacco and wearing full moon suits. The Carolina’s don’t care if they kill workers, it is only when they’ve killed too many that any safety measure is introduced. Do you believe that those chemicals were magically taken off of the cured tobacco?

    Chemicals are destroying the human gene pool at an unbelievable rate.

    I was thirty years old before I heard of Attention Deficit Disorder, we didn’t have that when I was younger. Chemicals? Nah, chemicals are good.

    The world would be a much better place if William Henry Perkin had been strangled in his cradle.


  9. @12.

    Thanks for that tremendously off topic post.

    I must admit I didn’t quite get the connection with spraying fields of tobacco with pesticides and cooking on a barbecue but I sure agree the world would be better without cheap purple clothes dye.

    As for chemicals, I hate em too. Specially that filthy stuff, what’s it called h2o or some jibber jabber?

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