It’s no secret that appearances can be deceiving when it comes to the way fast food is portrayed in ads. Food styling is a high-stakes (steaks?) profession centered on making meat patties and their accoutrements look as palatable as possible to potential consumers by meticulously sculpting them for maximum aesthetic appeal. It’s pretty much an open secret at this point. 

But have you ever stopped to wonder why certain items sold in the frozen-food section are dressed up with grill marks? At a time of year when many of us are having cookouts and hoping to create some truly authentic grill marks, it’s worth pondering.

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Watch: How to Make Grilled Garlic Knot Pizza Rolls

First, let’s dispel one notion: no, those frozen chicken breasts you bought from Costco weren’t actually grilled and then frozen. That’s just kind of weird, and doesn’t really make a lot of sense for the major food manufacturers trying to produce meats and vegetables with that flame-grilled look on a massive scale. Instead, explains this Fast Company article, these meats (or at least chicken) are often baked in an “impingement oven” which uses blasts hot air to cook them. 

From there, that just-grilled visual touch is applied by something called a “Rotary Brander,” manufactured by a food-processing-equipment company called Heat and Control. They describe it as a device that can “continuously sear grill marks on meats, poultry, seafood and vegetables for an appetizing just-grilled finish.” The product boasts that it can “uniformly brand” foods, even those of “irregular thickness” like shrimp and vegetables. 

So why are these ersatz grill marks even a thing anyway? They seem to serve as something of a psychological differentiator. “In aisles full of frozen products, grill marks on chicken breast[s] vie the bland product contrast and texture,” food stylist Claudia Ficca recently explained to Thrillist. “It also visually conveys heat and charred flavor to our brain, all things that make the item appealing and can trigger hunger.” Maybe if our brains think something is grilled, we’ll crave them more than their competitors.

Well, there you have it. If the idea of chicken getting grilled to perfection before being frozen and shipped to your local supermarket seems too good to be true, it’s because it totally is. As any dad manning the grill this summer will tell you, there’s just no substitute for the real thing. 


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