Alexander Shalamov
updated 5/26/2012 2:00:20 PM ET 2012-05-26T18:00:20

Pools open and dusty grills come out of hiding this Memorial Day weekend, as we remember fallen war heroes and honor the living. To ensure your Memorial Day cookouts sizzle, rather than fall flat with dry burgers and pouty pals, here are some tips served up with a healthy side of science.

Also, if you're feeling extra saucy this weekend, you may want to try out a bison cheeseburger, the creation of Dave Joachim, a food writer and author of "Mastering the Grill: The Owner's Manuel for Outdoor Cooking" (Chronicle Books, 2007) and "Fire It Up. 400 Recipes for Grilling Everything" (Chronicle Books, 2011).

1. Know your outdoor cooking method
Although the word barbecue is sometimes used to describe any act of outdoor food preparation, the word actually refers to meat slow-cooked over charcoal or wood. The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, held annually in Memphis, Tenn., defines barbecue even more strictly, as "pork meat (fresh or frozen and uncured) prepared only on a wood and/or charcoal fire."

Because authentic barbecue is cooked at low temperatures, it rarely blackens, though soot from the wood fire may turn it dark brown.

For a crispy-charred crust on your chicken breasts or steak, try cooking on a grill over high heat. The black stuff is made by a simple combustion reaction; the heat causes the amino acids (which make up the meat's proteins) react with sugars inside the meat, leaving behind blackened, partially combusted carbon.

A little bit of charred carbon can lend a smoky flavor to meat, but a lot can be dangerous. A study presented at the 2006 American Association for Cancer Research meeting found that the chemicals in charred meat raised the risk of prostate cancer in rats, and a 2009 study presented at the American Association for Cancer Research meeting found that pancreatic cancer in humans is linked to consumption of well-done meat. [ 7 Foods Your Heart Will Hate ]

2. Grill a healthier patty
Eating red meat can come with some guilt, as the juicy goodness has been linked to all kinds of health hazards, from cancer to cardiovascular disease. But if you're hankering after a juicy burger, guilt-free, try an herbal topping.

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Studies show that herbs in the Lamiaceae family — such as rosemary, sage, and oregano — may keep meat from causing cancer. As part of an ongoing Food Safety Consortium project at Kansas State University, researchers found that burgers marinated with rosemary had 70 to 80 percent less heterocyclic amines (HCAs) than those soaked in a plain marinade. (HCAs can mutate DNA and are suspected carcinogens.)

When you throw a raw steak or patty on a hot grill, the meat's amino acids and sugars produce unstable compounds called free radicals. These radicals then react with beef's creatine to make HCAs, Kansas State researcher J. Scott Smith, a professor of food chemistry, explained to LiveScience in a past article on healthy burgers.

Herbal antioxidants halt this process, chemically soothing the free radicals before they start creating mutagens all over your basic backyard burger or a beautiful porterhouse steak. While marinades are best because they cover the whole surface, simply shaking on dried herbs may reap the same health benefits.

3. Choose a gas, charcoal or wood grill
This decision can be an important one, as the grills burn at different temperatures with different amounts of moisture. Charcoal and wood burn hotter, and drier, than gas.

That's because propane contains moisture, Joachim said. For every hour of grilling on gas, you release a half-cup to a cup of water vapor into your grill. That keeps the temperature down and prevents the formation of a seared, browned crust on your meat. [ Top 10 Gas Grills of 2012 ]

Some gas grills now come with a sear burner, or a ceramic block that holds heat better than the grill grates. Because the burner can build up more heat, home grillers can use it to brown the outside of a steak or pork chop to get that dark crust, he added.

Speaking of sear, why is it so yummy? The secret is the Maillard reaction, named after Louis-Camille Maillard, who was the first to study this chemistry in the late 1900s. When you apply heat to your burger or other meat, the amino acids hidden inside react with sugars to create hundreds of flavor compounds. Maillard reactions make pretty much everything taste amazing, including roasted coffee, grilled vegetables and even your morning toast.

4. The secret to the juiciest burgers
"The trick with ground meat is once you grind up meat, you're grinding up the muscle fibers, and these are what hold the moisture in," Joachim told LiveScience. "What I recommend doing is adding moisture back in."

That added moisture can take many different forms: Try apple butter in turkey burgers and steak sauce in hamburgers. And if you're exhausted from Memorial Day preparation, you can just mix ice water into the ground meat, along with whatever seasonings you're adding. Not only does the ice water add moisture, it also keeps the center of the burger cool so it doesn't overcook.

The other key component of the perfect burger — turn off the nutritionist in you — is fat. Joachim recommends ground beef with 80 percent protein and 20 percent fat. Rather than making a burger juicier, the extra fat stimulates saliva production, moistening your mouth.

5. Grab the veggies
To entertain even the pickiest of vegetarians, the grill may be your best bet.

The trick to grilling vegetables is remembering that they're edible raw, Joachim said, so you don't need to leave them on the grill until they scream for mercy. Just oil them, sear them over medium-high heat and enjoy. For firmer veggies like corn, you'll need a little more time. For corn, simple is best: Throw the ears, husks and all, on the grill over medium-high heat and let them cook for 15 or so minutes, turning occasionally, until the husks are blackened. Inside, the corn will be perfectly done. [ 10 New Ways to Eat Well ]

If you're cooking up veggie burgers, try to dress them up with masculinity — by searing in those manly grill marks or covering it with the usual burger toppings — as a recent study found guys may snub such vegetarian alternatives due to their "girly" image.

Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter@livescienceand onFacebook.

© 2012 All rights reserved.

Explainer: 10 slices of summer science

  • Scott Barbour  /  Getty Images

    At sunrise on the summer solstice, druids, pagans and partygoers converge on a circle of stones in the English countryside to welcome the longest day of the year. The ritual at Stonehenge likely dates back thousands of years: Archaeologists estimate wooden posts and timbers were in place as early as 3100 B.C., although the monument's original purpose remains a mystery. One theory holds that it was a cemetery; another that it was a place of healing. Most archaeologists believe the large sarsen stones in the post-and-lintel formations seen in the background of this image served to mark the seasons, making Stonehenge an astronomical observatory as well as a religious center of one sort or another. Click the "Next" label for nine more slices of summer science.

    — By John Roach, contributor

  • Catch a 'shooting star'

    Image: meteor shower
    Ethan Miller  /  Getty Images stock
    Meteor above Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Arizona.

    On some summer nights, the sky sizzles with shooting stars — which are actually space particles, most commonly shed by comets, that vaporize when they hit Earth's atmosphere. The season's most famous meteor shower is the Perseids. The show peaks in the second week of August, with dozens of meteors per hour streaking across the sky.

    Other notable summer showers include the southern Delta Aquarids in late July, followed a few days later by the Alpha Capricornids.

  • The science of salmon and dams

    Image: Salmon
    Don Ryan  /  AP file

    Every spring and summer, salmon attempt to navigate human-enhanced obstacle courses on their journeys from the oceans to the streams where they were born. If they make it back, most fish will spawn there and die.

    Every year, swarms of scientists, conservationists and engineers document every move the fish make to understand why most salmon runs are in decline. Many people point their fingers at hydroelectric and irrigation dams, which can restrict fish passage. But fish ladders, such as the one shown here at the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, help the fish navigate the obstacles.

    A recent study indicated that such measures to assist the fish appear to be working. Other factors to consider as the cause for the salmon decline include agricultural pesticides and natural weather cycles such as El Nino and La Nina.

  • The season of shark attacks

    Image: Shark swimming near beach
    Jason C. Miller  /  AP
    A bull shark swims off a Florida beach

    Shark attacks tick up in the summer. Scientists suspect the main reason for that is simply that more people swim when the weather is warm. Experts say you are much more likely to die in an auto accident on the way to the beach than in a shark attack after you arrive.

    Nevertheless, here is their advice to reduce the risk of a shark encounter:

    • Swim in groups.
    • Shed reflective clothing.
    • Refrain from dips when bleeding or menstruating.
    • Avoid areas where sharks have recently been seen.

    If bitten, you should fight back with swats to the shark's head, eyes and snout, scientists say. Sharks will likely spit you out once they realize you're not a very nutritious meal, but they may not do so until you've been dragged underwater and are bleeding profusely.

  • A dead zone grows in the Gulf of Mexico

    Image: effluents deposited at the Mississippi River delta
    Soil and fertilizer runoff in waters around the Mississippi River Delta.

    Each spring, more than 200 million pounds of nitrogen-rich fertilizer from cropland in the Mississippi River Basin wash into the Gulf of Mexico. There, microscopic plants gorge on the excess nutrients, creating enormous blooms of algae. The algae die and sink to the ocean bottom, robbing the surrounding waters of oxygen. Devoid of oxygen, most life can no longer survive.

    The affected region is known as a dead zone. The one in the Gulf of Mexico is about the size of New Jersey, and scientists fear that it could grow even larger as farmers plant more corn for ethanol fuel processing. Corn responds well to nitrogen fertilizer, so farmers apply a lot of it, according to researchers.

  • Hurricane forecasting: An improving science

    This infrared satellite image from 2004 shows Hurricane Francis over Florida as Hurricane Ivan lurks in the lower right.

    When a hurricane forms over the Atlantic, eyes quickly turn to the forecasters at the National Hurricane Center to learn where the storm will go and how strong the winds will blow.

    Although the forecasts are almost always laden with uncertainty, state-of-the-art computer models filled with real-time data on wind, precipitation, pressure and temperature — combined with more observational experience — have enabled forecasters to narrow the cone of uncertainty in hurricane tracks over the past 50 years. Improvements in intensity forecasts, however, are lagging.

  • The science of summer droughts

    Laura Rauch  /  AP file

    While some people welcome long, sunny summer days, too many gorgeous days in a row can dry out the land enough to trigger a drought — a prolonged shortage of the rainfall that humans need to grow crops and brush their teeth, among other activities.

    Natural records such as tree rings and lakebed sediments indicate that drought is part of the natural climate cycle, affecting parts of North America a few times per century. But what exactly governs drought? Some research indicates a link between the El Nino and La Nina weather phenomena, which periodically warm and cool the tropical Pacific Ocean, affecting weather patterns around the world.

    Other research suggests that drought could become more common in response to global climate change. That might parch people dependent on water from the already-shrinking Lake Mead in Nevada, shown here.

  • It's wildfire season, too

    Image: Firefighter
    Mark Reis  /  AFP-Getty Images file

    A fourfold jump in the average annual number of wildfires since the mid-1980s is linked to a trend toward earlier springs and drier summers, scientists concluded in a study. The earlier springs mean snow melts off the mountains sooner, leaving them high and dry. As the dog days of summer linger, all it takes is a spark from a passing lightning storm to send the forest up in flames.

    Another potential factor behind the recent flare-up is a decades-long policy of fighting fires as soon as they start, leading to increasingly fuel-loaded forests.

  • Scientists eye the Arctic ice

    Peter West  /  AFP - Getty Images

    Much of the concern about global climate change stems from what scientists see occurring in the Arctic: a meltdown of historic proportions.

    To gauge just how much ice is melting, scientists keep close tabs on the extent and thickness of the Arctic ice cap, a huge but shrinking expanse of ice that covers the Arctic Ocean. Each summer, some of the ice melts and the surrounding waters heat up, melting more ice. In the winter, new ice forms, but most years the extent and thickness of the ice cover is less than the year before.

    At the rate the meltdown is occurring, some scientists predict the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer as early as 2040.

  • Museums offer lasting slice of science

    Mike Derer  /  AP
    Kids touch a large plastic replica of lips and a nose at the Infection Connection exhibit at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J.

    For parents, summer brings the annual question: What shall we do with the kids? One option espoused by science educators is to take them to a science museum, aquarium or zoo where outside-the-classroom, hands-on learning might take hold and nurture a new generation of scientists and engineers. At the very least, the experience might help stave off what education experts refer to as summer brain drain while kids laze away the hazy days of summer.


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