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Better BBQ Through Chemistry

Here's one for backyard grill-meisters and food safety experts:

Recently the American Chemical Society, as part of its semiannual meeting, staged a chemistry-themed barbecue reception on August 17 for reporters and other guests. (Great idea for getting press coverage, BTW)

"Cooking is as much a science as an art, so understanding the chemistry that happens on the grill helps ensure barbecue success. The heat of a fire triggers “browning reactions” in which amino acids and sugars — either those already present in the food or those added via sauces or marinades — combine to yield the color change that signals a dish is done. But grill something for too long or at too high a temperature, said Sara Risch, a food chemist and consultant based in East Lansing, Mich., and the end result is the dreaded “blackening” reaction.

“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.

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