The grills of summer


We’ve had at least one nice day so far this spring, and based on previous years (although, of course, as they say about RRSPs, past performance is no guarantee of future results) we may get at least one more before first frost this fall, so there’s just a possibility a few people may break out their barbecues for some outdoor cooking in the near future.

In the U.S., the Memorial Day weekend at the end of May is seen as prime barbecuing time, which is probably why LiveScience, one of the science sites I frequent, recently answered that burning (sorry) question: “Why does grilled food turn black?”

But in order to build suspense, I’m going to refrain from answering that this early in the column in favor of reminding you of a few other interesting facts about barbecue.

First up: what we call barbecuing ain’t technically barbecuing at all. According to LiveScience, the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest defines barbecue as “pork meat (fresh or frozen and uncured) prepared only on a wood and/or charcoal fire.” Since we cook a lot more things on our “barbecues” than just pork, and most people these days have propane “barbecues,” we’re not really barbecuing at all by the strictest definition of the word.

Then there’s the fact that authentic barbecue is actually cooked at a low temperature, which means it rarely blackens, though soot from the fire may turn it brown.

What we call “barbecue” is really grilling: and with grilling, you most definitely do get meat turning black. It’s because—

No, wait, not yet! Let me keep you in suspense a little longer.

How about some background? As I noted in a previous column on barbecuing, the word “barbecue” comes to us from the Caribbean. (Interestingly enough, so does the word “cannibal.” You can make your own connections.)

My family rarely barbecues, partly because we don’t have a slick propane-fueled unit but only one of those classic round grills that you fill with charcoal briquettes: lumps of fuel formed from scrap wood and sawdust that’s first burned to carbon, then compressed with a starch binder and ground coal.

The tightly compressed nature of the briquettes means it’s hard for oxygen to penetrate them, which is why they burn so slowly. Their uniform shape means they give a nice, even heat, too; but the binder and the coal can sometimes give food an off-taste. A better choice for wood-based backyard cooking is hardwood lump charcoal, wood that has been left to smolder without oxygen until it turns to carbon (which burns hotter and more slowly than wood).

Or you can break down and get a propane grill like probably everyone else on your block has. Propane, of course, doesn’t provide any smoke for flavor, and the even heat takes some of the excitement out of cooking because everything is cooked evenly all the way through—although the excitement of finding your chicken breast is half-raw in the middle is one I personally could do without.

Alas, grilling, associated in our memories with carefree summer days, does pose certain health risks. A study presented at the 2006 American Association for Cancer Research meeting contained evidence that the chemicals in charred meat can raise the risk of prostate cancer in rats.

The reason? Carcinogenic compounds called hererocyclic aromatic amines, or HAAs, produced whenever meat is cooked at high temperature.  And burned meat—that is, blackened meat—is particularly high in HAAs.

Which brings me, finally, to the reason meat turns black.

Essentially, it’s because the heat breaks down amino acids and sugars, burning them away until all that’s left behind is blackened, partially combusted carbon. As anyone who watches Star Trek knows, our planet is full of “carbon-based life forms,” and so when you burn a terrestrial life form—whether a tree being turned into charcoal, or a piece of chicken over an open flame—without burning it up completely, you get carbon.

If you’re worried about HAAs, you might consider scraping that carbon off your meat before you eat it…or you might consider going in for “real” barbecue and cooking a long time at a slow temperature.

Head on down to Memphis. I’m sure they’d be happy to show y’all how it’s done.

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