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The Science Of Barbecue Sauce – Caramelization

The Science Of Barbecue Sauce – Caramelization

When you put flames and meat together on your barbecue, magical things like the Maillard Reaction happen; creating the brown crust of deliciousness you love. But with the addition of barbecue sauce, things can go from delicious to disaster fairly quickly if you don’t know about the science of barbecue sauce, and the chemical reaction that is called Caramelization.

What is Caramelization?

Caramelization is what happens when sugars are heated causing them to turn brown. Well that is the definition in the most simplistic of terms anyway. But lets go deeper. Caramelization is when sugar is oxidized through heat. The amount of heat needed depends on the sugar that you are using. That is why it is very important to know what sugars are in your barbecue sauce and rubs and when it is appropriate to use them.

Fructose Galactose Glucose Maltose Sucrose
What Is It? Plant Based Chemical Based Carb Based Malt Sugar Refined Sugar
Where Is It found? Fruit, Honey Dairy Products Breads, Pastas Bonded Glucose On Your Table
Temperature For Carmelization 110°C/230°F 160°C/320°F 160°C/320°F 180°C/356°F 160°C/320°F
Science Of BBQ - Carmelization Chart

It Tastes Like Burning…

The first thing you should know about barbecue sauce is that once it meets the meat, and hits the flame, it will change flavor. This is due to the sugars in the sauce caramelizing. That means, depending on the preparation and ingredients of your barbecue sauce, different sauces are better used in different ways. You also want to use caution when substituting one sugar source for another in your favorite sauces and rubs.

Carmelized OnionsTake honey for example. Because the chemical makeup of honey is 38% fructose, your barbecue sauce that gets its sweet taste from honey is better suited to a recipe that is cooked low and slow so that the sauce can caramelize properly, instead of on high and direct heat. Using table sugar (sucrose) in your rub or sauce will fare better at higher temperatures, because it begins to caramelize at 320°F. This means that you can finish your meal with a healthy helping of barbecue sauce while it’s still grilling if you are using a sugar-based sauce. So when using a honey or fruit sweetened sauce, you should apply it just before or right after the food has come off the heat. When using maltose or sucrose based sugars, they can stand the heat, so get out of the kitchen, and use them on the grill.

Store Bought

If you buy your sauce from a store or the farmer’s market, pay attention to the ingredients. You should be able to judge where the sweetness comes from and use your sauces appropriately by following the guideline above. Or you can just make your own sauce.

Food For Thought

Now that you’re familiar with the chemical changes your food goes through on the grill, whether it’s the Maillard Reaction, or Caramelization, you will be able to take your meals from flame + meat to something out of this world.

Happy Grilling.



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