The Maillard reaction is responsible for developing colors and flavors. It makes food taste better! Learn the science behind this essential chemical reaction and how it applies to cooking.
Table of Contents
- What is the maillard reaction?
- Quick history
- Let’s geek out on the science
- Occurs in certain cooking methods
- The role of temperature
- How moisture plays a part
- Ways to remove surface moisture
- Why you don’t want too much acidity
- Maillard vs. caramelization: an identity crisis
- Taste is actually what you smell
- Hungry for more?
The Maillard reaction– you want it to happen when cooking, and here’s why. This highly desired culinary process creates hundreds of new flavor and aroma compounds with the application of heat. The chemical reaction is the visible color change to a stunning golden brown hue on the surface of foods.
The resulting combination of flavor and color change often happens with dry-heat cooking methods under the right temperature, acidity, and moisture conditions. You’ve seen and tasted it before. It’s the perfect crust on a seared, juicy ribeye steak. It’s the crispy amber layer on a pan-seared salmon. It’s the flaky brown crust on a baked apple pie.
What is the maillard reaction?
The Maillard reaction is a form of non-enzymatic browning that occurs in foods when proteins and/or amino acids chemically react with carbohydrates of reducing sugars. Applying heat during cooking accelerates and continues this intricate process, which elevates the taste, aromas, and appearance of food.
Kitchen experts like Nathan Myhrvold, author of Modernist Cuisine, say the Maillard reaction should be called “the flavor reaction” and not the “browning reaction” due to its essential contribution to flavor and aroma development. It’s the silent star of cooking, acknowledged more for its supporting role.
Let’s take a second to thank French chemist Louis-Camille Maillard who discovered this fascinating reaction around 1910. We can now reap all the benefits from his meticulous investigation and studies.
Research on this topic is still being studied by food scientists today, and more knowledge of this fundamental principle is still being uncovered.
Let’s geek out on the science
The Maillard reaction happens in multiple complex stages. Three things must be available for the response: amino acids, reducing sugars, and water. This is going to sound complicated because it is! But here are some basic things that occur during the process:
- Reducing sugars such as glucose and fructose react with a free amino acid or part of a protein chain.
- Unstable intermediate structures called Amadori compounds are formed that are initially flavorless and colorless.
- New flavor compounds called dicarbonyls are created.
- Hundreds of by-products that will impact flavor, aroma, and color continue to form.
- Brown melanoidin pigment molecules form, responsible for many colors on the surface of foods.
Occurs in certain cooking methods
Most foods naturally contain varying amounts and different types of sugars and proteins. That’s why beef or chicken looks and tastes different than banana bread when cooked. High-heat methods like roasting, baking, pan-frying, deep-frying, grilling, pressure cooking, searing, braising, and stewing benefit from this process.
It’s one of the reasons I always sear meat before adding it to a slow cooker because the moist heat cooking in a Crock-pot never gets above 212ºF (100ºC) for Maillard browning to occur.
The role of temperature
The Maillard process can begin at room temperature. However, turning up the heat nudges the process along. Typically when the surface temperature of the food reaches 300°F (149°C), the process is in full throttle. That means the environment used for the dry-heat cooking method needs to be set at a higher range, 350°F (177ºC) and above.
Caution! Browning reactions are great until food becomes burnt (hello, pyrolysis!). At high temperatures above 355°F (180°C), the surface of food gets blackened and bitter tasting. It’s a delicate balance that requires attention. So don’t check out on social media for too long, or you’ll be sorry!
How moisture plays a part
A small amount of moisture is needed in the food from a molecular level to aid in the browning process, although too much can impair it. The key is to ensure the food’s surface is dry to prevent steaming and promote the maximum amount of browning for recipes like garlic-roasted potatoes.
There will be some moisture released from the food as it cooks. The high heat of the cooking pan and oil will help to evaporate excess water quickly. Reducing the moisture on the surface of a roasted chicken will lead to crispy, browned skin happening faster.
Ways to remove surface moisture
- Dry the surface of the food with paper towels before cooking.
- Air dry meat and vegetables on a tray in the refrigerator overnight.
- Salt foods right before cooking to prevent excess moisture on the surface due to osmosis.
- Reverse searing beef in the oven before pan-searing it dries the surface of the food for quicker browning.
Why you don’t want too much acidity
In science terms, that’s the pH, or how basic (like milk), acidic (mouth-puckering lemon juice), or alkaline (think olives) a portion of food is. The rule is the more acidic the environment, pH 6 and below, the less browning will occur. What can be done? Adding a small amount of an alkaline ingredient, like baking soda, boosts the browning reaction.
This is a clever trick used in Chinese stir-fries to rapidly brown foods since chopped pieces of meat only need a few minutes of wok time. Sprinkling or tossing some baking soda with skin-on poultry also aids in crispiness and color development. I do this for my baked buffalo wings to make them extra crunchy and golden. Give it a try and see the difference!
Maillard vs. caramelization: an identity crisis
Caramelization and Maillard browning are often used synonymously, although they’re very different! They are both non-enzymatic browning reactions, but that’s where the similarities end. Caramelization happens in concentrated sugar environments with a very low amount of moisture. It’s when complex sugars break down into simple sugars, followed by other reactions to create browned colors.
My favorite example is homemade caramel sauce. Depending on the type of sugar, caramelization, on average, begins at 248ºF (120ºC), much lower than the Maillard reaction. Sometimes Maillard browning and caramelization happen succinctly, just at varying levels.
Taste is actually what you smell
When you heat foods, your senses are engaged and lured by many aroma molecules engulfing the air. It’s not a coincidence that when baking a batch of raw cookie dough, 10 minutes later, my son magically appears in the kitchen because of all of the newly emerging sweet and warm smells of chocolate chip cookies that have hit his nose. It’s been researched that about 70% of what you taste is actually what you smell.
Cooked foods trigger this animalistic survival mode in our brain, turning on those saliva glands. Coaxing out the Maillard reaction is a cascading catalyst to what makes people so passionate about food. It’s why I can never turn down a freshly baked flaky croissant, why some people prefer their bagel toasted, the distinctive smell of freshly roasted coffee beans, and why chocolatiers roast cocoa nibs to make dark chocolate.
So spread the word. Now you know the scientific terminology that makes baked goods and meat taste better, the Maillard reaction.