Summer barbecues are often a delightful hodgepodge of food, booze and family squabbles.
But there’s a delicate art to perfecting one of Australia’s favourite festive traditions.
While every tong-wielding chef has barbecue techniques they swear by, there’s a real science to cooking mouth-watering meat.
And just as wine runs the gamut from light whites to full-bodied reds, so too do the temperatures at which we should drink them.
Here’s how to achieve the perfect summer barbecue, according to science.
Making the most of your favourite drop
Let’s start with booze.
For most of us, summer is a time to relax and unwind – and perhaps an opportunity to indulge in a tipple or two.
It goes without saying that there are health risks associated with consuming alcohol, so it’s important to drink responsibly.
If you do enjoy a glass of wine, understanding when to put your red wines in the fridge and take your white wines out is key (yes, you read that correctly).
Generally speaking, our fridges are too cold for white wine.
They’re usually set around 3 or 4 degrees Celsius, but you don’t want to serve a wine below around 5C, according to Central Queensland University’s Alex Russell.
Much of what we taste in wine comes from what we smell when flavour compounds evaporate from liquid and their gaseous molecules travel up your nose.
At lower temperatures there is less evaporation of molecules and this makes for less flavoursome wine.
So if you drink white wine straight out of the fridge it will be too cold for most of the “interesting smell molecules” to show up, Dr Russell said.
That said, a light white wine, such as sauvignon blanc, is best around 6C to 8C.
Rieslings need to be a bit warmer – around 8C or 10C.
The Aussie summer staple, chardonnay, should be served warmer still – at around 12C or 13C.
“This sounds really warm for a white wine,” Dr Russell said, “but the more flavour there is in the wine, the warmer the temperature you want to serve it”.
You might be surprised to learn that red wines have plenty in common with white wines, and often require refrigeration too (for a few minutes at least).
For very light reds like beaujolais, you’re looking at the same temperature range as chardonnay – 12C or 13C.
“It’s quite a decent chill on it for a red. Half an hour in the fridge will get you there,” Dr Russell said.
Something like a pinot noir should be enjoyed around 14C or 16C.
Full-bodied reds like shiraz and cabernet were originally designed to be enjoyed around 18C – the room temperature of a dining hall in medieval France.
But in modern-day Australia, “room temperature” is much higher – closer to 25C.
In such warmer climes dominant fruity flavour molecules and alcohol drown out more subtle, nuanced flavours in the wine.
“You get this big whack of flavour when the wine is designed to be a bit more subtle – a little more elegant – than that,” Dr Russell said.
The fact is, though, you might have developed a taste for that big flavour hit and actually prefer it.
The science of tender meat
When it comes to turning a tough cut into something juicy and tender, brines and marinades are great for barbecued meat.
Using a marinade can help break down proteins in red meat, which essentially tenderises it.
If you’re preparing chicken, brining it in salty water (particularly the breast) can help it stay juicy while cooking.
It’s also important to think about cooking temperatures and time.
For barbecuing a roast, or big chunks of meat, cooking low and slow not only cooks the meat evenly all the way through, but also tenderises it.
That’s because time is needed to break down the collagen sheath surrounding the meat’s muscle fibres.
When it comes to steak, chefs often give their meat a delicious brown crust by cooking it briefly on a high heat.
This sets off the Maillard reaction: A chemical reaction between sugars and amino acids when meat sizzles around 150C.
It produces hundreds of flavour compounds. It’s why toast is tastier than fresh bread.
For maximum depth of flavour, blast small cuts of meat with heat at the start of cooking.
Flavour compounds initially produced by the Maillard reaction break down over time to produce a range of new flavour compounds.
It’s also a good idea to take your time to rest your meat after cooking.
No matter how much hydrating goodness you get into your meat through brining, some moisture will escape during cooking.
By leaving it to sit in its own juices for 10 to 15 minutes, you allow it to reabsorb some of the proteins it lost from the heat.
Keeping food safe
When cooking and reheating meat, it’s important to remember that whole pieces of meat muscle (such as steak and lamb) can be barbecued on the outside so they’re still rare on the inside.
But poultry and all minced meat (including patties and sausages) need to be cooked right through until they reach 75C.
As always, keep raw and cooked foods separate (when storing and preparing), and don’t put cooked food back on the surface raw meat was on.
If you want to keep food cold, store it below 5C, and if you want to keep it hot, above 60C is best.