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The Scientific Reason Why BBQ Tastes Best When Fresh

Many foods taste best when they’re freshly made. With BBQ, there’s a scientific explanation.

Published Jan. 26, 2022.

Some foods improve with time, as anyone who’s ever made stew or proofed bread in your fridge overnight knows. But many foods are best when fresh. This is especially true of barbecue. Even the best pulled pork seems to grow stale and lose some of its intoxicating woodsy flavor when you reheat it the next day.

To find out why, we talked to food scientist Greg Blonder. He explained that when food is smoked, hundreds of flavor-bearing chemicals in that smoke are deposited onto the surface of the food. The most important among these chemicals are guaiacol and syringol, both of which dissolve readily in fats but are detected by our senses in slightly different ways—we experience syringol as an aroma and guaiacol as a flavor. Unfortunately, both these chemicals have high vapor pressures, so they evaporate easily. What that means is that the ribs you eat today will have more of the good-tasting chemicals—and thus the complexity—than they’ll have when reheated in the oven tomorrow.

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So what’s a barbecue lover to do? Blonder is practical: “Any barbecue is better than none.” But if you want to get the most out of barbecue you eat on the road, Blonder recommends making sure you visit high-volume barbecue joints that are constantly turning out new food. It’s also not a bad idea to show up when the barbecue joint opens in order to ensure that you get the freshest barbecue. Blonder also avoids places that reheat their ribs on the grill, or slather on the sauce to hide the ribs’ lack of smoke flavor. Unfortunately, it can be hard to identify those places before you actually visit them.

Of course, there is one other thing you can do to get the best, freshest, barbecue: make your own. You don’t have to own a smoker (though they make the process even easier). Our favorite barbecue recipes are easy to make and require only an inexpensive charcoal grill and some wood chunks. Try them—we guarantee you’ll taste the difference.

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