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What is the Maillard Reaction? An Essential Bit of Science for Cooking

There are few joys better than biting into a perfectly seared steak or taking a sip of roasted coffee beans. You can also pretty quickly tell the difference between chicken that’s been grilled and boiled. For that matter, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between a slice of bread and toast. What do these all have in common? The big point that may stand out is that each item has been cooked. Each item has undergone a little chemical process called the Maillard reaction, one of the most important occurrences that allows cooking to happen. Without it, the majority of what we consider to be cooking could not exist.

What is the Maillard Reaction

The Maillard reaction was first “discovered” in 1912 by chemist Louis-Camille Maillard. It has since been expanded upon, researched further, and even called “by far, the most widely practiced chemical reaction in the world.” So, what is it exactly? Commonly called the browning effect (more on this later), the Maillard reaction is primarily responsible for not only the color of much of our cooked foods, but also some of the flavor, smell, and texture. Think about it this way — before you begin to heat a piece of chicken, it’s a very light pink color, pliable, and soft to the touch. After cooking it for a bit, the chicken begins to turn brown, is firmer to the touch, and develops a brown crust on the outside. This is the Maillard reaction in action.

The Maillard reaction is primarily responsible for not only the color of much of our cooked foods, but also some of the flavor, smell, and texture.

As the food browns, it begins to change in texture, smell, and taste. The chicken breast will smell different than it did before and it will taste differently (please don’t taste uncooked chicken). One theory as to why the reaction is so delicious to us comes down to how humans have evolved over the years. Simply put, the Maillard reaction triggers all of our senses to signal our brains that this food is cooked and therefore safe to eat.

The Science Behind the Reaction

To understand the Maillard reaction, we’ll explain what happens and why it changes the ingredients you’re cooking. Don’t worry, this won’t become a chemistry class. We’ll just cover the basics so you know why it happens and the difference between other common browning reactions. The Maillard reaction is a chemical response to amino acids and a basic sugar during cooking. It works when carbonyl group sugars react to an amino acid, creating glycosylamines, ultimately forming ketosamines, which brown the ingredients, creates the crispness, and sets off the cooked scent. Okay, now onto the science you can use.

The Maillard reaction is a chemical response to amino acids and a basic sugar during cooking.

There are two key components to the reaction, heat and moisture. In order to start the Maillard reaction, you’ll usually need temperatures around 285°F, though it may be as low as 230°F according to Samin Nosrat in the outstanding book and television series, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. The higher the temperature, the quicker the reaction. At the same time, the ingredient’s dryness can greatly influence how strong the reaction is. The dryer it is, the more browning will occur. These two factors act in concert, as well. More heat will further dry an ingredient, while a dry ingredient will brown and heat faster.

Even though the Maillard reaction is sometimes called the browning effect, it’s not the only one. The other primary browning effect is caramelization, and the difference is primarily chemical. In caramelization, the reaction is set off when heat breaks down sugar. In the Maillard reaction, it’s set off when there’s both sugars and amino acids.

Why Is It Important?

You don’t need to know the exact science behind the Maillard reaction to appreciate just how important it is to enjoying your meal. Without the Maillard reaction, food wouldn’t crisp like it does when heat is applied, so you could forget about things like bread, cooked meat, or even beer or coffee (since we roast the grains and beans for both). That’s how central the Maillard reaction is to much of our cooking. When you smell a steak cooking, you’re smelling the Maillard reaction. When you feel the crunch of a chip, you’re feeling the Maillard reaction. When you taste the flavor of roasted vegetables, you’re tasting the Maillard reaction.

In a more tangible way, you can use your knowledge of the Maillard reaction to enhance your cooking. For example, if you want your steak to have an extra crisp exterior crust, dry it so that you have a more complete reaction. Alternatively, if you’ll be braising something, but still want the browned exterior, you now know to brown the meat first, then proceed with braising it, since it won’t brown from the braise.

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Cooking is more than just making food to eat. It certainly can be that simple, but to master it, it helps to understand the techniques and science that make cooking work. By understanding why certain things happen in certain ways, you can harness skills and improve your cooking. Understand and mastering the Maillard reaction is just one of the ways you can take your cooking to the next level!