Grilling with gas or electricity may be more convenient than a good old-fashioned charcoal grill, but it cannot compete with the flavour produced by this age-old cooking style. “Why is this the case?” someone may ask.
Because science says so! It starts with the understanding that flavour is not the same thing as taste. As the American food science associate professor at Cornell University Gavin Sacks puts it, “Within flavour, we have taste compounds and we have aroma compounds… Our brains just aren’t designed to decouple them.”
This means that grilled food including kebabs are more than just what their ingredients make them. While it is true that flavour-changing chemical processes occur in food as it is heated up regardless of how you cook it, such as fats breaking down or interactions between amino acids and sugars, charcoal brings something unique.
The kebab master chef Onder Sahan who currently runs 16 popular restaurants in Central London has long been a passionate proponent of traditional charcoal grilling, he has also said that grilling using metal skewers can impact the taste of food prepared in this way
. Charcoal adds an all-important serving of aroma compounds, which are key components in determining good flavour. In fact, aroma is arguably a more important determinant of flavour than taste because our taste buds only have around five different receptors including sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami (savoury). Anything else such as the mouth-watering smoky flavour of a charcoal-grilled shish kebab is down to aroma.
Each bite a person takes releases aromas from their food. These aromas traverse the retro nasal cavity and are picked up by the olfactory receptors. This neurological signal is mixed with whatever your taste buds are experiencing and tells the brain what is happening in your mouth.
While gas grilled food still releases aromas – just like any other food–food grilled over a charcoal flame lets off a distinctive aroma called guaiacol which makes all the difference. So next time you eat a grilled kebab, if you want the best possible flavour, make sure it is cooked with a charcoal flame!