Where Does Grilled Flavor Come From?

What is grilled flavor and what makes grilling different from any other type of cooking? You can cook a steak in a pan, bake chicken wings in the oven, and “grill” a burger on a flat top griddle. So why do these foods taste so different when you cook them on your grill?

This is one of those key questions we help answer when we’re training new or experienced grillers on the Broil King advantage and Performance Grilling Technology. Based on research, when people are asked what they love most about grilling, the flavor of the food is the number one answer. Knowing this, it always surprises us how few people think about the question, why do we grill? So, what makes grilling food different from cooking it any other way? It just tastes better when grilled, that’s the perfect starting point for our flavor story.

Here’s the short version of the story.

When food juices meet a hot surface, they vaporize and “infuse” the unmistakeable grilled flavor that we love back onto the food being grilled.

Grillers often refer to charcoal flavor. But if you think about it, charcoal is by nature tasteless and odorless (it’s used to filter water), charcoal wood isn’t completely carbonized. So where does that smokey grilled flavor come from if it is not the flavor of charcoal?

Vaporization occurs when food juices hit a hot surface. Vaporization creates the flavor that we are all looking for from grilled foods because those vapors are sticky and love wet surfaces like your grilled foods to stick to, that’s why we put infuse in quotations above because that flavor sticks to the outside it doesn’t penetrate the food surface. Essentially, the more smoky vaporization the better. Right?

Before we go deeper, here’s a brief detour. Let’s take a closer look at the similarities and differences between the griddle and the grill. When you cook a steak in a pan you get a golden brown exterior from the Maillard reaction, flavor compounds develop and intensify. We get sear marks from both the pan and the cooking grids. The steak cooks and tenderizes as intermuscular fats break down in both cases for juicy results! The one vital component that the pan doesn’t deliver well is vaporization. That smoky flavor from drippings that have come in contact with a ripping hot surface.

That ripping hot surface can be called a lot of things. In our most primitive example, red hot charcoal would be that hot surface. Juices fall onto the charcoal and vaporize into water vapor and smoke packed with flavor, with charcoal wood smoke and its unique burnt wood flavor is present too. Smoke is sticky and your steak is wet, we know what happens next.

Grilling has evolved from charcoal through lava rock and ceramic briquettes and various other hot surfaces to capture and vaporize food juices. The prevalent method today is based on using a stainless steel heat medium placed over the burners. These come in various shapes and configurations. When you want to capture juices to create vaporization the most ideal heat plate design fills the entire cookbox to contact all of the dripping food juices.

In order to optimize and maximize vaporization, a grill needs to have a number of ripping hot surfaces to vaporize dripping juices before they fall to the grease tray. Take a look at the image above. This is what even heat and maximum vaporization looks like under a heat camera. The bright spots are intense radiant heat perfect for grilling and vaporization. The dark spots are basically drainage, juices that fall there are bound for your drip tray.

Check your drip pan next time you grill, is it full of flavor? Check your hot surfaces too. Heavy stainless or cast iron cooking grates get ripping hot and hold the heat for sear and vaporization right at the grilling surface.

When you’re looking for your next grill, ask if it was designed to vaporize drippings or designed to dispose of drippings, right into a grease tray. That’s a good start to knowing if you are getting a performance grill or an outdoor oven.

Ben – Culinary Director