Better Barbecue Through Chemistry!

holysmoke-edmitchellleadinAs I have written here before, I’m a Yankee Vegetarian who came to the South too late to discover the taste of North Carolina Barbecue (in any of its varieties). However, as a self-proclaimed Foodie and something of a geek, if there’s one thing that brings out my inner Alton Brown it’s some good old Food Science. And I don’t mean a discussion of the length and diameter of Salmonella; I mean something like the recent article in ScienceNews titled, “Better BBQ Through Chemistry.”

Earlier this month the American Chemical Society held a “chemistry themed barbecue reception… for reporters and other guests.” Amongst the topics discussed was the question, “Does Barbecuing Cause Cancer?” As you might expect, there’s been considerable research done on the topic. Here’s a quick review:

Cooking food over charcoal and high heat produces carcinogenic chemicals called heterocyclic amines, or HCAs. Too many HCAs are bad for you. (How many is too many? I’ll let all of those angels on the head of a pin debate that amongst themselves) Outdoor grilling also creates polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, that are caused through imperfect combustion found in smoke and burned matter. Too many PAHs are definitely carcinogenic, but, again, no thresholds have been set by the National Cancer Institute for PAHs either.

So, what’s a concerned Barbecue-lover to do? Well, three simple things will go a long way:

1. Don’t Eat the Charred Stuff.
If it’s burnt, the incidents of HCAs increase dramatically.

2. One Word: Marinade
Sara Risch, a food chemist and consultant based in East Lansing, Mich. says a marinade of red wine can reduce the formation of HCAs by 88 percent. Shirley Corriher, food chemist and author of “Cookwise” (and one of my personal Foodie Heroes) suggests brining your meat before grilling (1 cup of salt for each gallon of water) as a way of not only lessening the chance of the burnt stuff, but as a way of helping the meat retain moisture during the cooking process.

(And if you’re grilling burgers, The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry says to consider using a marinade with garlic, onion and lemon juice to keep the HCAs down. Seriously)

3. Only Eat Real, Slow-Cooked Barbecue
If you read John and Dale Reed’s great book, “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue” (as I have) you’ll learn one thing from not only the Reeds but from every Pitmaster they interview: Real Barbecue is Slow Cooked Barbecue. Turns out this is not only tradition, but it makes for less HCAs in the finished product. HCAs come from burnt meat; slow cooking over a low heat doesn’t produce much in the way of burned bits.

— Tom