Quick Tip 5: Barbecue More, N00b Part 2: Maillard

Quick Tip 5: Barbecue More, N00b Part 2: Maillard

  I warn all of you now, that as I write this note, I’ve been remarkably sick. Or, simultaneously suffering three different physical issues thanks to a series of bad choices this weekend; it’s hard to say. As such, my brain can’t process the ideas of tact and conversational restraint when both sides of my neck hurt like the after-effects of fireworks: the hanging echoes of blinding light against a sea of black, insisting that what had come before was amazing, but what lingers now is a sort of burning void. Fun fact: Sick Jon gets weirdly poetic, and just generally weird. SO OF COURSE THIS IS A GREAT TIME TO TALK MORE ABOUT BARBECUE. Specifically, the SCIENCE OF BARBECUE.

Sickness covers me like a blanket. Tuck me in. Let me die.

What’s the difference between your mother and a Maillard with a cold?

Title Jon’s still got it, I see. Good Celebrity Jeopardy reference, Pal.

Talking to ourselves ain’t going to make us look less crazy.

Neither is using a plural, you loud bastard. ANYHOW, Maillard reactions. Despite my early joke, they have nothing to do with sick ducks. Maillard (pronounced “My-yard” because Romance languages hate pronouncing Ls when they show up together for some reason, like some weird anti-couple policy was written by Gaius Julius Sadness) reactions are a series of, ahem “amino acids reacting with reducing sugars”. Basically, anytime you brown something, and it includes protein (made of amino acids) Maillard reactions are what’s making it brown. It’s the caramelizing of meat, except not at all caramelizing, which is a point food scientists are DEEPLY insistent about.

And you should beware the wrath of any man patient enough to inspect grain by hand.

That sear you put on a steak? That nice Golden-Brown you get on fried foods? Toast? All aspects of Maillard reactions. Chocolate is the result of roasting cacao beans to produce Maillard reactions. And they’re especially important in our ongoing culture war of last week, Grilling versus Barbecue. Grilling LIVES on Maillard reactions. The high, dry heat causes heavy browning, and the creation of sear and char on foods it cooks. There’s a reason less reputable restaurant create fake grill lines on burgers and steaks, and it’s not to appeal to the oft-neglected Tiger demographic. So, if Maillard reactions are the flavor heart of the Grill’s…circulatory system? Damn it, it’s hard to make analogies when the front half of your brain feels like a meat grinder. IF GRILLING IS GOOD BECAUSE MAILLARD, WHAT MAKE BARBECUE NICE?

Every Diet Needs a Little Wiggle Room

Thank god the reference centers haven’t broken down. 90’s Jello Commercials are all I have left. As a quick, stupid aside, I once felt a strange affinity for Jello in my youth, because I knew several kids with neat initials, like Wallace “Wally” Allen Ross, and Brandon Arnold Thompson. (Names changed to protect the innocent.) And I wished my initials would spell something. And, well, Jello is the closest you get. All of this, is of course, irrelevant, but meant to put you in the mind of gelatin, because it’s one of the answers to my brain-damaged question of last paragraph.

They say you should never see how sausage, or blogs, are made.

Because nothing is ever simple in barbecue, there’re basically…four or five major components in what makes barbecue delicious. The big ones are fat rendering, gelatinization, and smoke itself.

The Smoke component is relatively straightforward: as wood burns, (which, for a fun physics aside, is technically inaccurate. What’re really burning are gases pulled from the wood drying out because of heat. This is why there’s that little blank space at the bottom of the flame on matches and so forth.) it releases a bunch of compounds into its smoke. The compounds then adhere to the meat, and are pulled inward through…I’m going to guess osmosis (what? I don’t know EVERYTHING about this) this generates the flavored crust on barbecue, and the “smoke ring” of color on the inside of the meat.

I was going to make a joke, but I instead want to plug pigskinbarbecue.com for not only having this awesome picture, but having like, the friendliest barbecue website I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been on over twenty websites in the last two weeks. Good on you, man.

Fat Rendering is another fairly easy concept to explain: Animal fat softens and melts at around 140° Fahrenheit. This melting fat then oozes through the muscle fibers, keeping them moist, and flavoring them, because Fat more readily holds flavor compounds, both from smoke, rubs/marinades, and even from the foods the animal ate in life. Fat is, in the world of meat, flavor.

Gelatinization is mildly more complex, and brings up another small distinction between Grilling and Barbecue: The concept of “Doneness”. See, due to the speed and heat of grilling in order to get Maillard reactions (Which are at their fastest and most prominent at 310+°), grilled foods have reduced fat rendering, and less gentle evaporation, leading to the concept of how “done” you want the food. Rare is seared on the edges, but still red in the middle, while “Well Done” is totally cooked through, and one of the worst things you can do to a good steak. (We’ll come to that argument another day.)

And a glorious day it will be. Full of curse words, hurt feelings, and hopefully a drink thrown in someone’s face.

Barbecue, on the other hand, actually goes PAST “well done” in terms of internal temperature. A steak cooked internally to 170° is WAY over done. (Well done is around 155°) Brisket typically comes off the heat somewhere around 180°. This is because the lower cooking temp lets the fat and water keep the meat moist, as well as letting collagen gelatinize. Collagen is connective tissue in meats and bones that, around 170°, melts into gelatin, a rich liquid that coats and protects the meat, and, if drained out and chilled, makes Jello. Basically, the lower temp of barbecue lets more liquid come to play, keeping meat moist longer.

And that’s the basic science breakdown of the two: Grilling using Maillard reactions, which kick off at 310°, to make dynamite crusts, while barbecue wants to stay under 225° for HOURS in order to melt everything.

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