Ever wondered why grilled meat tastes so much better than boiled meat? The answer is chemistry.
The Maillard reaction is arguably the most critical chemical reaction that takes place while grilling. It gives the food that you grill that unmistakable flavor and mouth watering appearance. What is the Maillard reaction? When amino acids and sugars react at temperatures in excess of 280F (140C) they produce a golden brown appearance and unique flavor. What foods go through this process? Nearly everything that browns, from bread to meat, and the flavors vary substantially as hundreds of flavor compounds are created.
As a griller what you really need to know about the Maillard reaction is its application with different grilled items and why those items are better off grilled. Take vegetables for example. They begin raw and crunchy, their most basic form, picture crisp peppers or carrots. Steam them around 212F (100C) until they’re tender and they have a more appealing texture but have a very bland flavor like steamed broccoli. Exceed 240F (116C) and the flavors diversify until around 300F (149C) where caramelization takes over and the sugars that develop those flavors become dense and rich. In excess of 400F (204C) the sugars and flesh of the vegetables burn and char which is visually appealing but not very appetizing. Char is bitter in flavor and overpowering for many.
Luckily the whole vegetable, entire cut of meat, or any grilled item doesn’t experience the full effects of each phase all at once. Heat energy is transferred from the outside to the inside, cell by cell as your food tries to find a temperature equilibrium. In other words, unless your grill is set to inferno, your meal won’t burn to ash immediately. These intense and incredible flavors will layer upon each other and produce that authentic grilled flavor and look.
To find out more on the science of the Maillard reaction try this summary from Wikipedia, it covers the subject in depth fairly well Maillard Reaction . Otherwise Meathead, an incredible encyclopedia on grilling by Meathead Goldwyn and Greg Blonder has layers of tasty information on food science, most of which can also be found on Meathead Goldwyn’s website amazingribs.com .