The Sweet and Meaty Taste Science of Grilled Vegetables

The Sweet and Meaty Taste Science of Grilled Vegetables

The Sweet and Meaty Taste Science of Grilled Vegetables

“Let’s grill tonight” translates to “let’s eat meat tonight”

in many backyard BBQs. It’s not surprising since grilled meat products create hundreds of complex aroma and flavor compounds. Grilled vegetables create less of these craveable compounds but develop delicious flavor profiles that can make them popular with kids and adult “veg-avoiders.” Whether using wood, coal or gas heat sources for grilling meat products or vegetables, the flavor differences are determined by browning reactions that depend on carbohydrates and protein.

Vegetables and meats exposed to high heat in a dry environment develop unique flavors from non-enzymatic browning reactions known as the Maillard reaction and caramelization.

Caramelization relies on sugar for creating tasty molecules whereas, the Maillard reaction requires protein and a hint of sugar for flavor development.

grilled sweet potato

Flavorful Proteins

Vegetables meet two of these Maillard reaction requirements; however, the low protein content compared to meat products limits the flavor development. Meat, poultry and fish, when exposed to a high and dry heat, yield hundreds of complex Maillard aroma and flavor compounds ranging from savory and meaty to floral and earthy. Because meat products also include the simple sugar ribose, some caramelization flavors also may be detectable.

Flavorful Sugars

Caramelization is a browning process from heating sucrose or sugars such as fructose or glucose, also known as reducing sugars. Caramelization requires higher temperatures than Maillard reactions. Annette Hottenstein, Sensory Scientist and Registered Dietitian, explains that grilling typically exposes vegetables to higher heat than other cooking methods and at these high temperatures, new complex volatile flavor components become available as natural sugars caramelize.

Caramelization flavor compounds are less complex than those from Maillard reactions, but don’t disappoint with a flavor range that includes butterscotch, sherry, rum or toasty notes.

Vegetables with high levels of reducing sugars and protein such as corn, sweet potato, onions and eggplants create tasty flavors from both types of browning reactions.

Veg grilled Eggplant Michele Redmond

“Meaty” Grilled Vegetables

Like meats, some vegetables can develop a “meaty” taste element thanks to sulfur. Vegetables with an amino acid linked to sulfur such as cysteine create more savory elements or a meatiness. Cysteine is plentiful in cruciferous vegetables and alliums like onions.

Cysteine found in onions and combined with naturally high sugar content transform onions on the grill but also explain why caramelized onions are popular additions in many meals.

Grilled vegetables also offer pleasant contrasting textures. Hottenstein shared that she particularly enjoys the crispy tips of grilled asparagus and how the heat of the grill intensifies the green flavor components while adding a smoky dimension.

Veg grilled Asparagus

Vegetable Grilling Tips

Here’s some veggie grilling flavor techniques to make “let’s grill tonight” translates to “let’s cook delicious foods” where vegetables are hogging the grill grate.

  • Fresher is better: Some vegetables, like sweet corn, rapidly convert natural sugars to starch after harvest. Less natural sugars result in less flavor and sometimes a mealy texture
  • Par-cook: For dense or slow-cooking vegetables such as carrots or potatoes, partially pre-cook then grill or grill the surfaces for color and flavor, then finish cooking on the warming rack.
  • Coat or naked: Dry the surface of vegetables before coating lightly with oil or a marinade. Or instead grill them naked like whole eggplants or peppers for smoky, charred skin aroma compounds.
  • Veggie densityVegetables such as zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes that are less dense due to high water content grill quickly in general and even faster if sliced or quartered. It’s best to not mix them with dense vegetables, such as root vegetables, to ensure even grilling results.
grilled potato fingerlings | Tasteworkshop.com

About Me

The pleasure of food, good health and well-being through simple habits for eating well and flexitarian low-key cooking.
Michele Redmond

Michele Redmond

French-trained Chef, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist & Food Enjoyment Activist

It's about Making Food First

Get Taste Workshop periodic updates on easy ways to choose and cook foods that satisfy your appetite, nurture your body and make eating well a pleasure.

Pizza as a Path to Veggie-Eating Kids

Pizza as a Path to Veggie-Eating Kids

Pizza as a Path to Veggie-Eating Kids

Pizza Veggie Opportunities

 

Ask a group of American kids to all agree on meal they like. Pizza, a unifying force in the kid kingdom, wins. However, ask kids to agree on specific vegetables toppings and you’ll hear some “yuck” comments. Unfortunately, most pizzas for kids are made assuming kids have limited palates, particularly for vegetables.

This lack of veggie variety is a missed opportunity for helping kids develop diverse palates for nutrient-rich foods. Fortunately, kids are actually more likely to try new veggie pizza toppings because they already have a positive association with pizza.

Creating Scenarios for Veggie-Eating Kids

 

Combining a potentially challenging food such as Brussels sprouts with a food kids already like, known as associative conditioning, can increase likeability for that food.

In one “let’s get kids to eat stuff they don’t like study”, the kids who experienced associative conditioning with food pairings were more willing to start eating the “challenging” food by itself and needed less exposures before accepting a new food.

It’s commonly recommended that kids need to try foods about 10 times to help them to develop a palate for the new food. However, in the study by Capaldi-Phillips and Wadhera using associative condition food pairings, kids were more accepting of a new and challenging food. They tried new veggies seven times before accepting them without being paired with other foods.

Cooking & Tasting Veggies

 

I experimented with introducing veggies to young palates during cooking classes I taught to over 300 kids for the Halle Children’s Heart Museum. The kids, ages 7-12, made pizza’s cousin, flatbread from scratch. They cut vegetables (with chef knifes—not kid knives) and shared feedback about which ones they liked most.

Kids responded well to vegetables that they’d eaten before even though they may have not tried them as a “pizza” topping. For veggies that were new, kids were encouraged to taste them before cooking since vegetables often become sweeter from cooking.

halle cooking kids

Zucchini, created the most resistance, but kids seemed to be more familiar with them being served soft or even mushy. Feedback about veggies and herbs they liked or were willing to try on pizza included:

  • Mushrooms*
  • Fresh tomatoes*
  • Broccoli*
  • Corn*
  • Olives
  • Basil
  • Carrots (consider roasted)
  • Red and orange peppers (most kids didn’t realize they were sweet)
  • Chiles and red chile flakes (sample of kids were from the spicy Southwest)

*Measurable levels of umami which is a taste component kids love

So consider other unifying foods that can create veggie-eating kids such pasta. Use meals or condiments that kids already like when introducing new veggies. However, this is not stealth nutrition where kids aren’t aware of the actual vegetables being used. Instead, it’s taste education.

Here’s the “adult” flatbread recipe the kids prepared, cooked and ate in under 45 minutes. The flatbread dough itself can be made in under five minutes.

KER_Kids Eat Right Month

This post is in honor of Kids Eat Right Month™. This is the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the Academy Foundation’s Month-long effort in August to highlight best practices and great information for healthy kids. More info on Kid’s Eat Right Month!

About Me

The pleasure of food, good health and well-being through simple habits for eating well and flexitarian low-key cooking.
Michele Redmond

Michele Redmond

French-trained Chef, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist & Food Enjoyment Activist

It's about Making Food First

Get Taste Workshop periodic updates on easy ways to choose and cook foods that satisfy your appetite, nurture your body and make eating well a pleasure.

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