Maillard Reaction: The Key to Flavor Development

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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.

Chicken breast with maillard reaction showing a golden brown crust cooking in a cast iron pan.

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.

Browned ribeye steak cooking in a cast iron skillet.

Quick history

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

Golden brown egg roll being taken out of deep frying liquid.

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

Person using a meat thermometer to check doneness of a steak.

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

Before and after photo of roasted potatoes on a sheet pan.

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

Crispy baked chicken wings in a silver bowl.

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.

chocolate chip dough ball on parchment paper lined baking sheet

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.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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Jessica Gavin standing in the kitchen

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Reader Interactions

37 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Judy says

    What a wonderful teaching post. Thank you Jessica. This answered so many questions for me and better helped me understand PH balance. Happy Monday Jessica,

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thank you Judy! I’m so happy that I can help you learn something new 🙂 I’m really passionate about the maillard reaction, and was so happy to finally have time to create an article!

  2. Robert Hallinan says

    Excellent breakdown of the science here. I aspire to communicate food science as effectively as you do on this post. Keep up the good work 🙂

  3. Darryl M Paule says

    Jessica
    Woowwww…….science to cooking……….
    This is incredible………this takes culinary to the next level.
    I’m going to start learning on how to use the Millard Reaction.

    Thank You!

  4. Raymond Amabile says

    Hi Jessica, I have been a chef for many years. Sometimes I have been asked the why and my answer sometimes was I don’t know except that it works. Thanks for the education, and now if asked I can have an answer or I will refer them to your website.

  5. Ronald F. Seto says

    I notice under the maillard process, you add baking soda to the meat or chicken to brown and make the food crispy. I use baking soda on tough cuts of meat to tenderize it. Is this the right way? It works for me, but you have to use the bs sparingly or the meat will be over tender (mushy).

  6. Ethel mathey says

    I used the baking soda on the cubed chicken to brown it. I am sorry to say it was awful – bitter.
    I had to throw it away.

  7. Luke says

    Wow! Thank you! I’m gonna try it tonight. I’m excited we need a new level of the same food. I’m hoping for the best.

  8. Eric says

    This is a great post, but basic and alkaline are exactly the same thing.. for some reason your post makes it sound like there’s two states of basic.

  9. Nancy says

    I am an experienced cook and baker. Your scientific explanations of culinary processes are enlightening and inspiring to me. Thank you Jessica.

  10. Frank Jones says

    Jessica, I only eat turkey on Christmas day and occasionally have been talked into a hot turkey sandwich on boxing day, that leaves us with a good amount left over. Your turkey chili has provided me with an excellent solution. Many thank you’s.

  11. Ronald F. Seto says

    Thank you Jessica for your blog. Your recipes are unique and not the same as those found in cookbooks. Besides that, they are not set in stone and allow variations. Cooking is my hobby and eating delicious and healthy food is important to me and my family. My father was a cook in one of the most famous Chinese restaurants in New York City, but I learned cooking on my own. I guess it was the good tastes that drove me to learn how to cook. I have been cooking for the 65 years of my 84 years, and although getting tired, I still prefer to cook. I refuse to eat fast foods or even restaurant foods; I know I can do better to my taste.

  12. Marlus Cajazeira says

    What an excelent post!
    Thanks to explain this complex theme in a simple way!
    I started to know your blog yesterday and I’m really enjoying it.
    Congratulations

  13. Heather says

    On this page, you mention adding baking SODA to a recipe to increase browning (for stir-fry cooking, Buffalo wings, etc.). However on your linked Buffalo wings page, you say to use baking POWDER. Which one is it? I read on your soda vs. powder page that baking soda is 4x more powerful than baking powder, but you also only used the word “alkaline” on that page to describe baking soda. So… I’m confused! 🙂

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Hi Heather- Baking soda and baking powder both contain sodium bicarbonate (an alkaline substance), however, baking powder also has a built-in acid to make the bubbling reaction happen more consistently. I like to use baking powder on the wings because I want a bubbly reaction on the skin surface so there is more crispiness. There isn’t anything very acidic in the wing recipe, so choosing baking powder helps the reaction happen. I hope that helps!

  14. Patrick says

    I just stumbled across this great in-depth info on the science of the magic that happens to food as we love it. Thank you for sharing. I just fell in love with your page. Thanks again

  15. Mahlon Bouldin says

    Hey there. I discovered your site this past weekend while looking for recipes for chicken thighs. I haven’t cooked them yet because I’ve been poring over your pages and loving it all. I appreciate the science angle and also how you dispense it layman’s terms, getting us the information we need to jolt our imagination into further research.
    Plus, your recipes look fantastic (videos are perfect inspirations points) and I followed the one for easy fried rice tonight. Having a sister-in-law from China really made me pay attention. It was delish.
    Please keep doing your thang. You’ve got a good vibe going on here. Your layout and content on the website is perfectly balanced.
    Thank you!!

  16. ziva says

    Thanks for this great post. Did you try baking soda on puff pastry as egg wash substitute? I want to get the brownish effect. Thanks!

  17. Angshuman Das says

    Hi Jessica:

    Since you are a food science geek, I have got a question — about the right temperature for the puris (Indian deep-fried savory pastry) to puff up. I know from my mother that the oil has to be hot enough but not too hot — if temperature is lower, the puris don’t puff up and absorb too much oi; on the other hand, too hot will brown or burn before puffing, which involves pressing the pastry into the oil briefly to submerge it.

    Looking forward to your answer. Thanks.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Your mom is extremely wise! The optimal temperature for deep frying is between 325 to 375°F (163 to 191°C). Above 400°F (205°C) and it will brown too quickly and the inside will be raw. I’ve read that you can test the puri by adding a small piece into the oil and if it floats up immediately, it’s the right temperature. I would check with a thermometer in between batches. Let me know how it goes!

  18. Okebaram Ekwuribe says

    Great article! I have a tone of questions and if you can answer any that would be splendid. How do fat and oil affect the flavoring process during browning? For example, I have seen people sprinkle oil on meat as they grill it, and at other times it seems the fat from the meat is creating flavors as well. Or could it be inhibiting flavors?

    Also when you fry something in oil, it tastes different. Not that it tastes better than grilled, it doesn’t. But it has its own unique flavors that must have been studied too. What reactions are going on there and how do you compare or contrast that, or use that to a flavor advantage, when it comes to flavor and deliciousness maximization during browning.

    One more… What about smoking? Smoked fish and smoked meat have their own flavor awesomeness and can taste so good. What is happening when food is smoked and what are the conditions for the reaction (just like you explained the conditions for Maillard browning)? If I could add a PS, it would be asking for cooking tips to maximize browning all through food but at the perfect balance without burning it or undercooking the core, especially meats.

  19. Cis Ricchiuto says

    It is my understanding that creating this reaction causes the formation of Acrylamides a known carcinogen. ? Can you comment especially with regard to these “air friers” . Thank you for your insights!

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