The Maillard Reaction

The Maillard reaction, as you all already know, is what happens when we sear meat. However, that is only one example of it. It’s actually a very common reaction that happens in many different things. It happens almost every time we cook food. Searing steaks, browning butter, toasting bread, toasting marshmallows, roasting coffee, baking cookies, roasting grains for beer, and on and on. In cooking it is referred to as the browning reaction.

It starts as a simple chemical reaction between carbonyl groups in sugars and amino groups in amino acids but ends up being an extremely complicated reaction. This chemical reaction drastically changes the texture and taste of the food. And because all different foods have a different combination of sugars and amino acids, the Maillard reaction yields different new flavors for all different foods. So it is hard to say that the Maillard reaction produces this or that taste, but it generally creates a savory/umami flavor. Depending on the food it can produce a flavor that is especially toasty, nutty, wholesome, gamey, etc. This reaction is drastically accelerated between 284 and 329 Fahrenheit. Above that temperature is caramelization which is also delicious and above that is pyrolysis (charring) which creates a bitter taste. So a burnt marshmallow isn’t going to just taste a little bit different than a golden brown… it will be completely different. Note — you could have any combination of these reactions in single food item when it is done, but they are distinct chemical reactions with different effects, and will happen at different times and temperatures. Different molecules are present. Keep in mind that this would not happen in a 300-degree oven. It isn’t about the ambient temperature; it has to be the actual temperature of the food. So it happens when the surface of a steak gets to about 300, which requires putting it directly on a very hot surface. In a typical Maillard reaction for a certain food, HUNDREDS of new flavor compounds are created that were not present before the reaction. This is also how artificial flavors are created. Scientists combine different sugars and amino acids, put it through a Maillard reaction, and then taste it and think — hey this almost tastes like peanut butter. Then they tweak the combination of sugars and amino acids until they have the recipe for the artificial flavor for peanut butter. The Maillard reaction also happens in the human eye, and can cause degenerative diseases. Searing before cooking vs searing after cooking will create different tastes, which makes sense. Cooking is always changing the chemical makeup of the food, and searing it first will give food a different initial chemical makeup, so it will react differently and produce a different set of new chemical compounds than if you didn’t sear it. Maillard reactions require high heat and a lack of moisture. So it makes sense that foods cooked with a lot of moisture have a distinctively anti-Maillard taste. Namely, poaching, steaming, boiling, etc. One way to get a Maillard reaction while cooking in water is to use a pressure cooker, because it raises the boiling point of the water and allows the food to reach that ~300 F sweet spot.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.